Politico joins Ukrainian media network to be in touch with local journalists

Why is it important for the media to keep reporting about displaced persons? How can journalists build a rapport with interviewees and also ensure their safety and the safety of their relatives still living in occupied territories?

Olena Sadovnik, coordinator of the EU-funded “Regional Voices” project shares journalistic best practices for working with internally-displaced persons (IDPs). Since 2015, her project has been training journalists on how best to highlight the stories of IDPs.


How did this idea originate?

Early in the conflict, journalists published lots of stories about displaced persons leaving the occupied territories and annexed Crimea. Over time, however, this topic became less popular in the media; there was no mass displacements. It seemed that no one was interested in the fates of these people.

We believe it is important to continue writing stories about IDPs; this is the purpose of our project.

There are 1.6 million stories to tell, and the story of an IDP doesn’t end when he or she moves from point A to point B. People change and develop. In the context of our project, we have seen cases of IDPs launching startups and uniting communities after moving to a new place. Such stories inspire others not to give up. They defy the stereotype that IDPs do nothing but receive humanitarian aid.

In fact, IDPs are big source of economic development. For example, participants in our training reported on displaced doctors who helped improve medical services in small towns. Another IDP interviewed is a marketing specialist from Donetsk who is developing eco-tourism in the Kharkiv region.

On the other hand, awareness of this topic limited abroad. We have tried to change this by helping Hromadske shoot two documentaries aimed at foreign audiences.

We have focused promotion efforts mostly on European countries, but the Ukrainian community in South Africa was also very interested in the films. The community asked permission to screen the documentaries and invited a folk band featured in one of the films to visit Cape Town. The “Dyvyna” band originates in Donbas and performs Ukrainian folk songs. When the musicians lived in Donetsk, they travelled to Donbas villages to collect folklore. Their story is told in the documentary entitled, “At home.” In this film, we tried to dispel the notion that Donbas is something foreign to Ukraine, that it is Russian. We showed that very ancient Ukrainian traditions still exist in Donbas.

I remember when I worked in Severodonetsk (in the Donbas region), I went to the local market to buy food and noticed that the majority of the people there were speaking the Ukrainian language. That was a surprise for me.

What are Ukrainian journalists missing when covering IDPs?

First of all, they lack experience. This topic is rather new to us. When displaced persons first became an issue, no one knew how to write about it. Over the last year and a half, we have been offering journalism training sessions;  we have learned a lot ourselves through this process.

For instance, journalists interviewing  displaced persons need to devote more time to the interview process. People who have suffered a traumatic experience are often hesitant to talk, and they  may speak more slowly than others. It is important for journalists to take such factors into account.

We invited our most active participants to create their own tips based on what they learned through our training. We consolidated these tips into 20 recommendations for journalists on how to report on IDPs. Of course, the recommendations are not exhaustive, but they were created based on 18 months of training.

What do these recommendations address?

First, we provide tips to avoid perpetuating stigma. It is important that journalists not isolate IDPs as a separate group. They are citizens of Ukraine who have found themselves in very difficult circumstances.

Our subconscious can easily create stereotypes about people when we consider them to be in a group separate from us. This is especially true with respect to social and economic problems. For example, IDPs are often accused of increasing property values. Such statements are not supported by evidence. We investigated the rising housing costs in Lviv and interviewed real estate experts. It turned out that the rising prices were caused by overall market conditions, growth in demand, and the devaluation of the hryvnia. But IDPs were the first to be blamed.

A second piece of advice is to always try to present the situation with enough context. When a journalist writes about an event, he or she must be aware of, and communicate, whether it is an isolated case or a larger problem for the local community.

Also, there were cases where we conducted in-depth interviews only to have participants later ask us not to publish them. It is important for the media to show understanding to IDPs. Displaced persons usually have relatives who still live in conflict areas. Journalists should remember that the safety of these people is the priority.

IDPs often want to tell their stories, but they worry about their safety or that of their relatives. In the case of print or online media, journalists can offer anonymity.

For video reporting, some journalists may think it’s enough to blur or obscure the face of the interviewee during the editing process. In reality, this is not a good idea. The original video could get into the hands of the wrong people. There is always a possibility the person could be identified. We teach journalists how to film creatively to make videos both interesting for viewers and safe for the interviewee. In the Poltava region, we filmed a story about a displaced person who worked at plant. The cameraman filmed only the man’s hands. You could also film the person from behind. This may all seem obvious, but not all journalists would think to do this.

How can journalists build trust with the displaced person during the interview?

Our specialists recommend starting an interview with informal questions about sports or favourite foods for example. This demonstrates that you are interested in the person and not only what you can get from him or her. It helps make the conversation less stressful for the interviewee.

Do you consider the experiences of other countries during your trainings?

Our trainers from the Thomson Foundation have been working as journalists since the Balkan conflict.

They teach participants to make humans the focus of their stories. First, journalists should introduce an individual story and then broaden the focus to context and things like statistics. This approach makes stories more interesting to read than if they just provided statistics and comments from a public servant for example.

David Hends, a Thompson Foundation trainer from Cyprus, suggests that the topic of IDPs will remain relevant in the long term. The conflict in Cyprus happened more than 40 years ago, and the media in the country still write about IDPs (mostly about trials on property restitution or compensation for property).

Unfortunately, the Ukrainian media also need to prepare for this to be a topic for years to come.

Is the EU aware of the humanitarian problem of IDPs in Ukraine?

Not all European media organisations can afford to maintain an office in Ukraine. Because of this, many have relatively limited information about Ukrainian IDPs. We want to develop stronger relationships between European and local journalists to facilitate quick contact.

Our idea was supported by Politico, one of the most popular Belgium media outlets. Politico, together with other European newspapers, registered in our online network of Regional Voices.

Regional Voices is a mapping of local correspondents and foreign editorial offices. When something happens, European media can quickly contact local journalists. We check all the registered participants in the network, and filter fake accounts.

All our video materials are free online and of high quality. Any journalist can download and use them free of charge. Some of them have already been picked up by the “Polilog” talk show on Channel 5. This is an example of how regional content can reach the national level.

When we first started this project, the opposite was happening: local journalists reprinted material from the national media, ignoring the local stories. There is an unlimited number of IDP stories out there – one needs only to look for them.

Your project has been extended. What are your plans for the future?

Over the past year and a half, we noticed that social topics, including IDPs, are often pushed aside by the media. Everyone wants to get news out fast and get more people to click on their stories. Social stories require more resources. More effort goes into making a quality article: the journalist must write an interesting story and add engaging pictures. Editorial offices usually lack the time and journalists for this. Media outlets are often preoccupied with simply surviving.

So, over the next six months we will be providing business advice to local media organisations on how to become more profitable.

We have already selected eight regional media outlets to participate in the pilot training programme in media management. International and Ukrainian trainers will help these local organisations develop business strategies. We will also provide grants for audience research. Our editorial forums reveal that media often work randomly, without accurate data on their audience.

During our previous training sessions, participants commented that foreign trainers with modern equipment don’t account for the realities of the working conditions at Ukrainian media outlets. In response to that, our foreign trainers will now visit local editorial offices and advise them on how to optimise workflows, effectively work online, and use social networks.


Regional Voices: Strengthening Conflict Sensitive Coverage in Ukraine’s Regional Media is an EU-funded initiative implemented by a media consortium comprised of five organisations: Thomson Foundation, Institute of Regional Media and Information (IRMI), MEMO 98, Association Spilnyi Prostir (ASP) and The European Journalism Centre, in close cooperation with local partners, including the National Union of Journalists.

Published in cooperation with Platfor.ma