The echoes and intersections of the pandemic and war stories

On Sunday, Lynsey Addario, a photojournalist at the New York Times, witnessed Russian forces in Ukraine shell civilians in Irpin, near Kyiv. The mortars instantly killed a woman and her two children, and severely injured a friend who was traveling with the family. Addario captured a graphic photo of their bodies prone on a gray street in puffy coats, their luggage lying near them. Two Ukrainian soldiers knelt over the family friend, trying to save him. He died later.

The image was widely shared online, including at the top of the Times’s homepage; on Monday, the paper ran it prominently in print, across five columns above the fold of the front page. Media reporters discussed the ethics of confronting readers with the photo, with and without “graphic content” warnings—weighing considerations of privacy, dignity, and sensitivity against the imperative not to varnish the horrors of war. Rival news organizations treated the photo as a news story in its own right, and Addario appeared on TV news shows to talk about it. “I thought, It’s disrespectful to take a photo, but I have to take a photo: this is a war crime,” she told Norah O’Donnell, on the CBS Evening News. “It’s really brave of the New York Times to put that image on the front page. It’s a difficult image, but it is a historically important image.”

Related: Ukrainian media battles for its future as Russia invades

Nearly two years ago, the Times filled its entire front page with mini-obituaries remembering victims of COVID-19 as the confirmed US death toll from the disease neared a hundred thousand, a milestone that the paper described as an “incalculable loss.” Yesterday—with the confirmed US death toll nearing one million even as many Americans, including some journalists and their editors, seem to have become inured to it—Ed Yong, a science writer at The Atlantic, returned to that Times front page, asking, “What is 10 times incalculable?” More broadly, Yong explored why such large-scale COVID death no longer seems to be inspiring a “social reckoning” in the US. One factor that he cited is a dearth of shocking imagery. “The threat—a virus—is invisible, and the damage it inflicts is hidden from public view,” he wrote. “With no lapping floodwaters or smoking buildings, the tragedy becomes contestable to a degree that a natural disaster or terrorist attack cannot be.” Or a war.

In the spring of 2020, the difficulty of visualizing the pandemic compared to other crises was much discussed in media circles. It’s inaccurate to say that there were no shocking images—there were, of heavily intubated patients dying in hospitals, of funeral pyres, of mass graves. But they were often hard to obtain, not least due to hospital rules around patient privacy and the danger that journalists might bring in, or take home, the virus. And Yong is right, narrowly, to say that the virus itself is invisible. Russian shells are not—though, of course, getting close enough to photograph the damage brings its own grave dangers.

The debate over images is one of many points of contrast that I’ve been thinking about recently as intense coverage of a horrible war has followed intense coverage of a horrible pandemic in the news cycle. Both stories feel generation-defining and world-changing, but in very different ways. Another media debate that took hold in the spring of 2020 concerned a tendency, among journalists and world leaders alike, to compare the pandemic response to a war. Numerous commentators pointed out that the military metaphor was inappropriate, even dangerous, legitimizing political power grabs and anti-Asian racism; as The Atlantic’s Yasmeen Serhan put it at the time, war is “by its very nature divisive—which is not particularly helpful amid a crisis that requires global cooperation.” Ultimately, the coronavirus doesn’t want to kill people, at least not with any sense of moral agency. Putin’s assault on Ukraine is a stark reminder that murderous politicians do.

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Still, there are similarities, too, in the broad contours of the pandemic and war stories, despite their greatly different factual shape. Many of them boil down to uncertainty, a routine journalistic challenge that quickly became a defining condition of pandemic coverage. The news cycle in the runup to Putin’s invasion carried echoes (at least to my ear) of the contrasting assessments of urgency and risk that we heard as COVID started to accelerate around the world. Since the invasion, it’s been challenging to work out exactly what’s happening on the ground—a fog of war that in some ways recalls the persistent “fog of pandemic.” As Yong notes, the COVID death toll, even now, is likely much higher than official statistics indicate; the same may already be said of the civilian death count in Ukraine. Both stories have their own complex systems of cause and effect, and their own logics of dangerously escalating consequences. And that’s before we get into the exhaustion and trauma of covering—or even just following—these momentous stories back to back. (When O’Donnell asked Addario how she’s doing, Addario replied, “You can ask me that in a few months. Right now, I’m trying to stay very focused and work.”)

Of course, “back to back” isn’t the best way of describing the pandemic and war stories—the former continues, and so is intertwined with the latter. When Russia invaded, Ukraine—only around a third of whose citizens are fully vaccinatedwas just getting past a viral peak; the war has forced many people to cram together in tight spaces while others have fled across borders, some surely bringing COVID with them. (The country has also been trying to get a polio outbreak under control.) Hospitals have run low on critical supplies. Beyond Ukraine’s borders, the war risks compounding the pandemic’s global economic effects. Then there are the more oblique connections, like the contention, among Western intelligence officials and analysts, that two years of strict COVID isolation may have warped Putin’s mindset. Major outlets have contributed good articles on all of this, but they have often been drowned out amid the daily churn of war coverage and commentary. As I’ve written often in this newsletter, the media as a whole is often bad at focusing on more than one crisis at a time, even when they’re linked.

If the war grinds on for a long time, and we aren’t vigilant, the normalization of its horrors could easily become another similarity with the pandemic story in the US and elsewhere; as Yong wrote, when “tragedy becomes routine,” levels of suffering “that once felt like thunderclaps now resemble a metronome’s clicks—the background noise against which everyday life plays.” Of course, many Western journalists and news consumers have already normalized war—an omnipresent feature of global life that continued or even sparked anew during the pandemic, in Yemen, Ethiopia, and other countries whose suffering has not attracted the volume of coverage afforded to Ukraine. Such wars continue to generate awful images of their own. These can help readers to care. But they don’t always. And as history marches on, they never prove enough.

Below, more on the war story:

  • In Russia: As I wrote in Monday’s newsletter, numerous international news organizations have suspended their operations in Russia after Putin signed a law last week criminalizing honest reporting on the war. Yesterday, the Times announced that it is withdrawing its journalists from the country for their “safety and security” while bosses monitor the impact of the law. The BBC, on the other hand, moved yesterday to resume English-language coverage from the country after carefully weighing “the implications of the new legislation alongside the urgent need to report from inside Russia.”
  • In Ukraine: For CJR and the Tow Center for Digital Journalism, Gabby Miller reports that the invasion has left Ukrainian media fighting for its future. Miller spoke with Jakub Parusinski, a London-based former journalist who used to work in Ukraine, and who has already raised millions of euros to help embattled outlets stay afloat. “I would say our priority is not letting the independent, ethical Ukrainian media landscape die because rebuilding it would be very difficult,” Parusinski said. He also emphasized “the critical role a strong media landscape plays in keeping a nation united during such harrowing times.”
  • In China: Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian, who covers China for Axios, reports that the country’s government, a Russian ally, “is scrubbing the country’s media of sympathetic or accurate coverage of Ukraine and systematically amplifying pro-Putin talking points” about the invasion. “Even the anti-war speech given by the Paralympic Committee president during the Paralympics opening ceremonies was censored in Chinese television broadcasts,” Allen-Ebrahimian writes. Meanwhile, “Chinese state media have widely aggregated content from Russian outlets including RT.”
  • A muted reaction?: For New York, Will Leitch asks why Russia’s detention of Brittney Griner, a star of the Women’s National Basketball Association, isn’t a bigger story. (Russian officials claim that they found hashish oil in her airport bag; she has been in custody in the country for more than a month, but her arrest was only made public last weekend.) “It’s not just the WNBA downplaying this story. There was also no mention of Griner on the front pages of, CBS Sports, and just 48 hours after news of her arrest landed,” Leitch writes. “Making equivalences between sports only takes you so far here, but seriously: Imagine if Tom Brady were being held by Russian officials right now.”
  • Fleeing, again: Nicole Carroll, the editor in chief of USA Today, has the stories of seventeen Afghan colleagues and family members whom the paper evacuated to Ukraine after Kabul fell to the Taliban last summer. Following the Russian invasion, all seventeen have now had to flee again. The wife of Mir Safi, who worked as a fixer for USA Today in Afghanistan, gave birth to a daughter in western Ukraine the day before the invasion. After two unsuccessful attempts to cross the border, Safi’s family was able to enter Poland. They are now in Berlin, and unsure where they’re headed next.

Other notable stories:

ICYMI: Volodymyr Zelensky’s moments in the spotlight

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.

TOP IMAGE: Passengers arrived on a train from Odessa via Lviv in Ukraine to the railway station in Przemysl, Poland on March 03, 2022. Russian invasion on Ukraine causes a mass exodus of refugees to Poland. (Photo by Beata Zawrzel/NurPhoto)