As digital media continues to evolve, so has war reporting, with vivid, real-time images and tools that lead journalists to the news in a flash. Nobody knows that better than Christopher Miller, a reporter for Mashable who has covered the Ukrainian conflict since it began last February.
The quick response that social media affords means faster, first-hand reporting for Miller. The 2014 Kiplinger Fellow has found himself pinned in ditches as sniper fire ricocheted around him, or dodging exploding artillery shells at a Ukrainian military base.
“There have been several times in the past 10 months in which I have embedded with forces on both sides to observe the fighters and their tactics, and to see things from their perspective,” he said.
“Last May I was at the first battle for Donetsk airport, where scores of rebel fighters were killed in battle with government forces. The two sides engaged in close-quarters combat with automatic weapons, shoulder-fired rockets and self-propelled artillery on streets surrounding the facility. Imagine all those things whizzing past your head.”
Miller has used social media to ferret out the hotspots while reporting for Mashable and the Kyiv Post, where he worked as a reporter and editor until September.
“Reports on social media (unverified) sometimes help point me toward new flashpoints, where I will go and report,” he said.
The media has moved far beyond the first tentative Facebook posts during the Iraqi War. In part, that’s because journalists aren’t the only ones using social networks and online tracking tools anymore. In Ukraine, civilians report artillery fire on their streets using VKontakte, their version of Facebook; soldiers post selfies on the front, negating Russian assurances of non-intervention; the opposing governments tweet their version of events as propaganda.
All these have worked their way into media reports, if only to be disproved by reporters tracking the stories. Other digital tools have delivered invaluable leads to journalists. Miller sometimes uses an online map updated hourly by a pro-Russian camp, militarymaps.info. Though completely unverified, the site displays satellite maps with chilling graphics depicting real-time strikes — a “powerful explosion” outside Donetsk within the hour, for example. When accurate, it’s like mobile data viz for the roving reporter.
He was on the scene of downed Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 in July, tweeting images of passengers’ personal affects and writing stark accounts of drunken, machine-gun-toting rebels who impeded the investigation of international monitors. The story will haunt him forever, he said.
“I’ve seen some gruesome things during this war, but to see the bodies of 298 innocent people strewn about a bloodstained and burning field of sunflowers is by far the worst of them.”
His tweets from that story and others are embedded in his articles on the online news website.
“I’ve always been active on social media (especially Twitter), but at Mashable there is a huge emphasis on utilizing these tools in our work, as supplements to our stories and as a means of publishing content,” he said.
After working for several years as a reporter in Portland, Oregon, Miller got itchy to stretch beyond domestic media markets. He came to Ukraine in 2010 as a Peace Corps volunteer (he served in Artemivsk, the area where the Malaysia Airlines plane was shot down) and stayed to become a reporter for the Kyiv Post. Speaking Russian has given an edge to his reporting.
“Something most people don’t understand is that even before the revolution and the war, there were countless stories to be done,” he said. “I reported on human rights issues and corruption, growing pains of a young democracy.”
His audience is now international; his stories, harrowing. So are his reporting challenges.
Last summer rebel fighters in Horlivka pulled him from his taxi at gunpoint and interrogated him in a bunker for hours.
“The whole time I was listening to them speak on the phone to their commander, a man known as ‘Demon,’ about what to do with me,” he said. “My fate was in his hands. Luckily he had other things to do. They had apparently captured a group of Ukrainian soldiers that morning.”
It took him four hours to convince them he wasn’t a CIA “spook” before they let him go. That would never happen in Portland.