After months of Russian troops pacing the Ukrainian border, the reality of an authoritarian state invading its democratic European neighbor was a global shock. It now seems the response—from the resistance on the ground to government sanctions, citizen protests, corporate evacuations, and consumer boycotts around the world—has been a shock to Moscow in turn. Whatever happens next, it’s clear we’re living through a remarkable, harrowing moment in contemporary history. In the United States and elsewhere, polls show vast majorities of people paying close attention—with the war increasing television-news ratings, driving engagement on digital media, and continuing to yield bold-type newspaper headlines. The idea that World War III is underway may be hyperbolic—but it may also be understandable that this conflict would trigger collective recollections of the outset of World War II more than anything has since. So it’s not surprising, or even troubling, that Western coverage would be charged with pro-Ukrainian sentiment. Still, a pattern has emerged among reporters, particularly in the Washington press corps, of appearing actively critical of American policy—in particular, indignant that the U.S. hasn’t imposed a no-fly zone on Ukraine. Which would mean a substantial military escalation against Russia. What’s happening there?

Philip Seib is a professor emeritus of journalism and public diplomacy at the University of Southern California and the author of Information at War: Journalism, Disinformation, and Modern Warfare. Journalists always know, Seib says, that war coverage reliably brings more viewers and readers—especially when they feel invested in the conflict. And this one in Ukraine offers the opportunity to tell a vital, almost archetypal story, with unusually clear moral stakes: good versus bad, heroism versus villainy, with the lives of innocent people, not least innocent children, at stake. Yet for all the laudable work Seib sees from the American press—particularly from front-line journalists intrepidly risking their lives on the ground in Ukraine—he also sees some of those farther from the conflict as favoring drama over substance, neglecting political and economic context, and vulnerable to losing focus when the story loses its more sensational narrative elements. All of which helps explain the odd spectacle of reporters goading the White House press secretary on the U.S. administration’s military commitment. For Seib, American coverage of the war in Ukraine shows the enduring strengths of U.S. journalism along with the realities of how it can spur news consumption—reinforcing limited attention spans, fixating on personalities, and not dwelling with the more complex issues that will decide the future for Ukraine and the world.


Graham Vyse: How do you gauge U.S. news-media coverage of Ukraine so far?

Philip Seib: My first thought is that we shouldn’t underestimate the courage of journalists in Ukraine. Getting information from the frontlines commands respect, and we’ve already seen journalists killed covering this war.

Overall, though, the coverage has been one-dimensional—as is often the case with daily war reporting. There’s too much emphasis on trying to get the “breaking news”—a term we could probably do without—and there’s always a rah-rah sentiment to the coverage, particularly from journalists who aren’t on the frontlines and are safely ensconced thousands of miles away. There’s a fixation on the military aspects of the war, which are obviously a large part of the conflict, but wars are political and economic as well. The political and economic angles of this story need more attention. What are the long-term consequences? Americans should be interested in that, even as we in the U.S. don’t face any physical danger from the conflict.

Vyse: How does the U.S. press coverage of the war compare to the way American journalism handled other military conflicts?

Seib: Well, partisanship in war coverage is nothing new. Edward R. Murrow’s coverage from London [during the Blitz in World War II] was clearly pro-British and anti-German, and we don’t make much fuss about that because he was on the side of the angels.

Jay Clark

The big difference now is technology—the fact that we can get real-time reporting and, more broadly, there’s just a huge volume of information. Russian disinformation efforts really haven’t succeeded much globally. The Kremlin has been seriously outmaneuvered in the battle of information. Much of the world sees Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky as a hero and Putin as the ultimate villain. There are so many flaws in Russia’s approach to the whole thing—military, political, and informational—and this informational aspect is significant.

Vyse: You mention the huge volume of information Americans are getting about the war, which remains the dominant story in U.S. media—and you alluded to technological changes, including the rise of social media, which are contributing to that dominance. How unprecedented is this war as an all-consuming media event?

Seib: If not all-consuming, it’s certainly an event taking up the bulk of the news coverage, though that can change quickly. When confirmation hearings begin in the U.S. Senate for Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, President Biden’s nominee for the U.S. Supreme Court, that’s going to attract a lot of coverage.

For our subscribers

The Signal is an independent digital magazine, supported exclusively by readers. Join to continue reading this article and for full access to everything we publish.

Subscribe now Already have an account? Sign in