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8 March 2022

Influencer journalists must stop making the war in Ukraine all about them

Who should be at the centre of this story?

By Sarah Manavis

Whose voice deserves to be at the centre of a story? This question is at the heart of every tale ever told. The perspective prioritised in novels, films and television can dramatically change the arc of a narrative, and which narrative is considered important. Arguably, there is no place where this tension is greater than in journalism, where events are relayed and facts are meant to be recorded. While we typically think a journalist’s job is about choosing to prioritise between opposing sides, a new trend has risen over the past ten years: should they be the centre of the story themselves?

We are witnessing this more and more often. Digital media has its many upsides for journalism – the democratisation of information, the ability to reach wider audiences, the elevation of under-represented voices – but it has also tempted journalists into casting themselves as their own reporting’s main character. Sometimes this perspective can be valuable – such as when readers can hear, first hand, a story that only a reporter has experienced (such as the experiences of photojournalists inside the Capitol Hill riot last January). But most of the time, it’s a choice that obscures what is actually important. In times of crisis, it’s a decision that chafes: selfies and the heavy use of first-person pronouns comes off as crass, self-centred and flagrant.

Since the invasion of Ukraine began almost two weeks ago, there has been journalism of unparalleled quality that has been crucial to helping people understand the war. But at the same time, a social media ill has begun to crystallise. Twitter and Instagram have been riddled with vanity reporters and “activists”, in Ukraine but also in the West, eager to cast themselves as primary voices in a conflict that has little, if anything, to do with them. 

On Twitter, journalists wax lyrical about their importance to the war, while sharing more about themselves – and their experiences reporting – than about the people whose lives have actually been affected: the people they are ostensibly in Ukraine to cover. On Instagram, infographics have been hastily made – typically from influencers masquerading as activists, with no apparent expertise on this conflict – that often contain false and misleading information or advocate dangerous messages, with the clear aim of being shared repeatedly, to make their followers feel like they have “done their bit”. 

Between critical reporting from many journalists on the ground in places such as Kyiv, social media timelines have filled up with this new problem: clout being chased off the back of a literal war, at the expense of the people whom these posts are claiming to serve. This trend indicates that what motivates some journalists to tell a story has changed. Before, it may have been finding the most engaging first-person narratives, a sense of injustice about a situation, or an interesting scoop – not entirely without benefit to the reporter, but something in which they are merely tangential to the narrative. Now, there are incentives for reporters to make themselves a part of the story – tipping the balance away from those who don’t have a voice, to the journalist that believes they are the real draw for audiences.

This shift causes correspondents to become influencers. They clamour for likes and follows under the guise of doing crucial work. They believe, like influencers, that readers are interested in them not the Ukrainian people. Also, like influencers, their posts are styled with an air of celebrity: journalists tweet constant updates about what they’re doing, regardless of their importance. Some Western reporters in Ukraine have even begun asking for fan donations – like influencers who use financial staples such as Patreon – requesting people pay them for their tweets because they are “free and without a paywall”.

[See also: “Kyiv holds its breath”: Lyse Doucet’s diary from Ukraine]

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Not every selfie or infographic or self-centred story posted to social media is inherently bad. But the question must be: why? Why is this being posted? Is it for the good of the cause at hand, or for the benefit of the poster? These posts may appear virtuous, reporting from a war zone or alleging to be in aid of the population affected, but for many of them, the value is shallow. The benefits – beyond the author’s – are non-existent.

Journalists whose work is revered in times such as these do everything they can to elevate other voices above their own. The BBC’s chief international correspondent Lyse Doucet – heralded over the past fortnight – is valued because of her ability to listen. Self-serving tweets and memes and TikToks and infographics, with the extremely transparent aim of boosting the creator’s profile, are vulgar by comparison.

I would never be brave enough to enter a dangerous war zone – I write this because I can already feel the accusations of “well, why aren’t you there, then?” But having the courage to go to Ukraine doesn’t absolve journalists of fault in their reporting – especially when communicating accurately, robustly, and from the perspective of the people involved in the conflict is so important to how the world understands it.

There are many occasions in which it is valuable for a journalist to make themselves the centre of the story they are telling. But journalists must choose those moments wisely, and as readers we should always ask: why should this person be at the story’s heart? And whose voice has been lost in order to elevate it?

[See also: “Social media is sentient neoliberalism”: Symeon Brown on the exploitative influencer economy]

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