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Journalists and filmmakers discussed the challenges of covering the war in Ukraine ethically while also portraying the reality of the conflict at a Harvard Institute of Politics forum Monday evening.
Moderated by Harvard Kennedy School professor of the practice Nancy R. Gibbs, the talk featured PBS FRONTLINE Editor-in-Chief Raney Aronson-Rath, Associated Press Global Investigations Editor Alison F. Kodjak, and AP correspondent Erika Kinetz.
The talk was co-sponsored by HKS’ Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy and the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.
Gibbs, director of the Shorenstein Center and the former editor-in-chief for TIME Magazine, began the event by discussing the obstacles journalists face during wartime.
“They run towards the explosions,” Gibbs said. “The toll is not just on physical safety; it is hard to be immersed in other people’s acute suffering and not be able to do anything.”
Kinetz, who has reported on the ground in Ukraine for the last year, said there is a “healing” component to wartime journalism by empowering people to take a role in the conflict.
“I think a lot of people, especially Ukrainians, are happy to be able to do something,” Kinetz said. “There’s some kind of relief that comes from participating in a process where you are bearing witness to something.”
Kodjak said there is often an “internal debate” within newsrooms on deciding how much and what to show audiences.
“I am a person who believes that war is hideous and awful and that we shouldn’t hide that from people,” Kodjak said, but added that “there’s no right answer” to the question.
PBS FRONTLINE and the Associated Press have collaborated on War Crimes Watch Ukraine, an effort to document and verify war crimes throughout the conflict.
Kinetz, who helped establish the effort, said that for their documentary on Bucha, her team obtained roughly 2,000 intercepted phone calls and 80,000 videos.
Kinetz said it was important to independently verify the evidence, explaining that her team “put a lot of effort into the due diligence of these materials” to avoid the “manipulation of media.”
According to Kinetz, the AP has a team in charge of verifying the videos to ensure they “were really showing what corresponded to the actual streets of Bucha.” They also worked with an investigative group in London to verify the identities of the Russian soldiers who were making those phone calls.
“That took a lot of time and institutional commitment,” Kinetz said.
Aronson-Rath said that the monthslong process of creating a documentary is a “privilege” because it provides time to think through the “humanizing” aspects of these decisions and obtain consent from individuals shown in the film.
Kinetz brought up a conversation she had with a woman who discovered her husband was dead through an online post.
“These choices are hugely consequential to people,” Kinetz said.
Kinetz said that while there is “right and wrong here,” the public should not view filmmakers and journalists as “prosecutors” of war crimes, adding that their role is instead to document what they observe.
“As long as it’s in the public domain, it’s accessible to prosecutors,” Kinetz said. “I think the rule is, just publish as much as you can.”
—Staff writer Caroline K. Hsu can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @CarolineHsu_.
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