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Journalism alumni report stories of suffering, perseverance from Russia-Ukraine war

Feb 20, 2023

The journalism program at Indiana University is more than 100 years old. And while media and the news industry have certainly changed since the Indiana Daily Student published its special edition after the attack on Pearl Harbor or IU alumnus Ernie Pyle filed his first column from the frontlines of World War II, IU is still preparing its alumni to tell the stories of the world’s most pressing issues, including in Ukraine.

Washington Post reporter uses lessons from IU, Ernie Pyle

For some time during Samantha Schmidt’s stint as a journalism student at Indiana University, she dreamed of being a war correspondent. She had spent her high school and college years gripped with the Syrian civil war and learned more about the region while studying Arabic at IU. Not to mention, the building she took most of her journalism courses in was emblazoned with the name of one of America’s most famous war correspondents: Ernie Pyle.

Four people in bulletproof vests stand on the side of a road in Ukraine. IU journalism alumna Samantha Schmidt, second from left, spent a month late last fall reporting on the Russia-Ukraine war for The Washington Post. Photo courtesy of Samantha Schmidt

But as she neared her graduation date in 2016, Schmidt realized that what she really loved was telling stories, and that pursuing this passion didn’t have to entail reporting from a war zone. She accepted a position with The Washington Post six months after graduating from IU and has been with the paper since. In 2021, she was appointed the Post’s Bogotá bureau chief in Colombia.

In covering Spanish-speaking South America, Schmidt often found herself reporting on unrest and conflict, but she had never had to dodge artillery or approach frontlines. That all changed late last fall when she was approached by editors who were looking for foreign correspondents to relieve colleagues reporting in Ukraine.

“The assignment was definitely a leap from what I’m used to,” Schmidt said. “I’ve reported in areas where I don’t speak the language, but I couldn’t even read the alphabet in Ukraine. But it is such an important story to tell. Several of my colleagues had done several stints there — something was drawing them back, and it was drawing me there, too.”

In the weeks leading up to her arrival in Ukraine, Schmidt furiously read as much as she could about the ins and outs of the Ukrainian military, the progression of the war and the different strategies each military had been using. She put pressure on herself to arrive with endless ideas about how to cover the conflict with a fresh perspective, but her colleagues advised her to just trust her instincts and follow the stories on the ground.

Following the story is what led Schmidt to an acting deputy mayor who was leading her tiny town on the front lines from an underground bunker with her dog named Bullet. It led her to a father waiting outside the ICU in Kherson who still had his 13-year-old son’s blood on his face after being hit by a cluster bomb hours earlier. It led her to the funeral of a 2-day-old baby who died after a maternity ward was hit by Russian fire.

While witnessing these atrocities was difficult for Schmidt, she said reporting them has made her a better journalist. Her time in Ukraine has taught her how to work with a large team that included a photographer, a fixer and a security advisor. It improved her ability to assess the “atmospherics” of a place and understand risk versus reward when reporting from dangerous places. And it helped her understand how to tell the story of people who are suffering. A woman in a vest labeled press holds a kitten. Samantha Schmidt holds a local kitten while reporting in the Zaporizhzhia region of Ukraine. Photo courtesy of Samantha Schmidt

“Reporting from a war zone really teaches you to respect the trauma of those being impacted and not ask too much of them,” Schmidt said. “Sometimes we would get a bare-minimum interview, but it would be enough. So it’s important to know when to step away.”

Many of the skills she used in Ukraine were ones she learned in journalism school at IU, Schmidt said. Her Words and Pictures course that brought reporting students together with photojournalism students and graphic designers to produce multimedia packages taught her how valuable photographers are to storytelling. Lessons from her professors about what makes a good story and how to make a faraway story feel important to readers stuck with her throughout her time in Ukraine, too.

“After my story about the deputy mayor was published, I texted my professor Tom French and told him that I followed one of his favorite rules of reporting: Always get the name of the dog,” Schmidt said. “The fact that the dog in a bunker on the frontlines is named Bullet is exactly the kind of little detail that helps a reader connect with a story.”

Schmidt’s time in Ukraine also helped her understand Ernie Pyle’s philosophy on being a war correspondent: that the most important stories are about the people impacted and not about military strategy.

“At the end of the day, being a war correspondent is just being a journalist,” she said. “The instincts that I learned about telling a good story and focusing on characters from Tom and Kelley French, Jim Kelly and Joe Coleman were the same instincts I carried with me to Ukraine.”

Ukrainian alumna stresses global impact of war

IU journalism alumna Olesia Markovic has been telling the Ukrainian story of the war since the day it began.

In the hours after the invasion of Ukraine nearly one year ago, Markovic wrote a first-hand account of her family’s experience in Kyiv for CNN.

“Kyiv’s schools already switched to online teaching (not that there was much mood for classes today), and so my son got an unexpected day off,” she wrote. “He doesn’t know what caused it and doesn’t seem concerned — after all, random school closures became the norm during lockdown. He took a choco-spread sandwich and went to the living room to watch Ironman (his favorite superhero) while we remained glued to our phones and updates of war.” A woman speaks to a class via zoom on a television screen. Olesia Markovic joined a Media School class via Zoom to talk about what she and her family experienced in the first hours of Russia's invasion. Photo courtesy of The Media School

Markovic also joined professor Mike Conway’s Broadcast Media Analysis class via Zoom to talk about what she and her family experienced in the first hours of Russia’s invasion. She told them that she felt as if the Ukrainian government failed to communicate the threat to the civilian population properly, even as it was being reported by Western media.

Markovic has been working remotely from Croatia, where her husband is from and where her son is staying permanently, since shortly after the war began. Her work as a freelance storyteller and consultant for international organizations and academia requires her to return to Ukraine on occasion. Most recently, Markovic finished work on two documentaries for a television series with Norma Percy, which are now being broadcast on the BBC and other channels in Europe and United States.

The fact that Markovic and her husband are able to continue to work and earn an income is not a fortune afforded to all displaced Ukrainians. But she said they miss their social life in Ukraine, their frequent travels, the schools, sports and support systems that were in place to help raise their son.

“It’s hard to be physically in one place while our minds are in a different place — in Ukraine,” she said.

Even through her hardships, Markovic said she continues her reporting because it is important for the story of Ukraine to be told by Ukrainians. She said the story and history of Ukraine has often been shaped by others, and she wants to use her platform to deliver a true narrative about the Ukrainian experience.

That being said, she is grateful for the attention the Western and global media has given to the war, and hopes that it continues. She said this type of coverage reminds people that the war is not a local conflict; it affects the entire world.

“What’s happening in Ukraine now is not just a colonial war in which Russia is driven by its phantom pains for the Soviet Union and restoration of the Soviet empire,” she said. “It’s a war of values — democracy versus tyranny. And it’s pretty important to define on which side of history you are.”

Author

IU Newsroom

Marah Yankey

Deputy director for storytelling

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