War coverage escalates, and goes back to the beginning

The war in Ukraine, now escalating again, raises some big journalistic questions—about the depths of Russian imperialism, how far the West should go in defending Ukraine against unprovoked attacks, and the brinkmanship over Vladimir Putin’s nuclear threats, which I wrote about in this newsletter last week.

The war is one of the most consequential stories of our time. But it also can be a trap for journalists, who can find it easier to focus on the big questions—to which the answers, if not unknowable, are certainly unclear—than on doing what’s needed most at a moment like this, which is focusing on ground reporting from a European country under bombardment.

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There has been amazing, urgent, real-time reporting from across Ukraine throughout the war. Photojournalists, in particular, have been unsparingly brave. This week’s coverage of Russia’s attacks on cities nationwide, including Kyiv, however, has felt particularly reminiscent of the wall-to-wall coverage of the earliest days of the war—infused with a sense of imminent danger spread across the country and footage of foreign correspondents ducking amid explosions in Kyiv. (Compare this footage of CNN’s Matthew Chance, back then, and the BBC’s Hugo Bachega, now.) Of course, the danger didn’t go away in between times, even when it grew further from the top of the news cycle and the consciousness of international news consumers. Despite the renewed urgency this week, we’ve also seen a return to the tendency, particularly on television, to take the easy way out—gaming out the geopolitical chess, trying to get into Putin’s head, armchair-generaling the war—a lazy reflex that I also wrote about last week.

Watching the bobbing sea of talking heads this week, I was brought back to a conversation from February on The Kicker, CJR’s podcast, which I host. We recorded the episode just days after Russia invaded, and interviewed two reporters, one for a US news network and one for a Ukrainian outlet, who, at the time, had made the difficult decision to leave Ukraine.

Eleanor Beardsley, NPR’s correspondent, spoke to me as she was driving toward the Hungarian border with colleagues. Beardsley and I had talked a few weeks earlier, in a prewar conversation in which she expressed deep skepticism as to whether Russia would really attack. In our second conversation, she was humbled by her own mistake, and unusually honest about how hard it was to take in what she was seeing. “I was wrong, I was a hundred percent wrong,” she said. “It’s like, Is this a dream? Is this really happening? I just can’t believe it, and neither can the Ukrainians.”

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Beardsley’s willingness to acknowledge that what she was seeing was unfathomable, and that she had no idea what would happen next, was a sign of journalistic humility that we don’t see often enough. Also notable was the fact that she had spent the previous weeks crisscrossing Ukraine, talking to people about what they had seen and how they had experienced the first phases of the war.

Igor Kossov, a reporter for the Kyiv Independent, who talked to me for the same episode, had essentially done the same thing, reporting for his outlet from the capital. As he was driving for safety out of Kyiv, he told me he would likely be back, as indeed he since has. (He also noted this week, with his colleague Francis Farrell, that Russia’s strikes on the city were “flashbacks” to the first day of the war.) The war story, he told me, was in the places and the people where the bombing was happening, not outside of it looking in.

My February conversation with these two fearless reporters continues to give us a road map for how this war should be covered: admit to what you don’t know, and center your reporting on the people on the ground who do. None of us know what is going to happen tomorrow in Ukraine. But journalists can, and should, continue to give us a sense of what life is like for people living through this terrible war. You can listen back to the conversation here.

Below, some other CJR reporting on Ukraine:

  • In another episode of The Kicker, we looked at the “prebunking” of Russian propaganda in a conversation with Jane Lytvynenko, a senior research fellow in the Technology and Social Change Project at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics, and Public Policy.
  • Joel Simon reported on the central role played by WhatsApp among journalists trying to understand what’s happening in the war.
  • Jon Allsop wrote for CJR’s newsletter about Ukraine “fatigue,” and the ongoing difficulties for news organizations, particularly in the US, to focus on more than one story at a time.


Other notable stories:

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Kyle Pope is the editor in chief and publisher of the Columbia Journalism Review.

TOP IMAGE: via AP)KYIV, UKRAINE - OCTOBER 10, 2022 - Russian missiles hit a children's playground and damage a museum located in the center of Kyiv, capital of Ukraine.