From the day Evan Gershkovich was detained in Russia six weeks ago on espionage charges, major media outlets made their support clear for the Wall Street Journal reporter.
Hours after news of Gershkovich’s arrest broke, The New York Times and The Washington Post issued statements calling for his immediate release. The newspapers quickly joined WSJ editor in chief Emma Tucker and other high-profile journalists to address Russian ambassador Anatoly Antonov.
“Russia is sending the message that journalism within your borders is criminalized and that foreign correspondents seeking to report from Russia do not enjoy the benefits of the rule of law,” the letter said.
All parties have dialed up their communications efforts in the weeks since.
The WSJ has prioritized emphasizing humanity in Gershkovich’s case, raising awareness about who he is as both a journalist and a person, according to a source familiar with the matter.
As well as making Gershkovich’s content available through a dedicated microsite that is available for anyone to access, the WSJ has also published interviews with the journalist’s family, friends and colleagues. The outlet has also set up a system for people to send letters to Gershkovich and his family.
Social media is a core component of the WSJ’s messaging strategy, too. The outlet has organized social storms, or designated times where members of its newsroom and others collectively post on social media about Gershkovich, promoting events and developments about the detained reporter’s case.
“I think the Journal is doing an incredible job,” says Chris Roush, dean of Quinnipiac University’s school of communications and former editor of industry news and market data publication SNL Financial. “I see their reporters and editors on Twitter everyday posting things about Evan [Gershkovich].”
Organized by WSJ standards editor Emma Moody, Wednesday’s social storm encouraged participants to retweet commentary from the co-chair of the Pulitzer Prize board, Neil Brown, and reporter Jennifer Calfas’ article on the Jewish community’s efforts.
Social media assets are available on the WSJ’s microsite for those looking to rally awareness for Gershkovich on their personal social media accounts.
The Dow Jones publication is also getting help from a slightly surprising community: its biggest competitors.
On April 27, the Journal, the Times and the Post ran a joint full-page in all three of the papers, urging more support from the Biden administration to bring Gershkovich home.
“As editors and publishers of some of America’s largest news organizations, we are united in calling for his immediate release. Reporting is not a crime,” the ad stated.
Kathy Baird, the Post’s chief communications officer, said via email that the company is drawing upon its unfortunate experience supporting “several of our writers getting attacked for the work they do,” such as Jason Rezaian and the late Jamal Khashoggi.
“Through these experiences, we’ve learned how important it is to consistently bring attention to these individual cases, so the public doesn’t forget and the necessary actions can be taken to protect journalists,” she says.
The Post has used several channels to reach readers, many of which are “leaders in politics at the highest levels and other influential circles” and to continue highlighting Gershkovich’s case.
Through its public service initiative, Press Freedom Partnership, the Post has dedicated several full-page premium ads “to amplify Evan’s story and encourage action toward his release,” Baird adds.
Roush says he’s been “a little surprised” about how widespread support for the Journal and Gershkovich has been, including from publications in Europe and Asia.
“I think the reason they’re [raising awareness for Gershkovich] is that they all want to be able to cover Russia and what’s happening there,” he adds. “They see the fact that if Russia can arrest Evan, then Russia can arrest their reporters as well.”
While the companies’ comms tactics have done little to impact Gershkovich’s legal case, Roush adds that they’ve helped “raise the issue that press freedom is important around the entire world.”
On April 18, a Russian court upheld Gershkovich’s detention and ordered him to be held in the capital’s Lefortovo Prison pending trial.
NYT executive editor Joe Kahn spoke at WSJ’s Future of Everything conference on May 3, coinciding with the 30th anniversary of World Press Freedom Day. Kahn said at the event that he feels as though the free press has been “taken for granted” for most of his career, and that press freedom is a vital cog in the “long arch” toward greater economic openness and political liberalization.
“In the last five years or decade, I think we’ve seen many of those assumptions shaken pretty fundamentally, and I’m afraid that Evan’s case is a very clear illustration of that threat,” he said at the event.
Gershkovich has also received support from the highest levels of government. At the White House Correspondents Dinner, President Joe Biden said, “The free press is a pillar — maybe the pillar — of a free society, not the enemy.” He also vowed to keep fighting for Gershkovich and Austin Tice, who vanished more than a decade ago while reporting in Syria.
While Biden nailed his colors to the mast, Kahn said at the press freedom event that “it’s incumbent on essentially every democratic government to speak out forcefully” in defense of free press. Polarization in the U.S. and its negative effects on independent press has set a precedent for other countries, he added.
“[It] makes it easier for other governments around the world to say, ‘See, it’s happening there, too. You’re on one side or the other as a media organization, and if you’re not on my side, I can repress you,’” Kahn said at the event.
On Thursday, 70 members of Congress wrote a letter to Gershkovich, condemning the time “stolen” from his life and promising to continue advocating on his behalf.
“We commend you for your tireless efforts to report on hard-hitting subjects, uncover the truth and shine a light on the lived experiences of the Russian people,’’ the lawmakers wrote. “Through your courageous journalistic endeavors, you have eloquently demonstrated how free speech and freedom of the press are the cornerstones of democracy around the world.’’