NPR Veterans Deliver A Tour De Force Of Narrative Journalism

It’s been almost three months now since Russia invaded Ukraine, and much of the latest news coverage has been depressingly predictable. It feels like every day, foreign correspondents share word of yet another Russian atrocity. Or, of outnumbered Ukrainian defenders still hanging on. Of a new show of defiance from President Zelenskyy. More countries, like the US, sending aid packages and weapons. More fighting, more dying.

Journalists tasked with reporting this story certainly want to keep readers and audiences back home invested and caring about what happens. But rather than wrap their arms around the bigness and the battles that are part of this bloody geopolitical conflict roiling Europe — as it hurts toward an uncertain endgame — a group of NPR veterans decided to focus on the small, and the personal.

Instead of covering the war the same way as most everyone else, the journalists launched a podcast in partnership with Spotify to tell first-person narratives of ordinary Ukrainians. Of Ukrainians like Galyna, who fled Mariupol with her dog and a camera. Of Max, who records fairy tales for children hiding from the war in bases. And of Svetlana, who barely survived an attack by a Russian anti-tank missile as she fled a village near Kyiv.

Ukraine Stories: One person at a time

Each episode of the podcast, with a few exceptions, is just shy of the 15-minute mark. The effort is a product of fearless mediaa new journalism collective that set itself the following roadmap as a guide:

As David Greene, former NPR host and Fearless Media co-founder told me, “We believe headlines don’t help us process the world. Stories from.” And so, each episode of the podcast begins with Greene telling listeners, within the first few moments, that this is a show about “Telling the story of the war in Ukraine, one person at a time.”

“One thing we were already exploring at Fearless is how to cover the ‘news’ in different ways – more narratively and more experientially Greene told me about Ukraine Storieswhich got a greenlight from Spotify in early March.

Fearless Media flew to Warsaw and was ready to begin its work a few weeks later. The team then started reporting from inside Ukraine on March 28.

‘An intimate connection’

“We all have news backgrounds and appreciate the enormous importance of covering events and moments as they unfold,” Greene continued in his chat with me. Then again, that didn’t necessarily lend itself to an easy or automatic answer to the question of, “What could we do to help people process this senseless war?

“Ukraine Stories,” Greene said, “was born out of trying to answer that question. If we focused on one person and one story each day, we hoped an intimate connection would form between listeners and the storyteller. There would be relatability and empathy. The context is unimaginable to those of us not living through a war. But the humanity and life questions a person is facing are, at their core, familiar.”

The simplicity of the idea here is also the strength behind this journalistic product. Each episode’s title is the first name of the Ukrainian telling their story. Ukrainians like Marco, Tatiana, Max, Sonia, and Nadia.

The story of Svetlana comes roughly halfway the season, and is perhaps the most emotionally devastating of them all. She sniffles and crias at moments throughout, apologizing, asking for time to compose herself — clearly nowhere close to having put the trauma of the war behind her. In fact, this Polish language teacher and yoga instructor catches herself at one point still referring to her normal life in the present tense. “I think that Kyiv is the best. It really has everything,” she tells Greene. “… I mean, it had everything.

“Something I miss the most is my regular life. Sitting and drinking some kind of cappuccino and working on my laptop. Just regular, you know, life. Of a regular person.”

She recounts how, after the war started, she left Kyiv and went to a village just outside to hide out with her family. But then Russian soldiers occupied that village, and after running out of food and electricity, her and her family decided to venture back into Kyiv. Because of the youngest passengers in their car, they made white posters that declared there were children inside.

Svetlana recounts in horrifying and granular detail what it was like to live through an attack at a checkpoint, when bullets started chewing up the ground around their car.

“I don’t know how it just popped up in my mind, where they say if something happens you just put your head in my knees. I remembered that, and started crying, ‘Head in your knees! Head in your knees!’ And, ‘Cover your head!’ It was just shooting all the time. Everything was, you know… the glass. I’d just been trying to pull myself to the seat in front and put my head lowest as I could. I also had my phone in my hand, and I just did this—” (She puts her phone on top of her head, to demonstrate).

She begins to cry softly.

“I’m sorry.”

She breaks.

“I thought that something huge is coming. And orange … and that was the moment I saw it. This is it. Now, I’m going to die.”

An antitank missile hit the back of her family’s car. Miraculously, she survived. Not everyone did. There was a ringing inside her head. She frantically got out of the car. “I hid behind the open door, like in the movies they do, you know? I started screaming, ‘We have kids! Stop shooting us! We have kids!’”

The first project from Fearless Media

There are other interviews like Svetlana’s which will stay with listeners long after the episode has finished playing. The Fearless Media team taped as many of the as they could in person — sitting with Ukrainians in refugee shelters, in refugee interviews, parks, coffee shops, and hotels. From Lviv to Kyiv, Poltava to Zaporizhia. Because some interviews came together last-minute, and others involved people on the move, some of them were taped remotely.

Lead producer Ashley Westerman, who alternates hosting duties with Greene, used her alternate production skills to make the remote audio interviews still sound as intimate as possible for the listener.

“I will certainly miss this place,” Westerman told me. “This project has had such an impact on me.”

She praised the show’s fixer and translator, Anton Loboda, as indispensable to the effort. Loboda also helped bring in several interview candidates. Fearless Media’s local colleagues, Westerman continued, “were also critical in helping convince people to speak with us. Someone who speaks a person’s own language and is of their own culture taking the helm in asking someone to talk about their recent traumatic experiences goes a very long way in helping potential interviewees feel safe enough to open up.

“I don’t think we could have landed the interviews we did without the help of our Ukrainian colleagues. Then, once the interviews started, David and I carried them through by leaning on years of experience interviewing people who are traumatized and people in crisis. So it truly was a team effort.”

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