Ukraine’s Public Interest Journalism Lab Rethinks Reporting During War

Public Interest Journalism Lab finds new ways to tell difficult stories. (Photo courtesy of Public Interest Journalism Lab.)

Since Russia launched a full-scale war in Ukraine, the world has watched a constant stream of footage from the battlefield in real time. Soldiers and ordinary citizens turn into war correspondents posting photos and videos on social media, while local and international press are reporting on-the-ground. Responding to an unprecedented amount of available information at this critical time, Public Interest Journalism Lab—partner of the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) and 2022 NED Democracy Award honoree—distills complex issues facing Ukrainian society with a new kind of storytelling.

“The compassion fatigue already led to the way that people just don’t want to consume sad things—it’s too much, it’s too hard,” said Nataliya Gumenyuk, journalist and co-founder of Public Interest Journalism Lab (PIJL), a unique coalition of journalists and sociologists that rethinks journalism as a public service. “That’s what we felt with the Donbas war already. And the whole idea of the PIJL is really to reinvent new, modern, appealing ways of dealing with the difficult stories.” [Watch the 2022 NED Democracy Award.]

From its establishment at the beginning of 2020, PIJL investigated the potential for reconciliation in the occupied territories, then shifted operations during the pandemic, and pivoted again during this time of war. PIJL looks to new angles or platforms to present reliable information to citizens.

The PIJL team travels throughout Ukraine for fieldwork and reporting. (Photo courtesy of Public Interest Journalism Lab.)

Now, with support from NED and others, the organization conducts fieldwork around the country to identify the most critical patterns of the war and produces media content for Ukrainian and international audiences to amplify Ukrainian voices and experiences. PILJ has published inspiring, underreported stories that amplify the Ukrainian resolve to fight until victory and to rebuild better. Gathering testimonials from citizens, PIJL is also creating an oral history archive to serve as a tool for global advocacy and to ensure preservation of Ukrainian culture and collective memory for future generations.

“Justice takes time,” says Gumenyuk, who specializes in foreign affairs and conflict reporting, and author of Lost Island: Tales from the Occupied Crimea. “I think it takes so much time that often people don’t believe it would be served. We definitely can and want to break this perception.”

Credible information has never been so important, yet the war has only exacerbated obstacles confronting Ukrainian independent outlets. “Ukrainian media is facing multiple crises during the war, because advertising revenues have collapsed precisely at a moment when independent reporting is essential to counter disinformation and inform the public about what is happening,” says Kristine Nugent, a regional expert and program officer for Europe at NED. “At the same time, the resources journalists need to work in dangerous settings have increased. In the face of these tremendous challenges, the Public Interest Journalism Lab and other independent media groups are truly heroic as they work tirelessly to chronicle the war and tell people’s stories.”

PIJL also collects oral history testimonies from Ukrainian citizens to preserve for the future. (Photo courtesy of Public Interest Journalism Lab.)

In Ukraine, some of the largest and most popular media outlets are owned by Ukrainian oligarchs, who were also affected economically and politically by the war. Yet Gumenyuk explains independent media has strengthened in recent years since Euromaidan—the demonstrations which ousted Russian-backed President Victor Yanukovych from power in February 2014 and emphasized Ukraine’s desire to determine its own democratic future. [Learn how to support Ukrainian journalists during the war.]

“Prior to 2014, prior to the Orange Revolution, there were individual journalists who were independent, who left TV stations, and they were able to create maybe one or two independent media,” explains Gumenyuk. “Now in 2022, we do have this ecosystem of independent media, where we help dozens of the organizations, in fact, led by the people who were just journalists in early 2014, prior or after the Maidan. So they created this mini universe of quite a pluralistic Ukrainian media ecosystem. Maybe there is no one media stronger than one biggest commercial outlet, however, altogether, this independent Ukrainian media do the most important investigations and amplifies [each other’s] work.” [Read how Ukrainian journalists are finding new ways to report on the war.]

This spirit of collaboration among the staff of PIJL and their network of Ukrainian journalists has never been more apparent. During wartime, PIJL has connected with other reporters to share jobs, resources, connections, transportation, and more. “We, using our connections, would see what resources [are] available for the help of journalists,” she says. “I know there are a lot of great organizations in Ukraine who try to do something, but I also like this kind of self-organizational thing, you know, when people act as the community mode because it’s a part of the task, but just because it should be like that.”

To continue to address the needs of citizens, PIJL is already discussing and planning for a post-war Ukraine that emerges stronger from this tragedy. “Our idea is that we would talk to the people and will learn what they want,” says Gumenyuk. “So it’s not up to us alone to kind of consider what would be the future of Ukraine, but it’s definitely our role to ask the people, what do they see? What do they want? And maybe let the others, politicians, and everybody to understand what the population wants and how they see the future of Ukraine.”

Read more about the 2022 NED Democracy Award