1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Ukraine war: Videos straight from the trenches to the phone

June 21, 2023

War reporting in the digital age: The flood of video footage from frontline trenches in Ukraine makes covering the war for journalists even more complex.

Ukrainian soldiers training in Donetsk
There are more images from the war in Ukraine available to the public than from any other conflict beforeImage: Wojciech Grzedzinski/AA/picture alliance

Videos straight from the trenches: the killing shot, the fighting filmed with a helmet camera. Another shot, another dead person — and the viewers get those videos almost instantly.

Unlike in any war before, the fighting in Ukraine can be seen on Twitter and other platforms, far away from where the fighting takes place.

Russia's war against Ukraine is so far "without a doubt the most extensively visually documented conflict in the history of images and war," said US photojournalist Ron Haviv on the podium at this year's Deutsche Welle Global Media Forum. The question many in the audience might ask themselves is what role journalism plays in this. 

Like a computer war game

For the second year in a row, DW's international media event was — amongst other topics — looking at Russia's war against Ukraine and the challenges in reporting on it.

GMF panel discussion
DW's Global Media Forum brought together media experts from around the world on June 19 and 20, 2023.Image: Florian Goerner/DW

In the lobby of the World Conference Center Bonn, journalists showed each other information from their Telegram channels with reports from the front in southern and eastern Ukraine.

This included a video of a Ukrainian unit apparently targeting a Russian position, shooting and killing one enemy soldier after another in the trench. It looks like a computer game and not like it's actual humans that are dying. Where exactly and when the footage was filmed was initially unclear.

In an interview with DW, Ukrainian journalist Sevgil Musaieva said these pictures were not journalism. The editor-in-chief of the independent online newspaper Ukrainska Pravda from Kyiv argues there is little point in merely looking at such posts from the war on social networks.

Without context, there is no information or gain for the viewers. "The goal of journalism and our profession is to provide context and describe what is actually going on and who is responsible for it and to find evidence," Musaieva said.

In the best case scenario, that would be evidence that would stand up to international jurisdiction.

Reporters as witnesses at a war tribunal

That was the case with the work of photojournalist Haviv during the wars in former Yugoslavia. In Bosnia-Herzegovina, the American documented, among other things, the expulsion of the mostly Muslim Bosniaks by the Serbs, recordings that later found their way into the evidence of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia.

Filtering out the truth from the flood of text messages, photos and videos, and thus promoting the legal relevance of journalistic work, is now a central component of reporting on war and crises, said Haviv. It's about checking the video snippets, the tweets, comparing them with real eyewitness reports and putting all this information together "to get an overall picture of what's happening," said Haviv on one of the podiums at DW's media forum on "War reporting in the digital age." .

Fake news on the internet

In this context, Musaieva recalled the start of Russia's invasion of Ukraine in the spring of 2022. Fake information was spread via social networks that Kyiv had been taken, sometimes even by Ukrainian sources. For Musaieva, this example illustrates that there can be no truthful reporting without a sustained examination of the sources, without comparing different information, without understanding and explaining the context. 

She explained that she was also trying to make that point in discussions with the Ukrainian army's press representatives. Kyiv's leadership under President Volodymyr Zelenskyj severely restricted media access to the combat zones. Since the beginning of the Russian attack on Ukraine on February 24, 2022, there's been martial law ― and that also restricts the freedom of the press.

With the start of the current Ukrainian counter-offensive, the Ukrainian army also distributed a painstakingly produced video in which soldiers in uniform asked the population to remain silent about their operations ― with a gesture: They put their index finger to their mouth. In addition, the head of the Ukrainian military intelligence service, Kiril Budanov, published a video in which he was silent for 20 seconds before the video captioned "Plans love silence".

What not to reveal

In her talks with the military, she explained to them that the public has a right to know "what is really happening," Musaieva told DW. That, too, is the basis for ensuring that support for Ukraine from the international community does not diminish.

Ukraine: Rebuilding in a war zone

Most recently, her online portal published images from social media channels showing Ukrainian Patriot defense systems. The original authors had been punished under martial law.

"We asked the investigative platform Bellingcat and other teams for an analysis," says Musaieva. Professional analysts are to determine whether that video could have helped the Russian side to locate and then destroy the anti-aircraft defenses.

Their finding: Yes, releasing the video was a bad idea in terms of protecting the population from the Russian bombs. In other words, war reporting is becoming even more complex in the digital age. And that's why it requires professional journalists.

This article was originally published in German.