Nosemonkey's EUtopia

In search of a European identity

Ukraine uprisings: News coverage of events in far-away lands, 2004 vs 2014

The pictures coming out of Kiev yesterday (decent galley here) gave me – and no doubt plenty of others – a bit of a flashback to November/December 2004’s Orange Revolution.

The riots are in protest against the same president and for the same broad cause – disagreement over Ukraine’s place in the world, caught between East and West in the no-man’s land on the European fringe, with a history of repeated conquest and occupation, be it by Russians, Nazis, Ottomans, Huns, or (more happily) the good old Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.

The Orange Revolution was the moment I first really began to see the power of the internet to keep me informed when the regular news media was doing a terrible job. It was the moment I fell in live with the power of blogs and bloggers – individuals with an interest keen to share their knowledge and thoughts – to debunk falsehoods spread for whatever reason.

Yes, the bloggers got plenty wrong too (me included, see below), but we seemed far faster to acknowledge our mistakes – even in those glorious days before Twitter and Facebook made instant communication so much easier. These conversations were carried out via comment boxes and the then all-new technology of the trackback (then largely a deliberate, manual process).

Here are the posts from my multi-day liveblog from the Orange Revolution, the titles alone giving you an idea of just how ignorant we all were as events kicked off:

Breaking news: Military-backed coup in the Ukraine

Ukraine crisis continued: revolution of invasion?

Ukraine crisis continued – violence approaching?

Ukraine crisis continued – international solution?

Ukraine crisis continued – any solution?

Ukraine crisis continued – detente?

Ukraine crisis continued – room for hope

Ukraine crisis continued – one week on

Then, as now,  the Western media’s knowledge of Ukraine was sorely lacking,  and this in turn meant that we were all equally ignorant – until the internet kicked in and suddenly allowed us to connect with people from all over the world who knew far more than us.

You can clearly see this process in effect if you read those posts. I start off ignorantly calling the country “the Ukraine” and forgetting that the world had changed a lot in the decade since the fall of the USSR. Then I moved away from the standard media to hunt down fellow bloggers, and the posts change radically. Behind the scenes of these posts, on sites now mostly long defunct, I found myself chatting with people in buildings overlooking Maidan Square, giving live, eyewitness accounts of riot police movements; I found people to explain the complex politics and history of the country with humour and nuance, even as Ukraine seemed about to tear itself apart; in just a few days, I was up to speed on the background and subtleties of the situation in a way impossible to glean from the space-constrained world of newspapers; and as I educated myself, I compiled all the information I found into that series of posts.

These days, it’d be deemed either liveblogging or realtime curation; back then, neither of those terms existed.

In any case, Ukraine’s Orange Revolution was the moment I decided that the internet was the future of news. It was the moment I decided I wanted to move from print to digital.

Almost a decade on, as Ukraine erupts again, I have no regrets – though I do have plenty of disappointments.

The main differences in mainstream coverage of the 2014 protests seems to be that this time the photos are better, and the videos appearing faster. They are still pretty much unanimously being described as pro-EU, even after having gone on for months, which while partially true is still a huge oversimplification.

Meanwhile, in 2014 the presence of Twitter – which I still adore as a tool for rapid information gathering and dissemination – has vastly increased the network of available independent voices to follow from at the scene. But it’s also proportionately reduced more detailed, considered analysis and explanation from these same independent voices.

This time around, there seem to be fewer informed English language bloggers covering events than there were in 2004. The media has stepped into this gap instead, but in a way that has barely evolved from what I was doing in 2004 – if anything, it’s regressed, because most of these seem to consist of little more than retweeting/reblogging people on a webpage for news site readers too lazy to go to Twitter or Tumblr or Instagram for themselves.

140 characters is not enough. Tumblr is not enough. Proper, independent, journalistic, long-form blogs seem to have died out. There seem to be fewer blogs now than there were in 2004, and in the tedious terms of the old blogs vs the mainstream media debates that we all got so fed up with back in the day (“will blogs kill newspapers?”, etc), it’s the mainstream media that seems to have won the day.

Only the fight’s left them weakened. The mainstream has taken on the blogs’ speed, but they’ve also adopted their amateurishness. And they still seem happy to oversimplify while still not taking advantage of the fact that online there is no wordcount: you can happily write long and take time to go in depth. But no one can be bothered – amateurs or professionals. Our attention spans have been shortened, and most people will be happy with a mere slideshow of burning streets, masked men, and riot police.

The revolution will be televised – but in a live stream with no context or information, making it impossible to tell what’s going on, who’s who, or what it’s all about.

This sort of coverage is useless.

(But hey – today’s Thursday. Maybe this week’s Economist will restore my faith in the press.)