What is more important in journalism: speed or accuracy? How can Ukraine resist Russian propaganda? How journalists can distinguish true and lies? Read about this in an interview with James Miller, editor of The Interpreter, media, based in the USA and dedicated to reporting and analyzing events in and around Russia.
James Miller is a former teacher with a background in anthropology. Now he is an American journalist who specialized on Russia and has deep, strong knowledge about situation in the Eastern Ukraine. A great part of his work to The Interpreter is the debunking Russian propaganda during this crisis. James is talking about the ongoing situation in Ukraine very easy, with a real concernment.
James, you are in Ukraine for the first time… What are your impressions on Kyiv?
I think a lot of foreigners would be surprised by Kyiv. It seems that Ukrainians feel united behind a new government. Not necessarily do they agree with the president or not. They feel national pride. A lot of foreign people would be surprised to find there is no obvious “Pravy sector”, fascists… However, I don’t think many people in the West really believe in this. They are, maybe, a strong minority…
Are Americans interested in Ukrainian problem at all? And if yes – to what extend?
Yes, but it depends on time. If you go back to February, people were watching Ukraine on TV around the clock. If you turned on a news channel, it was all Ukraine. People were watching about it, talking about it, reading newspapers. After Yanukovych fell, I was driving to Boston and I found somebody who had a Ukrainian bumpersticker, the emblem on the back of their car. So, people really paid attention.
After that, people paid attention a lot during Crimea. Americans at that time really supported Ukraine and Euromaidan. Americans like the idea that people stood up to their corrupt government. It is resonating with them.
And then, Ukraine went away. The media coverage was very little. Of course, there were stories or articles. But there were not on front pages in the newspapers and web-sites, no main stories on TV. People just stopped paying attention to Ukraine. And that was sad, because they missed the build-up of Russian forces and its interference in the East. Maybe, Americans heard about it, but most weren’t paying attention.
The crash of Malaysian Airlines Flight change all of that. Actually, Ukraine has been talked about how it was never talked even in February. It became the only story that was being covered of a week. Since then it has disappeared from the media a little.
And how about Russia?..
After the Cold War and the falling of the Soviet Union people stopped paying attention to Russia. Now that’s changing; I guess and I hope that more people will be paying attention to Russia.
In America, we are so far away from Europe, very far away from Russia and the Middle East or China, and even South America. We might talk about immigration, drugs or other things which affect us. But we don’t talk really about the rest of the world.
That became even worse after the Iraq occupation in 2003, because Americans had been forced to pay more attention to foreign policy. But what happened since then provoked an unwillingness to talk about the rest of the world. Now a lot of Americans realizing that you can’t just pretend that the rest of the world doesn’t exist, because it does.
What was the main aim of The Interpreter where you are working now?
Our main aim was to support democracy in Russia. And when I say ‘democracy’ I mean freedom of the press, freedom of expression, free elections… We talk a lot about foreign policy, because it is very important not just to Russians, but also to the Western world. The initial goal was to focus on the civil society in Russia and to give voice not necessarily to the opposition politicians, but people who question, who challenge Putin’s regime, people whom Russia was trying to silence. Also one of the goals is to educate Americans, to educate the West about what is going on in Russia.
Do you think your project can make a real influence to democratization of Russia and how?
I think it can, but in small ways. One of the things that we’ve done is we’ve exposed a lot of things that wouldn’t be talked about. And it’s a sort of real challenge to the Russian government. For instance, Boris Nemtsov, an opposition politician in Russia, writes very in-depth, detailed, investigative report about corruption surrounding the Sochi Winter Olympics. And we translated that report. Inside Russia that report was big news. But after we translated it into English it became a story again in Russia. When American journalists, really world journalists, went to Russia to the Olimpics, they were talking about that report and another report by Alexey Navalny which we translated.
So, that challenges the Russian government. We’ve been translating articles from Russian press, people, blogs who were talking about Sochi. There was anger in a lot of Russian people, because Olympics are very expensive and because of the amount of corruption. Did we help make that a bigger issue? I think so. Is that going to change Russia? I don’t know, I don’t think so.
We see more journalists who focus of these kinds of stories. We see a bigger conversation. I think we played a small role on that. Ultimately, if you really want to change Russia that information needs to be translated back into Russian. And it needs to be talked about by the Russian press.
Your job needs a very deep understanding of all political processes in post-soviet countries…Had you have some special knowledge about Russia and this entire region before your joining The Interpreter?
Before I started working for the Interpreter I didn’t study in Russia. I don’t speak Russian or Ukrainian. But before I was with the Interpreter, I was with another magazine called EA WorldView. It talked about the Middle East, places like Iran and Syria. And it was very hard and dangerous to send journalists to Iran and Syria. So, I specialized in pulling information out of Iran and of Syria. That wasn’t coming from journalists, professional journalists anyway. It was coming from people writing blogs or having Facebook pages, posting things on Twitter and YouTube. But all of that information needed journalists to sort and debunk it, to figure out whether it was fake, to pull more information out of it.
I never went to Syria during my work for that project. I knew journalists who went there and we talked all the time. We made contacts with people in Syria. We try to figure out what is going on without going there.
With the Interpreter we have a lot of experts who do travel to Russia, speak the Russian language. We are working with social media, the YouTube, blogs, Facebook. I think we are able to get good information about Ukraine.
There were some issues concerning a huge amount of internet trolling against the Interpreter. Are there mass campaigns?
From time to time we have being attacked on Twitter by bot-campaigns. There were fake Twitter accounts. Thousands of them harass us, tweet about our articles. This is a machine; there are fake, not real people.
If you search for our things on Twitter, you get barriered in this criticism rather then actually finding what we wrote. And also if you click on one of our tweets, you will see underneath that hundreds of people are disagree with the article even though they are fake. Not all of them, but most.
Indeed, we have problems like that. Sure, there are also people who are real, who ask questions and harasses just to fight with us on Twitter or distract us from doing our jobs and talking about real issues. This obstructs us from being able to talk to people, who are really interested in answers to questions or are actually providing us with good information.
Some of our “critics” work for RT, some work for Russian government or Moscow University etc. They are, maybe, agents, because they spend all day posting on Twitter and commenting forums.
Maybe, government pays for it, but we don’t know exactly…
Absolutely! But what we do know is there is evidence that Russia is paying people to do that kind of work…
The Interpreter doesn’t have a comment section on its web-site because we would spend all day fighting people in a comment section. It is not a good way to get information, share it, and talk about a topic.
We’ve been attacked by RT. They criticize us on the air, people criticize us on a forum for journalists. At the same time, we’ve never been criticized about something wrong with our articles. They just attacked who we are and what we do.
Russian media become a part of Russia’s strategy for politics, for domestic politics, geopolitics, and world politics. We observe a high degree of organization where the Russian government is saying the same things, people in the Russian media are saying sort of the same things. It’s a strategy. They are working together. Actually, they’re not working together but doing the same thing. Most of the Russian media now is just controlled by the government. There is no difference between the Russian government and Russian media. Not only The Interpreter has been attacked, but the truth has been attacked.
In your opinion, should Ukraine resist against Russia amid the information war? How should Ukraine react to Russian propaganda?
First of all, I think Ukrainian journalists have to really focus on not just dismissing the Russian media, not just saying «they are all lies; don’t pay any attention on that». But they need to start debunking those lies, they need to start exposing the way the Russian media works. And the most important, they need to do that in Russian language.
In Western Ukraine most people speak Ukrainian, support the government and Euromaidan. That’s why it is very important to get the message to people who do speak Russian and listen to Russian state television, listen to the Russian radio, who read Russian state magazines and newspapers. Those are the people who need to be targeted by Ukraine’s efforts.
But I also think that Ukrainians need to ask tough questions to their own government, because this is where credibility comes in. You gain credibility in questioning everybody. Just because you are asking hard questions doesn’t mean you are attacking the government. You can ask, you can investigate what the government is doing. How were its efforts to confront corruption, what is happening to people who do not support Euromaidan, who don’t support Poroshenko?
I’m trying to imagine myself as a Russian or Ukrainian who speaks Russian in Eastern Ukraine and listening to the Russian State media, listening to their message. If they read something like StopFake and they hear that a lot of “truth”, called by Russia is actually lies, they can change their way of thinking.
But if they also see that different media outlets asking questions about Ukraine, the Russian narrative about state- or West-controlled Ukrainian media doesn’t make any sense. A person sees that journalists write about Obama, who don’t support Ukraine enough, about people in Mariupol or in Slovyansk who criticize the Ukrainian government’s ATO.
Now Ukrainian media isn’t just controlled by the government, they are not just supporting Poroshenko blindly. This is just the opposite of what Russia is doing. It is real news, real journalism. Ukraine should expand it.
How we can do this, how can we share truthful information? Can you give some tips?
You should just do it. It sounds funny, but… The Interpreter is one year old. A project started in May 2013 and I joined it in July 2013. Then we had 300 twitter followers and a few hundred readers on the web-site. Whereas now we have almost 12 thousands twitter followers and many tens of thousands of web-site’s visitors. And we’ve never bought advertising because of our limited budget. We’ve just been doing our work. I think that’s the key is to keep doing a good job.
Besides that, you should concentrate not only on Russian propaganda, but also about politics and culture. It is important to report in English. If you really need to reach a broader audience, not just Ukraine, you need to start using English.
How do you think, is it possible to journalist taking one side?
No, I think journalists are supposed to be skeptics. They’re supposed to say: «Ok, I’ve been told this. But is it true? ». They must investigate, check the information.
For example, a few days ago I had a conversation with Andriy Lysenko, the spokesman for the Information analysis center NSDC of Ukraine. And I challenged him with some things that he was saying. Because we had evidence that doesn’t really line up with what he said. Another example was about unprofessional behavior of Ukrainian soldiers in Mariupol in May. Nine people died because of Ukrainian Army put themselves and city residents in a dangerous situation.
When you talk about a story like this, it is important to not only tell both sides, but also trying to find what were the actions of two sides. Readers will say in this case: «This is not just propaganda. This is good journalism».
I think that part of the problem with the Ukrainian government is that they speak to the audience which already believes them. People believe Russia is invading because the government said this. While people like me would say «I want proof». Journalism should be skeptical; it is about finding the truth.
As a journalist, you can focus on Russia, Russian propaganda, war or Russian politics. But my worry is that there is not enough journalism about Ukraine in Ukraine. It is too little information about government and what it is doing. For instance. Let’s take the resignation of parliament. Some western journalists were saying ‘Oh God, this is terrible. This is so undemocratic.’ I knew why the Rada’was being dissolved and why that was important. But I’m a busy guy, I was hoping to find a Ukrainian journalist who can give an analysis already. And I couldn’t find it.
That’s the story that needs to be talked about a lot more. But these topics are less covered, because Ukrainian journalists are focused on the war. You should have more journalism, different journalism.
Nowadays journalists report very quickly, but often not accurate. How do you think the journalism can cope with this?
I’m biased on this question. Because I think we report very quickly and very accurately. I think a lot depends finding several sources, bringing information together and confirming it.
You are always supposed to find out the truth. You can write quickly and accurately, if you are skeptical. My tip for young journalists, particularly is to think about the origin of information when you are reading a news story, listening to somebody.
If a Ukrainian newspaper in Kyiv is reporting about the war in Lugansk, it is important to ask what is its sources. If journalists are not there, but gain this information, you can find it too. It’s the very least you can say ‘Well, this is being reported by a politician, news agency, an activist. We can’t confirm it”.
According to speed, it is very important in journalism. And it’s become much more important since the emerging of the Internet and social media. But when I report something I try to give the readers a sense of whether or not the information is definitely true. Because it’s okay to say that you don’t really know if the story is real. The audience should know how reliable our sources are. Sometimes, your audience can help you to find the evidence. This is a thing journalists often forget about because of fast working.
Sometimes, if news is not urgent, you can use more time and check the information. It is not always important to be the first.
How can journalists separate true of false? This is really a challenge for journalists today.
It depends on what the information is and what kind of story you are working on. Sometimes there is only one answer for a question about the truths of the story. And there is just “No”
But let us see the example. SBU (Security Service of Ukraine – Media Sapiens) release the audio of the separatists. Are they real? I don’t know. That’s a very hard question. But we can ask additional questions. Does it line up with other evidence that we do know is real? Has anybody admitted it’s real?
When the Malaysia airline was shot down, Strelkov, leader of the rebels, makes a post on Facebook talking about the fact they shot down the Ukrainian military plane. And the Russian media is talking about the fact that the rebel say they shot down the military jet. But it was a civilian jet.
So, we can only say: “Well, I don’t know if this was the jet shot down by rebels or not”. But you can also find other data.
To go back to the audio, Strelkov on one of the pieces of audio says about the “BUK” and it’s coming from Russia to separatists in Eastern Ukraine. He said that. There was not just one tape. There were a lot of audio. After MH 17 was shot Strelkov made a statement where he said that this was his voice on the tape, but the Ukrainian government has edited it. Lazy journalist would just report like that. A good journalist will think: “He admitted that is his voice. This means that every other tape we have is the proof that this is his voice. And we really have the intercepted phone calls.”
Strelkov admitted that tapes are real. After this, can you say that all he is saying is real? No. But we know that Strelkov talked about “BUKs”, coordinating with the Russian military. We know he’s said that Russia sent a “BUK” across the border.
Is it definitive proof? No. But it’s another piece of the puzzle.
The Ukrainian government released video that they say shows the “BUK” returning to Russia missing missiles. The Interpreter figured out where the video was taken. Using Google maps and other instruments we figured out that this video was taken right here. Then Ukrainian government released a photo that they said showed the missile smoke go to the sky. Twenty years ago as a journalist you would report that and say there’s no way to confirm it. Now, bloggers use maps, photos, see some landmarks, electricity posts, trees and figure out that the image was taken exactly there.
Recently, after such stories, Buzzfeed and The Guardian sent their journalists in that direction. And they found trademarks and burn marks on the field. It looked like the missile was launched there.
Even things that seem impossible to check can be figured out by journalists thanks to new instruments. Even if things seem to be very obvious, you should think creatively. This is where asking questions is very important. Because if you don’t know the answer, you have to think who can know it and contact to this person. Sometimes you will be first who did that.
For instance, the Russian government, according its own narrative, released very specific information about the crash of MH17. After that, we asked an expert and he said that the aircraft is not capable to doing that thing that the Russian government said.
So, again, a lazy journalist would tell the words of the speaker, and good one will ask the questions.
By Halyna Budivska, osvita.mediasapiens.ua.