If you are a journalist planning to go to Ukraine to cover the threatening escalation of the war, you might need to work with local producers, fixers, or translators. Here are a few research-based tips for avoiding unintended harm to your local collaborators and yourself and making your reporting more ethical and transparent. These tips can help you keep good long-term relationships with the conflict reporting community.
First, think twice about why you want to go there. Be honest with yourself. Will your eyewitness testimony about others’ suffering help anything or anyone? Or are you driven by the urge to see and experience the war yourself? Does the desire involve your adrenalin levels or your career cupidity? Do you know how to behave under shelling? Do you know basic first aid procedures? Do you know how you react to the smell of corpses, the sound of shooting and bombs? Are you ready to deal with images of suffering, destruction, and death? Have you ever had a panic attack? Are you going to hinder anybody?
If you still think you should go, go. You might need to work with locals: local producers, photographers, journalists, fixers, translators, drivers. Keep reminding yourself that many of them are more knowledgeable about the context and history than you are. Even those unfamiliar with the latest Blinken-Lavrov exchange details have embodied knowledge. They have lived through the history of the conflict, and their everyday life has been affected by it. Maybe they lost a loved one to the war, come from Donbas or Crimea, their families still live there, or have been displaced.
Do not call your collaborators automatically ‘fixers.’ If you do not know how they advertise their services, ask them how they want you to call their job. Local producer? Associate producer? News assistant? Fixer? Journalist? Very often, these ‘fixers’ – connotating plumbers or unskilled workers – have university degrees from elite universities and speak multiple languages. You may well work with someone bright and wise, even if they speak English or French with an accent. They are sometimes experienced journalists, producers, or photographers. Their work is by no means simple: they mediate between cultures. And to do this, they need to be sensitive and have other special skills.
So – be humble. Respect your collaborators’ knowledge and learn from it. Ask them. Be curious what they think about the guy whose answers they just translated, about his accent and his words. Be interested in how to approach local citizens. Let your collaborators decide when it is the right moment to start filming. Discuss your stories, angles, and ready texts with them before releasing them. Make sure they agree that the final piece is accurate.
Do not automatically presuppose that your local collaborators are ‘biased.’ Their ‘bias’ does not necessarily mean that they will distort the information they give you or arrange interviews with only one type of sources. Rather, they will not recommend people who speak blatant untruths and will not slip into the ‘five minutes for Hitler, five minutes for Jews’ understanding of journalistic objectivity. Thanks to my research, I learned that the combination of Ukrainian local newsworkers’ embeddedness and experience with international teams often leads to a critical perspective on their context. They want the context to become better – that is why they are usually very skilled at critical thinking and even manage to have a bird’s eye view. It is sometimes the foreign journalists – your colleagues – who come to Ukraine equipped with stereotypical story ideas and ready-made opinions. That is, with bias.
Your foreign colleagues are often equipped also with flak jackets, helmets, war zone insurance, money, and the symbolical capital of being a journalist from the US, UK, Canada, Germany, or France. While Ukrainian journalists and producers often do have access to the former, getting war insurance to work in their own country is much more difficult, if not impossible. As locals, they do not have the symbolical capital like journalists from the so-called elite nations. They did not choose to be at war; it is just a card they must play with. Therefore, respect their limits and go only as far as they want. Respect their worries. If you wish to sleep on the frontline, do so, but do not force your local collaborators to stay with you.
If you are on an assignment or work trip, try to persuade your medium to provide your collaborators with the same protection as you have. It is fair to be at the same level. None of the forms of protection, taken individually – helmets, vests, insurance, training – will probably keep you alive. But as a whole, they matter.
If your local collaborator attracts you romantically or sexually, never exhibit your feelings in unwanted ways.
If your medium allows that and your local collaborators agree, be transparent about how the news piece came into existence. Give your collaborators a byline. If you write a longread or a more extended news report, you can even describe their role in the newsmaking process.
You will most probably get home safely. Your collaborators will stay. Keep it in mind during your trip and after that. Once you are at home, ask them how they are, if they need anything, and be ready to help. Take also good care of yourself. Having a few debriefing sessions with a therapist is never a shame, and there might be a lot to process. Your employer or client should pay for it and offer the same support to your Ukrainian collaborators.
I am not writing this to ‘give voice to the voiceless.’ Their voice is typically much more powerful than mine. I am writing this because some of them shared with me their frustrations. And now, they are busy working.
- Make sure you have a legitimate motivation to cover the war and are physically and psychologically well-equipped.
- Be aware that your local collaborators have vast (embodied) knowledge of the conflict. They are often experienced and highly educated. Respect their knowledge and learn from it.
- Do not call your collaborators automatically ‘fixers.’ Some of them might not like the term.
- Be humble.
- Do not simplify the question of bias. Many locals are not biased; many foreigners are.
- Respect your collaborators’ limits and fears.
- Try to persuade your employee/client to provide everyone with the same degree of protection.
- Never exhibit your sexual or romantic attraction to your collaborators in unwanted ways.
- Care about your colleagues – even after you come home. Take care of yourself.
- If appropriate, give your collaborators a byline.