By Johana Kotišová. Originally published by MO* (in Dutch).
“I would compare the war to radiation. When you visit the Chornobyl power plant for one week and then go back to a safe location, you get a different dose of radiation than when you live there for months and years,” says Andrii Kolesnyk, a Ukrainian local producer.
Like hundreds of his compatriots, he works for foreign media and journalists covering the Russo-Ukrainian war. He translates, plans stories, prepares interviews, contacts sources, and makes sure that his clients have all the necessary permissions to work around the frontline. Depending on their role and tasks, these local media professionals call themselves local producers or “fixers.” “Working as a fixer is a hell of a job,” says Oleksii, who stopped taking fixer assignments several years ago and started a career in game development. “It’s one of the most difficult yet undervalued jobs in journalism. You have to be responsible for the team you work with, their logistics, food, schedule, coffee, gifts for their family, and the piece. And after all this responsibility, they usually don’t want to be responsible for you at all.”
Andrii’s radiation metaphor reveals what makes the work different from the job of foreign journalists who come to Ukraine, fill in several stories, and return to their home country. In many respects, it is more challenging for those who call Ukraine their home. “When you see your motherland in such condition – destroyed buildings, destroyed families, Russian soldiers inside – it makes you feel in another way than foreigners,” explains Andrii. “For Ukrainian fixers, for Ukrainian journalists, it’s never just a job,” agrees Sasha Dovzhyk, a London-based Ukrainian literary scholar who regularly travels to Ukraine for academic research and fixing assignments. She often stays in touch with her local sources to ensure they do not feel exploited or retraumatized by her news crew.
Mariia, a Ukrainian fixer and journalist for NBC, feels the foreign journalists’ circulation starkly contrasts with her never-ending series of assignments. “They come and go, and you just keep going.” Many of the local producers have kept working almost non-stop since last February. They do not see taking a break as an option. “If the soldiers live in trenches for six months, I have to do the same,” Mariia explains. Some fixers and local producers have been working for many months non-stop. Fourteen- to sixteen-hour working days are nothing exceptional.
Witnessing drastic scenes, seeing dead bodies and ubiquitous destruction, and interviewing victims of rape and torture is a daily bread for many of these local media professionals. The scope of war crimes and the number of destroyed lives are a tough nut to crack. For Andrii, stories about orphaned or otherwise affected children belong to the most challenging.
From 2014 to 2022
Andrii dropped his previous life and his moving company to start working as a fixer right after the full-scale invasion in late February 2022. Since then, he has worked with about twenty-five foreign crews. Entering the fixing market meant the exact overnight sea change to Natalia Vlasenko, who had made her living by guiding tourists in Odesa. But for Kateryna Malofieieva, this is not a new situation. Coming from Donetsk, she has worked as a producer in and around the frontline areas since the war started in 2014. “The invasion did not change much to me. All these past nine years, I have been living in the war. The war shaped me. It became an inevitable part of my life.”
The current situation is, however, much more intense. Not least because the country is relatively easy to reach. According to the Ukrainian producer Alik Sardarian, this attracts all kinds of media workers, including inexperienced journalists and those who see the war rather as an opportunity for their career than as a tragedy that needs a sensitive approach. “I saw people who came here, and everything they were interested in was just doing stand-ups in front of the rubble. And this is just devastating to me,” agrees Mariia, while adding that “there were also people who cared a lot and put a lot of hard work into their coverage.”
The long-term stress that local media professionals experience takes its toll. According to the Kyiv-based Institute of Mass Information’s (IMI) recent survey, ninety-seven percent of Ukrainian journalists experience symptoms that may indicate depression. Many report ten or more symptoms of depression, such as fatigue or anger, sleep problems or difficulties focusing, and feelings of hopelessness. Seventy-one percent of journalists did not go on vacation in 2022, and of these, only seven percent planned to do so [the survey was published in September 2022]. However, Mariia points out that the situation has changed. “Since August, all of our fixers have days off and vacation time. They work in shifts,” she explains.
A part of this stress stems from the heavy work with information that involves explaining Ukrainian context and history, fact-checking, and debunking propagandist narratives. “It’s like being a rape victim and keeping on saying that you did not provoke anything, and you need to repeat it every day to different people. This is very stressful,” says Mariia, who feels to be in the position of a warrior without a trench. Natalia also sees herself on the information frontline. She is active on social media, sharing the news about her region and raising funds for different projects run by her friends and acquaintances. In the first months after the invasion, she used to read Russian media “to know the enemy.” But it was sickening, so she stopped. “It’s dangerous for your brain.”
Yuriy Zaliznyak, Associate Professor at the New Media department of Ivan Franko National University in Lviv, points to the exhausting nature of this “cognitive warfare” that involves incessant dealing with the war-related agenda and social media trends, including a vast amount of dis- and misinformation. “It demands a lot of energy and concentration to work with the news flow and the atmosphere around you,” Zaliznyak says. Even the core journalistic task – defining what is real and what is not – requires much mental energy. This does not mean only fact-checking practices but also being fair in assessing how and why the journalist or fixer thinks, does, and says certain things and finding a “balance between an emotional and rational understanding of what is real.”
Serhiy, a Kyiv-based local producer, emphasizes that this cognitive warfare does not mean fighting for a positive image of Ukraine. “I know how often Western journalists can simplify our reality, and I try to influence it. I don’t struggle only with negative stereotypes, but also with positive stereotypes.”
On top of that, the war is entangled with personal tragedies that do not wait until the war is over. Kateryna lost her mother to a disease not long after the full-scale invasion. Her mom lived in Donetsk, so Kateryna could not attend her funeral. Every time she attends another funeral – and she attends a lot of military and civilian funerals – she also pays tribute to her mom. “When I saw the decomposed bodies [in Borodyanka], I had these stupid thoughts: my mom died two weeks ago, so this is what she should look like now.” After witnessing the atrocities in Mariupol, Kherson, or Izium, she is grateful that her mom did not die in a shelling. “Maybe it’s better that mom died like this. As a human, at least.”
Her family life is now on hold. The war keeps young fixers and local producers, literally, in survival mode, paralyzing their dreams about the future. “You cannot plan on starting a family or having a baby,” explains Mariia. According to the IMI survey, eighty-six percent of Ukrainian journalists indeed feel the increase in load because they worry more about the future, family, and finances.
Building a safety net for the future
For some, the load is a reason to leave, for a while or forever. Natalia sometimes goes to Lviv or nearby Poland, where it feels almost like the war did not exist. But as soon as she takes a break and gets some distance, she fully realizes what she saw and experienced near the frontline. It is hard to escape: “It’s traumatic to read the news, it’s traumatic to see all this, it’s traumatic to stop,” Kateryna summarizes.
While some who started fixing and producing in 2014 have developed self-care strategies, such as doing yoga or other exercises, the newcomers seem to have the advantage of belonging to a self-aware generation. Thus, Andrii soon realized that not caring for himself can be very dangerous. “After ten days or two weeks on the frontline, you get really tired, and you really need to get some rest. When you can’t concentrate, you can make really, really bad conclusions.”
He works with a psychologist. Like Natalia, who receives pro bono support provided by a volunteer psychologist. Many local, foreign, and international NGOs, such as the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma or Lviv Media Forum, have also intensified their focus on Ukrainian journalists’ mental well-being since February 2022.
By contrast, those who profit most from the fixing work – media organizations – often do not express much interest in their local collaborators’ emotional well-being. “Nobody cares about your mental state,” Kateryna complains. This is why she very much appreciated when one of her new clients offered her mental health support: “I was shocked. I almost burst into tears.”
Plus, as the Dart Center states in its briefing on psychological support for Ukrainian journalists, diagnosing and treating journalists’ post-traumatic stress is problematic at this stage and not recommended. “Trauma” or “traumatized” are often used in everyday language to describe strong emotions such as feelings of injustice and helplessness. However, these feelings are not, in themselves, pathological in any clinical sense. They are reactions to this crisis; pathologies may develop later. Or not. As the Dart Center writes, “Ukraine is not yet in a post-disaster, post-trauma situation. … It is only when the active phase of the war is over that clinicians will be able to identify who needs specialist treatment for longer-term impacts of the war.” Once Ukraine moves beyond the immediate survival mode, many journalists can return to baseline. Mariia agrees: “I cannot open this door just yet. I cannot process the trauma while still being traumatized. I can get to that later when I am safe and everything is fine.”
Nevertheless, professional psychological assistance in dealing with pressure, exhaustion, and injuries from working in a dangerous environment is still priceless and – as Natalia and Andrii agree – helps.
Regardless of the growing emotional exhaustion, very few fixers and producers think about leaving the profession. They go on – with little rest. “It is a mission to be a fixer, a very noble task,” explains Oleksii, who himself left but understands those staying in business. Someone has to do it – and the more sensitive to the local sources this person is, the better. “I trust myself to be the right kind of person in that kind of situation because I’m thinking not only about the story but also the people we are interviewing,” explains Sasha. Andrii thinks that the work gets the victory closer and closer. As the mantra common among Ukrainian media professionals goes: “We will deal with it after the victory.”
The author warmly thanks her collaborator Peter van Goethem and all the brave interviewees who kindly agreed to become characters of this story: Andrii, Kateryna, Mariia, Natalia, Oleksii, Sasha, Serhiy, and Yuriy. The author also thanks other media professionals who talked to her and Peter for the story.
Disclaimer: The story is linked to the Fixers & Stringers project only by its topic and author; the research activities, data, and funding are separate and independent of each other.
This article – originally published by MO* – was developed with the support of the Pascal Decroos Fund for Investigative Journalism.