Reporting From the War Zone: Why Conflict Journalism Matters
Nolan Peterson /
KYIV, Ukraine—In June of 2015, I spent eight days embedded with the Ukrainian army in the front-line town of Pisky in eastern Ukraine.
I’ve been back and forth to the front lines in eastern Ukraine many times in the more than two years I’ve covered this conflict, but those eight days in Pisky stand out from the rest.
It was an active time, with near constant artillery and mortar fire. The supersonic snap of bullets overhead was common, as was the background din of machine guns and small arms. A tank even shot at me.
It was terrifying. As a former U.S. special operations pilot, I had never witnessed that level of combat intensity in Iraq or Afghanistan. Even when I embedded with the Kurdish peshmerga outside of Mosul in Iraq in May, I didn’t see such heavy fighting.
In Pisky, one thought kept racing through my mind: “Why does this war feel like a secret?”
Just last week, I returned from yet another trip to the war zone. I visited Ukrainian troops in their foxholes and crude underground shelters in the woods along the front lines outside the town of Novomykhailivka.
It was an instance of life imitating art, which imitates life. As I humped through the snowy woods, the battle-worn Ukrainian troops enduring the brutal cold and constant danger reminded me of images from the “Band of Brothers” episode about the Battle of Bastogne in World War II.
I also found a familiar question revolving through my mind: “Why does this still feel like a secret?”
A Way Back
I was living in Washington in February 2015 when one of the deadliest battles of the war in Ukraine happened.
I had just returned, a couple months prior, from covering the war as a freelancer. I was a bit adrift at that time, spinning my wheels trying to figure out how to get this new career as a war correspondent going.
I sent emails to news sites across the world, pitching myself as a foreign correspondent to go back to Ukraine and cover the war. But no one bit. To paraphrase the disheartening answer I kept receiving: “Thanks, but no one cares about Ukraine.”
It was a dejecting moment, which spurred me to question the wisdom of this new career choice.
While most news outlets have cut back on their foreign coverage, The Daily Signal has remained committed to covering the war in Ukraine.
That February, as I sat in my apartment about to meet with some friends for a beer, I received an email from my friend Valentyn Onyshchenko.
He wrote that he was trapped in a basement in the eastern Ukrainian town of Debaltseve, which was at that moment under a heavy artillery bombardment by combined Russian-separatist forces. He thought he was going to die, and he wrote me to say goodbye.
I felt like my head was spinning. I heard the sound of people outside my apartment on the sidewalk, laughing, talking, totally oblivious to the life and death drama my friend was enduring.
I knew then, without a doubt, that I had to find a way back to Ukraine.
(Valentyn survived the Debaltseve battle.)
That opportunity finally came when The Daily Signal made the bold decision—especially for a start-up, nonprofit news site—to hire me to return to Ukraine to cover the war.
I know that I couldn’t do what I’m doing now at most any other news outlet. I’m currently among the few remaining foreign journalists permanently based in Ukraine to cover the war.
The continued support of The Heritage Foundation, and The Daily Signal staff, as well as the financial support from people like you, allows me to remain here in Ukraine to shed light on a war that, tragically, still feels like a secret.
This is a tough war for journalists to cover. Reality is sometimes distorted by the propaganda war that parallels the bombs and the bullets.
It’s hard to see enough with your own eyes for any one journalist to definitively tell this story, or claim to have a monopoly on the truth.
The role of a conflict journalist is comparable to the old parable of the blind men and the elephant.
Each journalist is, in effect, one blind man with a hand on the beast. We have only an incomplete, soda-straw view of reality. Only collectively can we hope to amass enough impressions to paint a truthful picture of what we observe as individuals.
Therefore, the more journalists who can go out to the front lines firsthand, unhindered, and with as few restrictions as practical, then the more truthfully we can tell the world what’s happening here in Ukraine.
After all, the first draft of history should be written by ethically minded journalists in pursuit of the truth, not by Kremlin propagandists or internet trolls.
Yet, the Western mainstream media, however one might define that institution, has not invested its resources into faithfully covering the war in Ukraine.
Newsrooms worldwide are cash-strapped as they try to evolve the journalism business model to the digital age. They have consequently scaled back quite dramatically on their benches of foreign correspondents and war correspondents.
In 2011, the American Journalism Review analyzed the foreign coverage among a sample of American daily newspapers, comprising the four Census-designated regions of the country.
The report found that, among the sample newspapers, foreign affairs coverage had fallen by 53 percent over the past 25 years.
According to a separate 2011 American Journalism Review report on foreign affairs stories in U.S. media: “In the face of heightened globalization and with the U.S. engaged in two wars, many mainstream news organizations have turned their backs on foreign news. Newspapers and television networks alike provide much less of it. Many outlets have shuttered overseas bureaus.”
And the decline in foreign affairs coverage is not a uniquely American phenomenon.
A 2010 report by the Media Standards Trust found that international coverage among a sample of British newspapers had fallen by 40 percent from 1979 to 2009.
Consequently, the job of reporting on foreign wars now often falls to young, enterprising freelancers, who repeatedly risk their lives for meager wages, at best.
Yes, I concede that stories from the front lines in Ukraine, or Iraq, or Syria don’t generate the same number of page views as stories about the latest domestic political scandal. In the pursuit of advertising profits, investing in foreign affairs stories is undoubtedly a bad business model.
But that doesn’t mean that people don’t care, or that these stories about war are unimportant.
Perhaps this is an overly idealistic perception to hold about my career as a journalist—but don’t we, as journalists, have a duty to our readers? Shouldn’t our work be about more than page views, Facebook clicks, and retweets?
Shouldn’t substance matter, too?
As citizens in a democracy that wields an all-volunteer military force—the power of which is unequaled in human history—we are all in some way responsible for how our nation wields its military and diplomatic might.
And so we should all be informed about the world in which we live, and its dangers. That’s a duty we all share.
And one final point, going back to what inspires me as a war correspondent.
I was on the eve of a trip to eastern Ukraine in 2014 when I heard the news of the American journalist James Foley’s murder by ISIS militants.
Foley and I are both graduates of the master’s program at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. We both entered the journalism profession in our 30s—I was an Air Force pilot prior to becoming a journalist, he was a teacher.
I had the opportunity to briefly meet Foley when he came back to Medill to speak about his experience as a prisoner in the Libyan civil war. His passion for war reporting was contagious, and his matter-of-fact attitude toward the dangers he faced inspired me. That brief encounter changed the course of my life.
Foley graduated a couple years ahead of me, but we had the same teachers, many of whom reached out to me after he died, reminding me to be careful.
“Like you, he used to send me his stories from the front,” one of my Medill professors wrote to me. “Like you, he had one f— of a lot of guts! He was an outstanding guy, and his murder has just ripped me apart.”
When I first decided to enter this profession, I got some flack from friends and family. Many were particularly confused since I had just left a career in the military. “Hadn’t I had enough of war?” they would ask. Or, “Nolan, why would you risk your life for someone else’s war? People in America don’t care.”
My brother also served in the military, and my parents were understandably exhausted by the attendant fears of having sons in combat.
“I’m tired of sending my sons to war,” my dad told me as he hugged me goodbye at the Tampa International Airport on the morning I left for my first trip to Ukraine.
When judged soberly, no one war story is ever truly worth the risks. One article very rarely has the singular ability to alter history.
Yet, while I realistically understand the limited real-world, macro impact of my stories, I have also seen firsthand how my work affects individual people.
I remember visiting 87-year-old Nina Konstantinovna in Sartana, Ukraine. Her home had been destroyed in the night by a combined Russian-separatist artillery strike.
She survived World War II and had lived for more than six decades under communist rule. Having an American journalist show up on her doorstep the day after she lost her home to an artillery shell was, in a word, unexpected.
“I didn’t know America cared about Ukraine,” she told me.
Based on the heartfelt emails I receive from Daily Signal readers about my articles on Ukraine, Tibet, and Iraq, I know that many people back home do care about these far-off battles, and the soldiers and civilians swept up in them.
A parting thought.
The day after I learned about James Foley’s murder, as I prepared for another trip to the front lines in Ukraine, I wrote this:
War is murder. War is survival.
War is suffering. War is funny.
War is chaos and noise. War is boring.
War is fear. War is release.
War is hate. War is love.
War is all these things, because, above all, war is human.
And unless brave men and women like James Foley venture into war to tell us the truth about what is happening there, both the ugly and the beautiful parts of it, then the people who suffer and fight in wars will have no voice.
People like James are the only obstacle to war becoming the worst thing that it can be—forgotten.
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