Who is winning in Ukraine? Who has right on their side?
Our answers to these questions will depend on what we’ve been reading, hearing and seeing. In other words, on the various ways in which we pick up “news.”
If we see only Russian state media, we will have one set of views. If we get our news from Western newspapers and television, we will have another.
Yet there is, in fact, only one series of events happening on the ground in Ukraine.
The truth is wrapped in the chaos typical of a war of close combat. It is open to being reported, distorted, interpreted, spun or suppressed in many ways. If we are seriously trying to understand what is going on, how are we to gather and interpret the facts? How do we decode the news?
News channels have changed, but the messages remain similar.
An exhibition at the British Library in London this summer, Breaking the News, reveals the eternal nature of these questions. It uses examples from the Library’s collection of more than 170 million historical items to chart the evolution of news media and their impact over more than 500 years.
An illustration from the 1640s shows people gossiping “at the childbed, at the church, at the market, at the hothouse (bath-house or perhaps brothel), at the conditte (getting water), washers at the river, at the bakehouse, at the alehouse.”
Since then, we have progressed through coffee houses, newsletters, pamphlets, newspapers, news agencies, newsreels, radio, television to the internet and social media. Not forgetting songs, art and other means of communication.
The channels along which news travels may have evolved, but the messages and the emotions they stir remain strikingly similar. War, naturally, is a dominant theme.
A pamphlet and a ballad reported an English victory over the Scots in 1513. The earliest surviving issue of an English newspaper, from 24 September 1621, reported the latest from abroad in the Thirty Years War. Domestic news was censored.