Two years gone: Lessons from Ukraine coverage
Two years after Russia invaded Ukraine, we welcomed Yaroslav Trofimov, chief foreign affairs correspondent of The Wall Street Journal and author of the newly released book Our Enemies Will Vanish: The Russian Invasion and Ukraine’s War of Independence, for our Global Journalism Seminars. He has covered the war in Ukraine extensively and has worked from there since January 2022. He joined the Journal in 1999 and previously served as Rome, Middle East and Singapore-based Asia correspondent, as bureau chief in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and as a Dubai-based columnist on the greater Middle East. He is the author of two other books, Faith at War (2005) and Siege of Mecca (2007).
Part of our Global Journalism Seminar series.
Five takeaways from the talk and the discussion
1. Journalists have faced severe challenges in covering the war in Ukraine. The war in Ukraine is particularly dangerous for journalists, Trofimov said, due to Russia’s use of missiles and also their targeting of hotels and restaurants popular among reporters.
Nevertheless, Trofimov said all civilian victims of war should be mourned equally. “We [journalists] do an important job, but so do a lot of other people in this conflict. Medics, civilians, people who make bread and clean the streets and provide basic services like electricity. So I don't think we're special, honestly, and I think that we have to mourn all the victims of this conflict. And if I look at Ukraine, I think a lot of the journalists who were killed were not targeted because they were journalists. If you die under a Russian artillery strike fired from 20 miles away, they probably don't know you're a journalist. They just want to kill you because they think you’re Ukrainian.”
2. There is a special emotional toll on journalists covering a conflict in their home country. “Covering a war at home, in a town where you were born and raised, every piece of geography, every street corner has memories: the botanical garden when I used to go on dates as a teenager, the movie theatre. Then suddenly when you're in a city like that, that is under artillery fire, the streets are empty, people have left and the Russians for a while were on the verge of running here in the first weeks of the war, obviously you’re thinking differently. And my feelings aside, I think it's also motivation. In reporting for this book, and reporting on the war in Ukraine in general, I probably took more risks and went further than I would have done otherwise. Because I felt more of a sense of a mission to tell the story,” Trofimov said.
3. Accurate and nuanced reporting is crucial. Trofimov spoke about the misconceptions about Ukraine that were common in the West at the start of the full-scale invasion, including those about language and terminology and the level of support Russia would receive from some communities within the country. Good journalism played an important role in dispelling these inaccurate narratives.
“By telling the stories of these initial Ukrainian victories and resistance, it changed the narrative because the presumption was that Ukraine would fall in a matter of days, which was a presumption in Moscow but also Washington and Western capitals. It was a self-defeating presumption that held people back from helping Ukraine. And once the stories were told of Ukraine standing firm and fighting back and having a chance against Russia, I think this also affected the decision-making on a political level,” Trofimov explained.
4. Witnessing events firsthand is still the most valuable way to report. Trofimov recalled how, as soon as the war broke out, he drove across the country with a photographer and a security expert to see what was happening on the ground and uncover stories that would otherwise have gone untold. “With all the story planning, people forget how important it is to just be there,” Trofimov said. Alternatively, a good way to report from a distance is to use open-source tools: “It's probably the most documented war that we've seen in a long time… For almost every engagement there are 1000s of hours of videos documenting clashes. And so I think, using this open source intelligence, and being able to verify things is a very important tool in this war,” he said.
5. An unparalleled use of propaganda and disinformation by Russia made reporting even more difficult. “I think the power of disinformation, especially Russian disinformation, is something that we haven't seen in Iraq or Afghanistan. And as journalists who cover stories in our Western, democratic societies, both sides are presumed to be telling you at least a kernel of truth, not lying outright. But with Russia in this war, there has been industrial-size lying. It raises the question of, at what point do you just not report what the Russians are saying because it is untrue?” Trofimov said. In this situation, he added, it’s particularly important to take care while verifying sources and use tools such as open-source intelligence to back them up.
The bottom line
Two years on, the war in Ukraine is still ongoing, still unfolding and requiring high-quality reporting. Despite great dangers to their safety, we need on-the-ground reporters to witness the conflict first-hand, especially in the face of disinformation and lies from Russia. Reporting by Ukrainian journalists is particularly valuable as they bring a deep knowledge of the country and culture that informs their work and dispels stereotypes and myths, but comes at a personal cost to them due to the emotional toll of experiencing an invasion of their home.