Journo Resources Fellow

March 6, 2023 (Updated )

For Ukrainian journalist Olga Tokariuk, it’s been tough reporting on war, violence, and devastation within her home country — but she also considers the work to be her moral imperative.

Although she has fled her hometown of Kyiv, Tokariuk remained within the borders of Ukraine, telling Journo Resources: “I had to stay. I had to report on what was happening.”

Reporting on human cruelty can be difficult at the best of times, but it’s especially tough to report on violence and suffering that strikes at the heart of your own community. As a freelance journalist, Tokariuk’s reports have been published and aired by various Ukrainian, British, Spanish, Italian, and American outlets — including TIMEThe Washington Post, and NPR.

For the majority of her career, Tokariuk focused primarily on international news, but she switched her focus to Ukraine in 2020. Since then, she has reported closely on Russia’s growing aggression towards her homeland, which culminated in a full-scale invasion.

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Journo Resources

Olga Tokariuk (L, Credit: Stanislava Harkotova) and Professor Anthony Feinstein (R)

Shortly before Russia attacked Ukraine on February 24, 2022, Tokariuk fled Kyiv, taking her husband, her six-year-old daughter, and her cat to stay with family in the city of Chernivtsi in Western Ukraine.

“It was a difficult decision to make. Should I leave Kyiv with my daughter? Or should I — as a journalist — stay and report from Kyiv?”

The Realities Of Reporting On War

She clearly remembers the moment she discovered that the full-scale war had begun; she had woken up early and read the block-capital headlines. “The first thing I told myself was: Okay. Now get to work.”

Tokariuk threw herself into writing, tweeting, and giving interviews to global media outlets, between sheltering in a basement. She says: “I tried to accept every single media request that I received, because I saw it as my duty to raise awareness of what was happening.”

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“I tried to accept every single media request that I received, because I saw it as my duty to raise awareness of what was happening.”
Olga Tokariuk, Journalist

In wartime, the main motivations behind Tokariuk’s reporting remained unchanged — telling the stories of people who would otherwise go unheard — but her strategy shifted. As global attention started fading, she used her work to pull eyes back to the human rights abuses happening within Ukraine.

The Mental Toll Of Tragedy In Journalism

Although it can be emotionally challenging, it’s crucial to hear from journalists with personal experience, said Tokariuk. She thinks that international journalists, policy-makers, and analysts made a lot of false assumptions in the run-up to Russia’s invasion — including speculation that Ukraine would fall quickly to Russia. “Journalists inside Ukraine knew that wouldn’t happen,” she says.

This need for truth is partly why Tokariuk feels such a sense of duty, even when it’s difficult to keep going. For her, the most emotional time was during the first week of the invasion. “It’s still inside me, but I try to separate that from my reporting […] It’s hard, but I’ve been a journalist for a long time so I’ve had practice.”

Looking After Yourself When Reporting On Traumatic Subjects

Acknowledge Your Feelings: We often try to suppress difficult emotions or symptoms of deteriorating mental health, but this can often make a crisis worse. Keeping a mental health diary might be useful, so you can check back on how your own situation fluctuates. This can make it easier to spot when it’s time to seek professional help.

Don’t Stay Silent: Speaking about your emotions is crucial to processing them. Communication can also help you identify a crisis point, and flag that you need help.

Find People Who Understand: Whether it’s colleagues, friends, family members, or even total strangers, find a support group that knows what you’re feeling and experiencing. It can sometimes take hearing someone else articulate their emotions to be able to process and understand your own.

Get Some Rest: Taking a break is always an important step for recovery — both on an emotional and physical level. If you can, take some time away from witnessing, discussing, and reporting — even if just for a short while.

Some of Tokariuk’s toughest moments include interviewing people who’ve lost family members. “Sometimes, I caught myself almost on the verge of crying because the stories were so heartbreaking,” she recalls.

“You have to try to keep a certain distance [from the story],” she advises — both for professionalism and for your own emotional well-being.

Amid everything, Tokariuk has tried to prioritise her mental health. She has been juggling “staying engaged with the news” and “taking long walks in nature” — something must be working because she says she doesn’t have burnout “yet”. “People have told me to take a break, but I can’t relax,” she adds.

She credits this primarily to a reliable support network of family, friends, and trusted colleagues, with whom she’s been able to share her most complex and intimate feelings.

Tackling Trauma In Journalists

Dr Frank Ochberg is a psychiatrist and a pioneer of trauma science. He co-founded the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma — a resource centre for journalists who cover violence, conflict, and tragedy worldwide — and the Trust for Trauma Journalism, which “supports journalists as first responders.”

For any reporter covering conflict, there’s a particular risk of developing a “moral injury”, says Ochberg. This refers to a powerful cognitive and emotional response that can occur after someone is exposed to events that violate their moral or ethical code. Tokariuk muses: “I think all Ukrainian journalists suffer from some kind of moral injury now.”

According to Ochberg, until recently, many journalists haven’t “paid explicit attention to the way they are physically, emotionally, and morally wounded.” This means they have often missed out on essential psychological support and haven’t been able to articulate their experiences, which can cause their mental health to seriously deteriorate.

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“I think we’ll need a lot of support from our colleagues abroad, and from researchers and professionals.”
Olga Tokariuk, Ukrainian journalist

Professor Anthony Feinstein, a psychiatry researcher at the University of Toronto, tells a similar story. According to Feinstein, journalists face numerous psychological risks when reporting on conflict — including PTSD, depression, anxiety disorders, and substance abuse. These conditions may affect just a small minority of journalists, but to those affected, they can have devastating and long-lasting effects.

For reporters covering tragedies that affect their own communities, the trauma can be “unrelenting”, says Feinstein. In such cases, “the potential for psychological injury goes up considerably.” It can be particularly tough for freelancers since, as Feinstein highlights, they often lack “institutional support.”

He argues that newsrooms should do more to protect their journalists, both physically and mentally. “If news organisations wish to send reporters into harm’s way, they have a moral responsibility to help them should the need arise.”

How Newsrooms Can Support Journalists

Check-In With Reporters Regularly: The most important thing newsrooms can do to protect their journalists is to keep in regular communication. This means that concerns can be raised at an early stage, and relevant support measures can be swiftly implemented.

Everyone’s Reactions Will Be Different: There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to mental health. Newsrooms need to offer journalists the freedom and agency to outline their own needs.

Initiate Open Discussions: Leaders should set an example. It can be hard for individuals to open up about challenges — especially in front of their employers — so it’s important that managers take the first step and showcase an open and accepting culture.

Provide Specialist Support: In particularly tough circumstances, it’s often essential to call in experts. Trained therapists and counsellors can offer tailored support to reporters.

Feinstein does think there is a positive shift underway, with major media outlets beginning to openly address mental health issues, but there’s still “a long way to go.” Nobody should go it alone, so institutional support and community collaboration are essential, he says.

Tokariuk echoes Feinstein’s sentiment. She describes Ukrainian journalists as facing a “marathon,” and predicts that they will likely bear serious psychological consequences. “I think we’ll need a lot of support from our colleagues abroad, and from researchers and professionals.”

Header image courtesy of Anastasiia Krutota via Unsplash
Stephanie Stacey
Stephanie Stacey

Part of the Journo Resources fellowship class of 2022, Stephanie Stacey is currently a weekend business news fellow at Insider.

She holds a BA in Modern and Medieval Languages from the University of Cambridge, where she was the editor-in-chief of independent student newspaper Varsity. Stephanie was also a freelance writer for various publications, including The Art Newspaper, The Progress Network, Ms. Magazine, and Hyperallergic.