Dear journalists: When in Ukraine, try talking to Ukrainians

Hearing the confessions of soldiers shortly before they go into combat is one of the most important and symbolic duties performed by priests who serve as military chaplains representing Christianity’s ancient churches.

After all, the soldiers are going into harm’s way and there is no way to know if they will return. In a way, the priest knows that he could be hearing the penitent’s final confession — turning this encounter into a kind of Last Rites for a person who is not sick unto death, but may be moments from death.

This brings me to the first photo — pictured above — in a remarkable online slideshow produced, using photos from a number of different news sources, by the foreign-affairs desk at The Washington Post.

This particular photo is from Getty Images. There is no way for me to know what kind of information was attached to this photo that could have been used by the copy-editor or editors who produced this feature. There is no way to know if the photographer had any way to talk to the specific priest or this penitent to obtain more information about what was happening in this dramatic scene.

As readers can see above, the photo caption reads:

A man kneels before an Orthodox priest in an area separating police and anti-government protesters near Dynamo Stadium on Jan. 25, 2014, in Kiev.

This is, I guess, a literal statement about what the photographer saw.

However, for the hundreds or perhaps even thousands of Ukrainians at the scene, that is not what was taking place.

The priest in this picture has placed his stole over the man’s head and is reading prayers. This is what happens at the end of the rite of confession, which under ideal conditions would take place in a sanctuary with the penitent facing an icon, often the icon known as Christ Pantocrator. The penitent is confessing his or her sins to Christ, with the priest hearing this confession representing the church.

Is there another circumstance in which a priest would place his stole over the head of a kneeling believer and then say prayers? There may be, but not one that I know of as an Eastern Orthodox layman. The same was true for my priest, to whom I took this question over the weekend.

Would it have been more dramatic to say that this believer, in the midst of territory that was turning into a war zone in downtown Kiev, felt the need to say his confession?

I would say so.

Is he confessing his sins because of something he has just done? There is no way to know that.

Is he confessing his sins because he believes he is about to be placed in a situation resembling combat, a setting in which his life will almost certainly be at risk? I would say that this is the safest interpretation of the information contained in this photo. In other words, he knew that there was a good chance that events in that street were about to turn deadly. He knew his life was in danger, so he felt the need to confess his sins and be blessed. Right then and there.

Now, I know that journalists are not supposed to speculate and I am not calling for speculation.

However, journalists are also supposed to do the best job that they can to understand the events that they are covering.

In this case, as I said earlier, hundreds of Ukrainians at this scene would have known that what they were witnessing was the rite of confession and the priest’s absolution of the penitent.

Does this matter? Does the addition of this easily obtained information make the picture more dramatic? I would say, “yes.”

So why write such a bland cutline for this dramatic picture? Didn’t someone involved in the flow of this story and this photo slide show know what they were seeing? Hadn’t someone done their homework on a familiar detail in Ukrainian life? I mean, this is a story set in Ukraine. It helps to know something about life in Ukraine, which includes the powerful and symbolic role played by that troubled nation’s various branches of Eastern Orthodoxy and Eastern-Rite Catholicism.

That, in a nutshell, is what your GetReligionistas have been saying for several weeks — most recently this post by Father George Conger — about the mainstream media and their failure to grasp the role of religion in the cultural earthquakes that continue to shake Ukraine. In another post, here is how I expressed our big idea:

Let me be blunt: We are not arguing that religious disputes are at the heart of the tensions and violence. We are not saying that religion trumps politics, in this case.

No, what we have been saying is that the religious divisions in Ukraine offer additional windows into the nature of the cultural conflicts that are taking place there. We are saying that it is hard to understand Ukrainian culture without listening to some of the religious voices.

We are saying that reporters and photographers need to understand the factual content of the events they are covering. They need to pursue accurate information about religion along with the political details of what is happening.

So look at the other photos in this powerful feature, which includes this explanatory copy:

Christianity has deep roots in Ukraine. The majority of Ukrainians are not actively religious, according to polls, but Eastern Orthodoxy is still a major force here. It’s the faith that most observant Ukrainians follow, though they’re divided between the Kiev and Moscow Patriarchates. (A number of Ukrainians also follow Greek Catholicism.) But churches and priests are omnipresent in the country, and especially so in the protests that have racked Kiev and other cities since late November.

Ukraine’s Orthodox and Catholic priests have been frequently seen on or near the front lines of the clashes, ministering to protesters and riot police alike, though at times some have appeared to more closely align themselves near the protesters. Perhaps this is because protesters, camped out for three months in Kiev’s Independence Square, and having endured the overwhelming firepower of security forces, are in more immediate physical need. Perhaps it’s because of the complex historical relationship between church and state dating to Soviet-era Ukraine. Or maybe it’s just where those priests’ individual sympathies lie.

Whatever the case, photos tracking the priests as they move between both sides of the physical conflict, as well as minister to the dead and wounded, provide strikingly powerful glimpses into life on the ground in crisis-racked Ukraine.

True, true.

But how can professionals publish this accurate description of what is happening and then write the following cutline on yet another photo in that same Post feature?

Priests of different faiths pray during clashes with police in central Kiev.

Different “faiths“? Say what?

Who are these priests? Which Orthodox body do they represent? If they are from different Orthodox or Catholic jurisdictions, then this is a truly important and remarkable photo of peacemaking under extreme conditions. What is happening in this photograph? The facts matter.

Please, journalists, talk to people. Ask basic questions. Do your homework. Please assume that the details are important.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • http://triangulations.wordpress.com/ Sabio Lantz

    I agree, a little more religion-savvy writing is important.
    When I read stuff on India & Pakistan (my old tromping grounds), I feel the same way. Yet it takes a lot of investment to understand all the twisted details of faiths — I know, I’ve done it with several. And it would be tough for a journalist to do this if they are flying around to local sites. Even requesting help from locals only yields a local twisted view. But that view would be better than nothing.

    Oh well, tough stuff. Good elaboration on this photo!

  • http://ephesians4-15.blogspot.ca/ Randy Gritter

    I would not discard the “something he has done” possibility so quickly. War is a place where people do things they never believed they could do. They often feel extreme guilt.

  • MaryTN

    Religion is not important to these reporters, therefore, they can’t understand that religion is important to others. Provincial.

  • HowardRichards

    Ah. I thought you were Catholic.

    At any rate, is it really possible to tell that this was an Orthodox priest and not a Catholic priest? I would assume that a Byzantine Catholic priest hearing confession and an Orthodox priest hearing confession would look EXACTLY alike, with the only difference being possibly some of the prayers, which an outsider should not hear anyhow. Does the photographer KNOW that this is an Orthodox priest, or does he assume that on the basis of where the priest was standing?


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