By Jason Williams
Taxpayers Association of Oregon Foundation,
Ukraine Series Background: Jason Williams first went to Ukraine in 2017 to do humanitarian work. He returned again in May 2023 to provide food, clothing, and medicine to war victims. This trip was not related to politics or foreign policy but a private charity trip. His observations were shared with the Taxpayers Association of Oregon Foundation to give readers a rare insight into life, charity work and everyday realities inside a nation at war.
Almost immediately upon entering Ukraine, one of my team members asked our Ukrainian host, “What do you think of the media?”
It was a great question. The answer from our host surprised us.
It was a great question to ask since we have all seen the media retract or altar previous reporting of this war. The “Ghost of Kyiv” Ace pilot story was retracted. The source of the missile landing in Poland was retracted. The Nord Stream pipeline sabotage went through three different media narratives. Putin was awarded by PolitiFact as #1 Liar of the year 2022 for his many statements (like saying a hospital that Russia bombed was blown up by Ukraine itself and filled with bleeding film actors to make it look real).
I find it hard to know who to trust in times of war. For instance, many people supported a strong military presence in Afghanistan because, in part, military leaders were telling the public that the Afghan national government controlled most of the provinces and that the good guys had the upper hand. What they said turned out not to be true. The truth is that the Taliban controlled most of the provinces. When the Taliban took control of a province, they let the United States approved governor remain in power in order to prop up a facade of legitimacy and then proceed collect the United States aid funds for years after. This is why upon Biden’s announcement of the U.S. leaving Afghanistan, we witnessed the provinces collapsing overnight at breathtaking speed.
Various military leaders would also tout the impressive size of the Afghan military as a way of selling to Americans that the nation was stronger than it really was. The size of the Afghan military also turned out not to be true. United States funds would help pay for military salaries and conduct annual on-site inspections to verify the number of troops. It turned out that Afghan leaders would pay people to show up for inspection day. This is why so many soldiers vanished upon evacuation news. Needless to say, getting a balanced picture or competing information on the state of the Afghanistan conflict was abysmal and has made me a deep skeptic of what I hear in the news.
So what did our Ukrainian host say about their views of the media?
Our host said, “Ukrainian media has problems. American media has problems. Russia media has problems. All media has problems.” Our host didn’t stop there. He went on to explain. “We know what is true because we have people (family, friends) near the front lines telling us what is going on. We hear it first-hand from people.” These voices were the ones Ukrainians trusted most.
A few days later, I asked another one of our Ukrainian hosts what he thought of the media. He, too, was skeptical of all media and spoke about who he trusted most—the many people he knew in Ukraine who were feeding him live reports, pictures, and videos. Many of the videos I saw in Ukraine, I had not seen in America media. For instance, I was unable to find by an American media company the Bakhmut church steeple on fire shared by a Bakhmut refugee to me on her phone. I did find two media companies that did show this footage but they were both from United Kingdom media outlets.
These statements by both of our Ukrainian hosts were confirmed by a survey showing that Ukrainians trust social media connections far more than newspaper, radio, or television media outlets.
Even more interesting, once I left Ukraine and traveled to other European countries, I began to repeat the question to people I met in casual conversations. The answer was the exact same as I found in Ukraine: High distrust of the media. The Europeans I questioned repeated what the Ukrainians told me which was the trust was highest among people they knew in different parts of the continent.
Pew Research shows that Europeans (like Americans) do not trust their media.
Percent that trust in the mainstream media:
43% – Germany
42% – Poland
34% – Italy
33% – Spain
33% – United Kingdom
30% – France
25% – Hungary
19% – Greece
Because, in Europe, world events are just a few hundred miles away, it is easy to hear from people in those areas.
Just look to see how many European countries could fit inside the continental United States: the answer is 30.
Now look on how Ukraine fits into the size of the United States to demonstrate how close Ukrainians are to each other and how easy it is to know what is going on in the front lines.
In matters of understanding war news, I highly suggested that people get their input from different sources and allow ideas/news to compete against each other.
One website, RealClearWorld, lists news articles from different sources and different political viewpoints. Real Clear news sites do a good job of taking an important news story and will sometimes show you two different media headlines (often contradicting each other) so you can see different viewpoints on the same subject. They also do this on Real Clear Politics. The Taxpayers Association of Oregon does this for local Oregon political news on OregonWatchdog.com. By showing headlines from many competing media sites, one can better spot media bias and facts that you may have been missing all along.
Another good world news website example is Wall Street Journal’s World section. It is highly respected as the Wall Street Journal is rated America’s #1 most trusted media outlet (Print/TV) among American news consumers.
What I heard from Ukrainians and Europeans serves to verify a global trend of people trusting legacy media less and trusting smaller more closer sources more and more. Americans should also consider adding diverse voices to their foreign policy news whether by different existing legacy media sources or by news sources closer to regions they hope to follow.
As Ukrainians and Europeans trust local sources and front-line connections more, it makes my trip to inside Ukraine even more unique and important to understanding the war. I went and saw things right where things were happening. Please consider following this Ukraine series and adding it to your media sources.