Creating hope: perspectives on reporting from Russia’s war in Ukraine

Burned armored vehicle near Vilhivka, Kharkiv region, Ukraine. May 2022. Photo by David Rose.

“On February 24, all journalists in Ukraine had to become war reporters,” says Ivan Verstyuk, editor of New Voice of Ukraine. “Before that, all of us had different beats. Some of us were writing about politics, some were covering energy markets, doing lifestyle journalism.” 

As he had ample experience writing about defense and military issues, Verstyuk found the transition relatively straightforward. For many of his colleagues it was not so easy. “Finding a new role, a new voice, and a new tone for talking about the war — especially if you want to go beyond just reporting plain news — that was a challenge.”

The need for more and better qualified personnel is a common theme among journalists and media professionals in Ukraine. When llia Novikov saw a message advertising for a fixer in a community Telegram channel, he was unfamiliar with the term. “Fixing a bike? I didn’t know,” says Novikov, whose language skills and connections made his transition from part-time tour guide to warzone fixer a natural fit. 

lllia Novikov at a military cemetery at Dnipro, May 2022. Photo by Julian Simmonds.

While there is no lack of bravery and enthusiasm among Ukraine’s reporters, it quickly became apparent that journalists were unprepared for covering an invasion and were badly lacking resources.  

“It’s the foremost interest of the country where the events happen to make sure things are being reported on correctly,” says Novikov. “So, the situation here tells us that a country can really use an institution that certifies or prepares people who are trained to work with the press. Not reporting but fixers, translators, drivers – that kind of thing. It’s now just chaotic, literally.”

When international journalists arrived in Ukraine, their local counterparts were impressed by their professionalism and meticulousness, particularly when it came to safety precautions and other conflict coverage procedures.  

“All these technical details matter a lot. When CNN journalists came to Kyiv in February, we saw how professional they were,” Verstyuk says. “They know which distance is safe enough to cover the combat zone. Most Ukrainian journalists had to learn this.” 

Calling the figure of 30-plus journalists killed thus far as “far too many,” Verstyuk also calls for better insurance coverage for reporters, “so they wouldn’t have to go around social media begging for money, which is happening now.”

He says a perennial lack of investment and support for Ukrainian media is partly to blame and echoes Novikov in calling for institutionalized training. “They have been severely underfunded for years,” he says. “And this is not only about working for really low salaries; this is also about things like insurance, things like going to conferences and workshops that prepare you for war reporting.”

Still, Ukrainian journalists have adapted quickly to the realities of war, including working in less-than-ideal circumstances. Speaking from her basement in Lviv during an air raid, Olha Vorozhbyt, head of the foreign news desk at Ukrayinskyi Tyzhden (The Ukrainian Week) says the retreat to her shelter has become a familiar routine. Nevertheless, she worries about her son at school. “I’ll need to run to the kindergarten to get him when there are no more air raids,” says Vorozhbyt, “I know they have a good shelter there, but when something like this happens, well, the feelings are not OK, frankly.”

Aside from the physical, mental, and technical challenges, Verstyuk notes the difficulty for Ukrainian reporters in finding the right tone in their war reporting. With death and destruction omnipresent in the headlines, Verstyuk believes the onus is on reporters to offer a sense of hope to their public.  

“The last thing you want is that people would feel ‘oh gosh, what a horrible tragedy’ because that puts people in such pessimism where the only thing they want to do is migrate abroad and never come back to Ukraine,” says Verstyuk.  “So, when I write for a Ukrainian audience, I give reasons for optimism. I always try to explain why the Ukrainian army has all the chances to win the war and to liberate the occupied territories.”

For Novikov, balance is a key quality for local journalists reporting a war of aggression on their home soil. As they watch their cities being levelled, friends and family killed, and millions of people displaced, maintaining neutrality in one’s work is not always easy. 

“As a Ukrainian, my opinion won’t always be super pure, but I try to be as impartial as I can,” says Novikov. “Sometimes, I interview people who are openly pro-Russian, and it’s hard because Russian artillery or missiles have just destroyed their house, and they’re very miserable; but they still think maybe Ukrainians did this – it doesn’t matter that it came from Russian positions. It’s hard to deal with on a personal level. But still, I always report it the way it was told.”  

In general, the view among Ukrainian journalists on foreign reporting of the war is positive. “In terms of quality of reporting, most western publications do a really good job,” says Verstyuk, citing a New York Times piece on Russia’s use of illegal weapons. “This was an excellent piece. They had all the facts checked, infographics, analysis of different types of prohibited munitions, and they explain why they are dangerous for peaceful civilians.”

Stressing the importance of accurate reporting on weapons because the Russian war “will have a serious impact on the development of military technology,” he emphasizes that such analysis cannot be done remotely.  “When you have a person on the ground who sees the war, sees the combat zone, and sees how artillery works, then you get – as an editor – a better piece,” says Verstyuk. “If you just write about the war following the news and social media, trying to get an understanding of how weapons are used, it’s different.”

Burned column of Russian military vehicles, Bucha, 06.04.2022. Photo by Campbell MacDiarmid

Shoddy analysis may have contributed to misapprehensions about Russia’s military heft, says British journalist and writer David Patrikarakos. “I think mistakes have been made – consistent overestimation of Russian capabilities in the early days,” says Patrikarakos, who was embedded with Ukrainian forces in 2014 and again in May. However, Patrikarakos stresses that these errors were “as much political and security [related] as journalistic.”

Vorozhbyt agrees that a lack of boots on the ground has been a problem for foreign media. Although the BBC and AP have bureaus in Kyiv, Vorozbyt notes that correspondents have traditionally been stationed in Russia, and that only in May did the Washington Post become the first major newspaper to establish a Kyiv bureau. Consequently she fears that Western reading of Ukraine’s sociopolitical environment has sometimes been skewed. 

“From my perspective, the biggest problem was it was seen as OK to write about Ukraine sitting in the Moscow bureau, visiting just occasionally,” says Vorozhbyt, “Because of not visiting the region much, not studying here, not staying here, it influences the situation.”

Even those foreign journalists who have reported from the country might not have a grip on the background to Russia’s war in Ukraine. In addition to language barriers, Novikov believes “not understanding the political cultural context” has been a problem. “The situation did not just come out of nowhere in February,” says Novikov, who has worked on the frontlines around the country. “It comes from at least 1991 when the Soviet Union collapsed. This is all an integrated story, and maybe some people reporting here don’t know the history.”

As an example of the Moscow-concocted “distortions” that have seeped into foreign reporting, Vorozhbyt highlights the preoccupation with alleged far-right elements in the Azov Regiment. Independent researchers such as the German political scientist Andreas Umland – an expert on the post-Soviet extreme right – has disproven such claims, says Vorozhbyt. 

“There are some roots that were there long ago, but at the moment, this is just a very effective unit of the Ukrainian army,” she says. “The Russian agenda was influencing this, repeating this mantra about right-wingers. It’s just not true.”

In an article for UnHerd, Patrikarakos supports this assessment, quoting the Jewish philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy, who met senior members of the regiment and described its multi-ethnic composition. “They are definitely not Nazis,” said Levy. “This is just a slander.” Like Vorozhbyt, Patrikarakos, who is also Jewish, suggests that Russian propaganda on Azov is driven by genuine fear of the regiment’s prowess.      

David Patrikarakos in Saltivka in Northeastern Kharkiv, 20km from the Russian border, in May 2022. Credit Jen Stout

Although Verstyuk believes that most “educated people” are unlikely to be duped, he says the sheer volume of Russian disinformation across social media means it can “catch all kinds of extremists and people looking for alternative worldviews.” 

While Novikov says he frequently encounters BTL comments on Western media websites that accuse journalists of being “just pro-Ukrainian propagandists,” he is confident that the sheer volume and range of foreign sources now present within the country means the truth will out.  

“There have been more than 10,000 journalists working in Ukraine, and the bigger part are foreigners: different newspapers – some more leftist, others more right-wing – conservative newspapers, liberal TV channels, all over the world and, you know, you can’t really fake it when there are so many different people and different parties involved.”