Tarmu Tammerk: ERR's coverage of the war in Ukraine

ERR's ethics ombudsman Tarmu Tammerk.
ERR's ethics ombudsman Tarmu Tammerk. Source: ERR/ Ken Mürk

Reporting on war is never easy. Access to information is difficult, the various parties try to show their better side and over-state the losses of their opponent. There is a natural psychological reluctance to face the horrors of war on the part of audiences and journalists alike, writes ERR ombudsman Tarmu Tammerk.

With some wars, it is unclear how the conflict started. Who exactly fired the first shot? Was this a provocation? What is the longer history behind the conflict?

In this case, everything is very clear: Russia launched an unprovoked war against Ukraine. This is a criminal act which has no justification.

It is the case that for the first time, the Estonian media has had to cover a war that is geographically so close, and so relevant, to Estonia. This has brought about a lot of changes to the programming schedule of ERR's various channels, even more so, content-wise, than was the case during the Covid pandemic.

Volume and mode

The volume of war reporting has demonstrated the conflicting expectations of the audience. At the outset of the war just over a month ago, there was a preponderance of feedback calling for more and deeper coverage.

Although several special war-related broadcasts were launched and the volume of news programs increased considerably, regular programming did not disappear altogether.

In the first days, as the shock of the war was sinking in, several members of the audience made their upset about entertainment and lighter content known. Even the choices of lighter music provoked reactions such as: "How can you play such frivolous music in such hard times?"

It has to be stressed that even at times of war atrocities, ERR has to help people keep a positive routine. People who have to sit at home are most likely to fall under immense pressure if public radio and television were to non-stop offer war-related material.

Children may get upset if they cannot watch their favorite shows any more. Psychologists recommend creating a news routine that would help keep some inner peace.

Balance in covering the war

A key principle of journalism ethics is that when covering a conflict, one has to hear out the views of the significant parties and then present a balanced overview.

But in some circumstances, you cannot overdo it with balance. As the saying goes: When it is raining outside, it makes no sense to say that source A says it is raining while source B denies this.

The journalist should look out of the window and state what is actually going on.

In the current war, there is no reason to present information in a way that Ukraine says Russia has attacked it, but Russia denies the attack has taken place.

It is sufficient to say the obvious: Russia attacked Ukraine. There is no need to repeat the Kremlin's senseless lie that Russia has not attacked Ukraine. This false claim needs to be mentioned in the news as well as in commentary and columns.

Because of the nature of this war, it is not relevant to add to running coverage Russia's baseless claims that Ukraine has provoked the war, killed civilians and practiced a Nazi regime.

What needs to be done is to present the views of both sides on the conduct of the war, which ERR is doing.

Audience feedback about the balance of the war coverage has been relatively modest, compared to occasional domestic policy issues or the Covid pandemic.

The direction of the criticism depends directly on people's political attitudes towards the war. There are people who tell ERR that even showing Vladimir Putin's face is too much, as it promotes the Kremlin's war propaganda. The same people say that quoting Putin, or his foreign minister Sergei Lavrov, constitutes brazen and unacceptable spreading of fake news. Similar criticism is lashed out at a news item citing a Moscow official who denies there is shortage of sugar in shops in Russia.

We need to keep a cool head here. The above information needs to be presented, in order to understand what is happening. Sure, publishing a festive photo gallery of Putin's stunts in the air and on water would be inappropriate. But we need to understand that quoting the aggressor is part of war coverage.

There is different criticism, mainly from Russian-language audience members, and primarily aimed ERR's Russian-language channels (Radio 4, ETV+, rus.err.ee). According to this criticism, ERR is fully one-sided, presenting only the Western viewpoint about the developments in Ukraine.

Sometimes these letters or phone calls to the ombudsman are couched in such foul language that answering them becomes a futile exercise.

In this catalogue, there is also discontent why the Kremlin propaganda channels cannot be viewed in Estonia any more. "I've watched these channels all the time but have never seen any propaganda there," reads one comment.

Lies need no repetition

The answer to ERR's editorial approach is simple: The obvious lies and empty phrases (such as "denazification") of the aggressor need not to be repeated, but flagged. Regarding the military losses, Russia is not forthcoming at all, so there is not much to cover.

Following the adoption of the censorship law in Russia, which does not allow the war against Ukraine to even be referred to as a war, it has become increasingly difficult for editors to find sources in Russia who would be willing to describe the situation there. People in Russia have started to fear talking to the media.

Despite these hardships, ERR has to continue efforts to keep its audience informed on how Russia explains its actions as the war progresses. But this information must be presented in a context that takes account of verifiable facts, such as the fact of Russia's aggression against Ukraine.

The rules of journalism ethics stipulate that fact and assessment must be kept separate. Fact-based circumstances sometimes make it possible to add an assessment immediately following. "There is an ongoing barbaric aggression by Russia against Ukraine" is a news sentence which includes a factual assessment.

There are people who find the ERR's Russian-language TV channel ETV+ contains too much entertainment. Audience research shows, however, that the most watched shows are not entertainment but current affairs: News, interview programs, the new foreign policy program Orbit included.

A small but consistent part of the criticism has gotten stuck in the world of colors and symbols.

"Why does a desk in a TV studio look like Z when viewed from the side? What is the signal you are sending out with this?, "Why can one spot the colors of the Russian Federation's tricolor flag in the sweater of a TV presenter?", "What symbol has been created by the water glasses in the studio?", "Have you deliberately chosen the colors of the aggressor country in your studio design?" etc.

These are difficult times but let us take a breath here. Blue is the classical color of a TV studio, one which is often combined with red and white, notwithstanding the symbols of countries. The multi-colored sweater referred to above had probably at least seven colors within its scheme...

War horror in pictures

The choice of imagery is a sensitive issue for any violent content. Several parents, for example, have asked ERR not to show blood-covered pictures and horrible destruction.

Unfortunately, it is impossible to cover the extent and nature of the war without showing the horror of war. This would be unjustified embellishment. However, the editors of ERR are making careful choices so as not to cross the line on the visual side of the tragedy of war. Particularly disturbing footage on ERR's TV channels is preceded by viewer discretion warnings.

The war theme will not disappear from the media space in the near future. It is worth repeating the recommendation that you have to assess how resilient you are in coping with difficult information.

Then, construct a media diet that would still allow you to keep yourself informed.

Tarmu Tammerk is ERR's independent ethics ombudsman.


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Editor: Andrew Whyte

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