Russia-Ukraine: ‘War’, ‘invasion’, or ‘special military operation’?

The binary of ‘us’ and ‘them’ has long permeated mainstream reporting of conflicts and war

Photo: AFP
Photo: AFP

By Prasun Sonwalker

Published: Mon 4 Jul 2022, 10:36 AM

Last updated: Mon 4 Jul 2022, 12:39 PM

Words have power. The choice of words matters. Used either in personal communication or in influential narratives in the mass media, they have consequences. A whole industry of political communication (spin doctors) has sprung up in various countries in recent decades to market clients or rivals (individuals or issues) in increasingly sophisticated ways. It needs a clinical use of the research method of discourse analysis to unpack the words and frames used in a body of text, so that the hidden codes and meanings could be identified and the potential for positive or negative consequences highlighted.

A good example of the power of words and framing is the ongoing conflict between Russia and Ukraine: the main- stream British press invariably frames it as a ‘war’ and an ‘invasion’ of Ukraine by Russia, while in the Russian news media, it is called a ‘special military operation’. These are clearly two parallel universes of the same theatre of conflict, each fol- lowing – willingly or unwillingly – the way British and Russian governments would like it to be portrayed to their public. The Russian media faces official ire if it is de- scribed as anything other than a ‘special military operation’, which also reflects the importance the power elites attach to what appears in the news media.

At the best of times, the news media can only present a snapshot of what is happening out there. It is a version of reality of the journalists’ making, usually to the best of their ability within the codes and conventions of news-work. The genre of war re- porting is a good example of this, since journalists have very limited access to any theatre of conflict, either as ‘embeds’ with- in military forces or if they venture out on their own. But irrespective of the quality of war reporting, it rarely goes against the narrative framed and defined by the state. Thus, it is rare for a British news outlet to present the conflict from a Russian perspective, or for a Russian outlet to frame it as a ’war’ or ‘invasion’. There is no ambiguity about ‘us’ and ‘them’, or who are the good guys and who are the bad ones in the British and the Russian news media.

The issue of who gets to define and frame an event or an issue as ‘war’ or ‘conflict’ is important not only because it helps enlist public support, but also influences the allocation of vast resources. The huge support extended by Britain to Ukraine would not have been possible without public support for the cause, reinforced by the news media daily.

Information warfare through the news media has long been a feature of contemporary wars, which was also reflected in initial stages of the Russia-Ukraine conflict, when British officials explained how Russians could circum- vent controls on their media and access reports by BBC other British outlets.

The issue of framing the news also resonates at the personal level. Based in London, I mostly access British news accounts, noting that they invariably frame the conflict as ‘war’ and ‘invasion’. Years ago, I covered seven states in the sensitive north-east India for a national newspaper based in New Delhi. The region bordering Myanmar, Bhutan, China and Bangladesh has witnessed a range of conflicts since India’s independence, with several armed groups fighting for a range of demands, from local autonomy to secession.

In many cases, what began as genuine local demands would burgeon into armed conflict, until violence itself became a necessity to seek concessions or as a bargaining tool, with the region in a state of constant boil.

In most cases, I and other journalists would invariably refer to the fighters as ‘insurgents’, ‘militants’ or ‘terrorists’, rarely pausing to question the framing. They were so framed by the authorities, and journalists replicate their words and frames in news accounts uncritically. This has consequences since public understandings of such events in other parts of India were based on the words and frames we used by default.

There is a reason for the seamless adoption by journalists of official words and frames. As media theorists H S Becker and Stuart Hall explain, there is a ‘hierarchy of credibility’ of sources that drives journalists to adopt and repeat official words and frames, on the assumption that ministers, officials or members of the highest group in a society are best placed to define an issue or event because they have access to the most complete and recent information. Besides, they are not expected to lie. It is a different matter that in the busy routines of news- work the elites – ministers, officials, experts – dominate news to the detriment of alter- native or citizen perspectives, but the elites invariably assume the role of ‘primary definers’ of events and issues which, then, influences news content, public understandings and even allocation of resources.

The binary of ‘us’ and ‘them’ has long permeated mainstream reporting of conflicts and war. British news media routinely reproduce official perception of the conflict as an ‘invasion’ by Russia and a ‘war’, while the Russian news media, following official insistence, frame it as a ‘special military operation’. As in most such cases, alternative perspectives are lost in such official-driven narratives, which leads to partial knowledge and understanding of factors involved, which then goes on to influence action at the level of the individual or the state.

The writer is a senior journalist and researcher based in the UK

More news from Opinion