A chill ran through me, walking my daughter to school this morning.
As we crossed the road, I saw a parent dragging two small suitcases with his children walking behind him. It looked eerily similar to the photos of families escaping Russian armies, and it made me compare our peaceful morning commute to what is happening all across Ukraine right now. Peacefully walking to school one day, the next escaping Russian tanks. Shocking.
For a second, my mind shifted to the horrific image of a Ukrainian family cut down by Russian fire this week. It's in those moments when the horrors of war can be lined up side-by-side with my everyday life, those moments when I feel so lucky and even guilty for grumbling about whatever stupid thing I grumbled about.
I was unsure whether I'd write anything about what's happening to Ukraine. But after that walk this morning, I decided to focus on something I do know a little about: the news.
Now, before I start you should know that since COVID-19 reared its head, I more-or-less stopped reading the news. Some people are shocked when I tell them this, particularly considering I work in a field where part of my job is to get into the news.
But you see, once one begins to understand the levers of news, i.e. what gets things in the news and what doesn't, it all becomes somewhat predictable. And, ultimately, it's unhealthy.
This doesn't mean I don't keep up with current affairs. I read longer form analyses, and I try to find experts in a field that interests me and take time to hear what they have to say. But I also avoid the minute-by-minute updates because it's as addictive as it is pointless.
No good analysis can come out of reading live news. Or even the next day's news. We need time to take stock and research what's happening. But live updates are a godsend to newspapers and agencies because they're addictive and keep audiences glued to their phones and TVs.
My habit used to be waking up, opening the Guardian and New York Times apps, and reading the latest. That was my daily habit for as long as I can remember, and opening those apps was a profoundly ingrained automatic habit whenever I had a spare second.
When COVID came about, I was reading the same thing repeatedly. And again again. COVID was spreading, COVID might be this, might be that. It might go here, or it might not. Each day was just an update that confused and worried me. It was clear that this was not useful or healthy, so I stopped.
That briefly changed with the Ukraine crisis, where I re-engaged with those minute-by-minute reports, and I was hooked. This blathering is about my reflections on the news during yet another maddening period in history.
I've been heartened to see the global response to what's happening. The pace at which new sanctions went through and how people are throwing support behind the plight of Ukrainians has been impressive. It restores some faith in humanity in the face of an evil act.
The news has been unusually hopeful in the face of tragedy, in patches at least. The Ukrainian army is defying the enormous Russian army. President Zelensky has become the hero of our times, standing up to Putin. And there's much talk of Russian forces losing morale in the face of fierce, unexpected resistance.
But after a couple of days, I had a niggling feeling that perhaps this hope is misplaced and that once the media spotlight moves on, the world will be facing a chain of problems it is as yet unable to face.
But before looking at that, I want to take you back nearly 13 years to my Master's thesis...
Why this war?
My thesis centred on the question of why certain incidents get more press coverage than others. I compared media coverage of a massacre in the Democratic Republic of Congo and an attack in Gaza within the same month. Both episodes had a similar number of victims, yet the Gaza incident received far more press coverage than DR Congo. Why was that?
To answer this question, I conducted interviews with journalists and bloggers, from renowned journalists for The Telegraph and Reuters to investigative journalists and bloggers living under pseudonyms in countries with media blackouts.
According to a couple of well-known theorists, Galtung and Ruge, some standards dictate whether or not something becomes news:
None of this should come as much of a surprise, but when you discuss what this means for journalists and people on the ground, it never ceases to be shocking.
Many journalists do their work because they genuinely want to help highlight injustices, or as one very well-known journalist told me: "We start our careers brandishing our sword of truth... only for it to be blunted over the years." Many of the factors laid out by Galtung and Ruge are the everyday realities that start blunting these swords.
An independent journalist in Brazil briefly worked in the UK for a well-known newspaper. "When the Air France flight crashed, the copy led with '70 French people killed'," she told me.
"Then it mentioned the 25 Germans who died... I asked the editor why there was no mention of the 60 Brazilians and I'll never forget what he said: 'One European is worth ten South Americans and twenty Africans.' I knew I had to leave after that..."
Another dominant factor that predicts news is economic impacts. Problems with oil supplies in Nigeria affecting global prices would likely get more news than a tragic event in the same country. "At the end of the day, more than half our subscribers work in the financial markets - we have to serve them the news they're interested in," another journalist told me.
The incident in DR Congo had little chance of making it. It was too remote, too culturally different, had no impact beyond the village, and previous coverage of the war playing out in the country at the time was non-existent.
On the other hand, Gaza already attracted global attention, involved clearer actors with the Isreal vs Palestine narrative, and had deeper cultural ties to the West, particularly the US. Helpfully, teams of international journalists were already stationed nearby. That is rarely the case in Africa.
There are numerous factors at play when we consider what makes news news, too many to list, but proximity, cultural ties, celebrity, and money are dominant reasons. And the Ukraine invasion ticks a lot of boxes.
Back to Ukraine
Ukraine has proximity to Europe and cultural proximity to Western countries. And, let's be blunt, it's also a 'white' country. That's not to say this is everyone being racist (some are, though); it's just a fact that people tend to care more about people who resemble themselves.
Notably, the narrative is powerful with this war.
Putin - the beady-eyed, former KGB spy set on world domination - is picking on a small, peaceful country headed by a young, charismatic leader who not only could be a film star, was a film star in his native country. We have people to cheer and boo. It also carries with it the echoes of history while also being thoroughly modern playing out on social media and television.
If it's in the news that means there's a public appetite to hear about it. My great fear, though, is what happens next.
The following days and months
Working in emergencies for humanitarian organisations, you are told that you have a maximum window of 72 hours after any disaster to get stories out there and receive donations. That is usually how long the news cycle will last before the spotlight moves elsewhere and with it public sympathies and their wallets.
This war is an exceptional event that will take weeks, maybe months, to play out, so it will capture media attention for a little while yet. But at some point, the spotlight will move on, and I fear that's when complications will kick in because the impacts of the war will still be felt all around us.
The reality, of course, is that Russia and Putin will likely get their way. The media isn't entirely framing it like this yet because that's not a story we can swallow right now. Hope keeps a story going. That will be hard for people to accept.
And then we have the knock-on effects.
Ukraine is the fifth largest exporter of wheat in the world. The first? Blockaded Russia. Food prices will begin to soar.
And what of the already soaring energy prices in Europe? The public can support fighting back against Russia for now, but how will it be when they see their heating bills 2-4x higher next month and for the coming months? Not happy, I can imagine.
This information is essential but won't feature much in the news: the price of wheat isn't a headline grabber, is it? And that's the thing, newspapers sell when they entertain. The deeper truths are quite frankly hard work to read about and understand.
My interactions with journalists for my thesis gave me hope and depressed me in equal measure. Many journalists want to deliver real, complex stories. They want to go deep and write long-form essays. But the external demands placed on them - social, cultural, economic - often funnel these stories into an oversimplified and repetitive format. Put simply: news isn't the place to deliver what many of them want to say.
There are commentators out there, such as Daniel Berman and the work of Demetri Kafinas on Hidden Forces to name but two examples, who can add nuance to debates about Ukraine. There are writers and podcast hosts out there that can go deep on any issue you might like to care about.
The key, I think, is to understand that the news is not the place to go deep on any issue and that it's beyond our abilities to go deep on many topics. That means it is on us to focus our attention wisely, in the right places.