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War correspondent Nastya Stanko shares insights on reporting from Ukraine’s frontlines

Journalism, 10th grade, war correspondent, conflict in Ukraine, pro-Russian separatists, kidnapping, frontline, war reporting, emotional toll, editor-in-chief, investigative project, family balance, witnessing, policemen heroism, Russian journalists, disinformation, Ukrainian perspective, empathy, objectivity, sources, sensationalism, importance of journalism, history documentation, accountability.
Nastya Stanko in Ukraine, July 2023

Nastya Stanko, an experienced Ukrainian war reporter, discusses her journey into journalism, the challenges of reporting from conflict zones, and the balance between empathy and objectivity.

Iain Overton: Did you always know you wanted to be a journalist?

Nastya Stanko: I’d say the idea came to me around 10th grade, when I was about 15 years old. The idea struck me that being a journalist was quite cool because it allowed me to be in places where not many people could go and show what was happening.

Iain Overton: Would you consider yourself a war correspondent?

Nastya Stanko: It’s a complex question. In 2014, when I first covered the early stages of the war, I didn’t really embrace the title of “war correspondent.” I believed that covering the conflict in my own country was significant enough and didn’t feel the need to go to places like Syria. But now, I’m more comfortable with the term.

Iain Overton: What prompted this change?

Nastya Stanko: The conflict itself has grown so vast and all-encompassing. Sometimes, I feel like I’ve seen everything within this war. It’s become ubiquitous, and I believe it’s acceptable to refer to myself as a war correspondent.

Iain Overton: Have you reported on conflicts outside of Ukraine, or have you mostly focused on the war in Ukraine?

Nastya Stanko: I’ve covered some protests and conflicts in other regions like Armenia and Georgia, but they were smaller in scale compared to the war in Ukraine.

Iain Overton: Many people regard you as an incredibly experienced war reporter, having witnessed and endured so much. You’ve been held at gunpoint, in the frontline, and even kidnapped by pro-Russian separatists in 2014. Can you tell us more about those experiences?

Nastya Stanko: Yes, indeed. In 2014, I was kidnapped by pro-Russian separatists and held in a basement for three days. Additionally, in 2015, I was held for four hours by Russians near the Russian-Ukrainian border. These incidents, along with being on the frontline and various dangerous situations, have shaped my understanding of war reporting.

Iain Overton: War reporting surely presents unique challenges. Given your extensive experience, what do you consider to be the most profound challenges that war presents to correspondents?

Nastya Stanko: War forces us to constantly question our purpose, choices, and actions. We need to contemplate why we cover specific stories and individuals, and how we manage the narratives we create. The life and death aspects of war are a constant weight. While the environment can be hazardous, it’s relatively easier to establish connections with people during wartime, as everyone is aware of the urgency.

Iain Overton: I understand what you mean. War certainly brings intense and clear situations. However, considering the war in Ukraine, the lines between good and evil seem clearer than in some other conflicts. How do you navigate the challenge of understanding both sides of the conflict and maintaining balanced reporting?

Nastya Stanko: Early on, I aimed to show both sides of the conflict. I wanted to provide a comprehensive view by crossing the frontline to capture events from all angles. But this mindset changed after my kidnapping experience. It became clear that it wasn’t always feasible to achieve balanced reporting, and sometimes it was dangerous to even try.

Iain Overton: How do you manage this deep emotional connection to the conflict, especially when it comes to reporting on events involving your own country and people you know?

Nastya Stanko: It’s a constant challenge. I’ve lost friends and loved ones in this conflict, and sometimes I feel alone as their absence becomes more pronounced. The emotional toll is significant. Despite that, the urge to be on the frontline and capture stories persists, as it’s something I know how to do and it feels essential. I recently became the editor-in-chief of an investigative project, yet I still feel the pull to return to the frontline.

Iain Overton: Balancing family and frontline reporting must be demanding. Can you tell me more about how you manage to juggle these responsibilities?

Nastya Stanko: It’s a constant balancing act. I’ve spent about half a month on the frontline and half a month with my two-and-a-half-year-old son over the past couple of years. It’s not easy, but the need to cover these stories and make them known keeps me going. You know, when your son starts speaking and says things like “Mama Mama” or tries to communicate where he wants to go, it’s quite special. Because he doesn’t talk much, I feel like being a mother takes you in its grip. It’s like you’re packing your bags and leaving, especially during the evenings in winter. Sometimes you question why you’re doing this. It’s not about money or anything like that. It’s a feeling that you should do it, even though you have doubts about its value. You doubt your relationship with your child and even your husband. Despite the doubts, there’s an inner need to bear witness. Witnessing becomes the clearest reason for wanting to be involved and cover stories. Witnessing events, even the powerful and significant ones, is what drives me.

For instance, we did a report on a group of policemen, focusing on one of them. There was a situation in a town named Indam, on an bus. They decided to rescue a wounded guy on the frontline in a village. Nobody else was willing to help him. He was wounded for five days and stuck in his house, which was in a dangerous area. This group of policemen decided to risk their lives and rescue him. The operation was a success, and the doctor told us that if they hadn’t come that day, the guy would’ve died. It’s amazing to see ordinary people become heroes in our eyes. This kind of experience is emotional, and it reminds me of why I want to be a witness.

Iain Overton:  Sometimes ordinary people can become extraordinary heroes.

Nastya Stanko: Yes, exactly. The standard accusation against Russian journalists is that they’re part of a disinformation campaign. Not all of them, but many Russian journalists are often accused of this. There are some dissident Russian journalists who are outside the country, but the general perception is that many Russian journalists are involved in spreading misinformation. Even though not all of them are propagandists, most of them did not predict the war and did nothing to prevent it. They often spread misinformation, like claiming that there will be war, but it won’t happen. This situation calls into question their credibility and their roles as journalists. I think Ukrainian journalists may be better equipped to cover the Ukrainian-Russian conflict due to their understanding of the context. Foreign journalists sometimes lack a deeper understanding, and some may even create stories that don’t accurately represent the reality here. Of course, there are exceptions, and there are foreign journalists who do excellent work. However, some of them may come with preconceived notions or focus on sensationalism. In contrast, Ukrainian journalists often have a more nuanced view and a deeper connection to the stories they cover.

Iain Overton: Absolutely, I agree. There’s often a cultural gap and a lack of understanding that can influence reporting.

Nastya Stanko: Yes, that’s true. Ukrainian journalists have a unique perspective that comes from living in the country and experiencing the situation first-hand. We have connections to people and places that foreign journalists might not fully grasp.

Iain Overton: It’s important to have that local perspective for accurate reporting. Do you believe that empathy can coexist with objectivity in journalism?

Nastya Stanko: I believe they can coexist. Journalists are also human beings who feel emotions. Empathy doesn’t necessarily mean bias; it means understanding and connecting with people’s stories. We can be empathetic while still maintaining our objectivity. Reporting on war and conflict requires a balance between understanding the human aspect and presenting accurate information.

Iain Overton: Absolutely, empathy can enhance the quality of reporting without compromising objectivity. Now, as a war correspondent, how do you navigate the challenges of reporting in a chaotic and disinformation-filled environment?

Nastya Stanko: I rely on various sources and networks. I’m Ukrainian, and I have connections to people on the frontlines, as well as those in government offices. I gather information from multiple perspectives and cross-reference data to piece together the truth. I also try to witness events first-hand whenever possible. This combination of sources, data, experience, and rational thinking helps me navigate the complexities and challenges of reporting in a war zone.

Iain Overton: That’s a comprehensive approach to ensure accuracy in your reporting. Do you think that war reporting can sometimes turn into entertainment for the audience, given the focus on action and conflict?

Nastya Stanko: Yes, I think there’s a danger of war reporting becoming sensationalized. Audiences often crave action and excitement, and sometimes the realities of conflict can be reduced to entertainment. It’s a fine line that journalists must walk—balancing the need to inform the public while not glorifying or oversimplifying the complex and often tragic situations.

Iain Overton:  Has your perception of the importance of journalism changed throughout these years of reporting on the conflict?

Nastya Stanko: To be honest, I sometimes question the impact of journalism in the face of such extreme circumstances like war. While journalism can provide information and shed light on important issues, there are moments when I feel it may not be enough to bring about substantial change. However, I also recognize that journalism plays a crucial role in documenting history and holding those in power accountable. It’s a complex and evolving perspective that continues to shape my work.

Iain Overton: Thank you, Nastya, for sharing your insights and experiences.

The travel for this article was generously funded by a Justice for Journalists Foundation Grant. All editorial control remained with AOAV.