NPR hosts share their experiences covering the war in Ukraine : NPR Extra Social media associate Sommer Hill sat down with A Martinez, Mary Louise Kelly, Michel Martin and Ari Shapiro to get a first hand look at these hosts experiences covering the war in Ukraine.

NPR hosts share their experiences covering the war in Ukraine

Since February, NPR has had a rotating team of hosts, producers, reporters and editors in Ukraine and surrounding countries, covering the war and the stories of people who are affected by it. Social Media Associate Sommer Hill sat down with a few hosts to talk about their experiences: Mary Louise Kelly in Ukraine and Georgia, Michel Martin in Moldova and Romania, A Martínez in Ukraine and Ari Shapiro in Poland.

Mary Louise Kelly and team in Kyiv Mary Louise Kelly hide caption

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Mary Louise Kelly

Mary Louise Kelly and team in Kyiv

Mary Louise Kelly

Planning for a reporting trip

When it comes to strategizing their reporting approaches, all four hosts agreed that flexibility is key when reporting from the ground in rapidly-changing situations. "You don't fly into a war zone with the notion that you're going to do beautifully crafted, polished stories, or investigative enterprise pieces," said Mary Louise. "But you have an idea of the kind of people you want to talk to and places you want to go. I'm just trying to let people taste it, smell it, wander the streets and hear from people. And sometimes you walk into an interview and you think it's going to be about one thing, and then they tell you something as a total random aside, and you realize that's the story. That's what people are going to remember."

Michel emphasized the importance of keeping your mind open to the stories you find. "We did reporting before we left because the trip came up very quickly and we did seek guidance from people about some of those issues. But some of the guidance we received was just inaccurate. There were stories about people being kept segregated, and certain conditions. And it turns out that a lot of the things that we had been told were just not true. So I think you can go with a set of questions, but I think you're setting yourself up for trouble if you go with a set of answers, because then what you're doing is, you're reporting back to the answer that you already thought you had as opposed to pursuing the story that is."

Ari went to Poland with plenty of ideas of what to report on. "And we did some of those," he said. "But we also found new stories as we were there. One really important piece of that is our fixer, the local journalist who we hire to work with us, was this amazing young woman named Łucja who told us at one point that a 19th-century railroad that went from this tiny border town in the mountains inland was being rebuilt to help move refugees from the Ukrainian border into Poland. You don't do that kind of work unless you think this is going to be going on for a really long time and you're going to need it. And that was a story that we had no idea about when we arrived in Poland. It had only been written about in small, local Polish publications. It was only because Łucja, our fixer who had local knowledge and could read the Polish newspapers, told us about it."

Thinking back on his objective while in Ukraine, A shared, "I tried to not be a reporter and not be a host as much. I tried to have as much compassion as possible for a group of people who, right or wrong, did not expect this and were caught completely unprepared and are now trying to figure out if they're going to exist. I wouldn't want to just go in there and just ask questions and get the story and bring it to the airwaves. I'd want to hopefully have a ton of compassion and sensitivity to what these people are going through."

Michel's main goal for the trip was "to just give you a sense of what it was like to be there, give you more like a 360 degree experience. The advantage of taking [a newsmagazine] show someplace is that you're taking everyone with you. When you take the show there, you're taking everybody with you and it gives you a sense of what it's like to be there. And I think that's the whole point."

She also discussed how her identity and experience as a Black woman intersected with her reporting focus in Ukraine. "I think that as a Black person, I am very attuned to asking the questions about how the systems work and don't work, and for whom do they work and for whom do they not work? And I just think that that is part of your consciousness." She followed up, "You can't say that one particular set of issues and perspectives is the province of Black people. But I will say that my experience as a Black woman is that the systems that are built for others don't always work for all of us. And that makes me very interested in the ways that they don't and the ways that they do work."

Michel Martin on flight to Moldova with US UN Ambassador, Linda Thomas-Greenfield Michel Martin hide caption

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Michel Martin

Michel Martin on flight to Moldova with US UN Ambassador, Linda Thomas-Greenfield

Michel Martin

Parallels to previous reporting

Since the hosts had all covered major news events before, they were ready to draw comparisons to earlier experiences. "I had covered a lot of refugee crises before," Ari shared. "I'd been in coastal Turkey covering the Syrian refugee crisis. I had reported from Colombia on the Venezuelan refugee crisis. This one looked really different. It took about a year for a million people to leave Syria, and a million people left Ukraine in a week. And it was just overwhelmingly women and children."

Ari also mentioned that he was reminded of some advice he heard early on in his career. "Covering difficult experiences, there is a tension between the sense of devastation at what you're witnessing and the sense of purpose and having a valuable role to play. I had just started working at NPR and was a temp when Sept. 11 happened, and I was working the overnight shift on Morning Edition. I vividly remember the host of Morning Edition at the time, Bob Edwards, saying that when devastating events like this happen, everybody wonders what they can do to help. And as journalists, we're lucky that we know what our role is. So while the scenes on the Poland-Ukraine border were difficult to watch, it was tempered by a sense that there was an important story that we were there to tell, and we could do something useful just by being there and telling it."

Mary Louise was reminded of her experience covering the Sept. 11 attacks. "When I've flown in to cover conflict or cover something awful, the aftermath of a mass shooting or a terror attack or a war, in the moment you're just trying to do your best to respectfully, clearly, honestly tell the stories that people are trusting you with. You're often interviewing them on the worst day of their life. You're trying to figure out how to do justice to this story and to this person who's trusting me, speaking to me and sharing this with me. And you're not really processing it yourself until some point down the road. I remember being in the NPR newsroom on Sept. 11 and really not leaving the newsroom for two weeks after that, because it was just flat out 24-hour coverage around the clock. And it wasn't until a couple of weeks after Sept. 11, I was walking down the street, and one of my neighbors had hung this enormous American flag. And I just sank to my knees on the sidewalk. It just hit me suddenly – oh my God, what happened to my country? I've been telling the world about it, I've been reporting, I've been trying to uncover all the facts and tell this story, but I haven't let myself feel it, until you get past the deadline, and then you sit with it."

Humanity alongside a war

Capturing the human side of the events was something all the hosts prioritized, but experienced in different ways. Mary Louise recounted, "There was a woman who I've interviewed several times, who I first met in a pizzeria in Kiev. She is this really formidable, well-known woman, one of the original leaders of the revolution in 2014, who then got elected to parliament. And her biggest problem on the day that I met her in January was whether she got her daughter a pet guinea pig. Her daughter had been begging for a guinea pig, and she was like, 'She deserves a really good treat. She did everything I asked, but if war is coming and we have to flee our home, I don't want to be stuck with a rodent that I have to evacuate along with my whole family.' And I started laughing and she started laughing and she started crying. And I thought, as a mom, I can so relate to that. Of course you don't want to have to evacuate the darn guinea pig. So we called her on the day of the invasion. She had bought the guinea pig and sure enough, she had had to evacuate. She was in hiding with the guinea pig. She sent her daughter to western Ukraine to be safe with family there. And I heard stories like that, that just stay with me. I look at this woman who I'm sure the last thing on Earth she needed was to add a guinea pig to the family. It's an act of love for her daughter and an act of faith that somehow, she's going to protect her family, they're going to be OK. They're going to get through this. And she said to me, 'This is Vladimir Putin. So why should my daughter be punished? Why shouldn't my daughter get this pet she's earned? Putin is the one who should be punished. I'm getting the guinea pig.' Human to human, you just connect. So, yeah, I do think about all these people. And it's a big part of what we do, interviewing ordinary people enduring extraordinary circumstances, and trying to figure out how you capture that and let people in our audience listen and read and connect, because otherwise it's just headlines from a faraway place. But if you feel like you know somebody, you can't help but care."

Guinea Pig Mary Louise Kelly hide caption

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Mary Louise Kelly

Guinea Pig

Mary Louise Kelly

Ari also shared: "What was incredible to me was that this huge infrastructure had sprung up in Poland to support all of these Ukrainians who had crossed the border. And it was almost all volunteers, people providing food and diapers. When I was in Warsaw, I took a ride in a taxi and the taxi driver told me he gets one day off a week and he spends that day driving four hours to the border, picking up somebody who needs to get to a big city in the west and then driving them four hours back to Warsaw. That's what he does on his day off. The very first thing we saw when we landed at the Warsaw airport was a kiosk with a volunteer who was a Ukrainian woman who had lived in Poland for years. And so she spoke Polish, Ukrainian and English, and she was just there to help people figure out how to get where they wanted to go. And so the entire infrastructure of the refugee support operation was held up by people who were there because they wanted to do something good."

Ari Shapiro and producer Matt Ozug Ari Shapiro hide caption

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Ari Shapiro

Ari Shapiro and producer Matt Ozug

Ari Shapiro

Reactions after returning home

A mentioned an unusual feeling he's had when seeing news updates from Ukraine after his return. "I think what affects me the most is seeing places that I have pictures of on my phone that are just a shell of what they were like. I was there, or I walked through there, or I drove past there. Seeing apartment complexes that I remember, like, Wow, that's not there anymore. And I mean, I spoke to a lot of young men. Those men had to fight. They weren't allowed to leave. So I'm wondering, how many of those people are still with us? It's this sense of wondering, what has happened to the people I've spoken to? And seeing what a shell that part of Kiev is like, considering how I saw it. That's the part that kind of gets me and makes me a little sad, because you just left a place that was beautiful and you'd never been there before, and it's your first time on that continent. I'd never been to Europe. And then if I ever get to go back, it'll be completely different, completely different."

Michel compared her return from this reporting trip with others. "I did have trouble sleeping, but I think jet lag was a big part of that. You do feel feelings, but I don't think it was as dramatic [for me] as for people who were in war zones." Remembering a previous experience, she continued, "One of the things about war zones is the smell, that ammunition smell and the powder and the burning smell. When I went to Kenya after the bombing of the American Embassy there, I feel like I did have PTSD. I was going down Connecticut Avenue and they were demolishing an office building, and the smell almost made me throw up. All of a sudden, that smell of concrete dust. I had a really visceral reaction."

Upon getting back to the U.S., Michel was reminded of the differences and similarities between the news she had been covering abroad and the news she was seeing closer to home. "It's a weird feeling. There was just a story, some teenagers were just arrested for like 19 violent assaults in the D.C. Montgomery County area. There's a 13-year-old, a 15-year-old, a 21-year-old and a 25-year-old. Five minutes from my house, some kids who are younger than my kids are stealing guns, shoving a gun in somebody's face, stealing cars, doing smash-and-grabs on the eyeglass stores. If you really think about it, the duality is all around us. Obviously, having missile strikes on your apartment, decimating whole cities out of ego and narcissism is one thing. But how much ego and narcissism has led to the situation we have here, where you have these kids who are barely in adolescence, running around with guns? How much ego and narcissism and indifference and racism and refusal to face reality has led to that? So I kind of don't buy that 'there's that and then there's this' duality."

Safety concerns and risks

All of these hosts went to Eastern Europe with their families more concerned with their safety than they were. Michel shared her kids' feelings about her trip. "Some of them were chiefly worried that I'd be back in time for their special events, which you can understand." They also had health concerns. "I assured them all that we had appropriate safety protocols in place and I told them I wasn't crossing over into Ukraine. And obviously there's a concern about COVID, because those are not the most vaccinated places. A lot of people were fleeing. The whole center of gravity of the trip was the Ukrainian people who had evacuated. And you know, that wasn't necessarily top of the mind for people evacuating, getting vaccinated." Michel reassured and empathized with her family, "We had our safety briefing. I made it clear that we had a safety and security officer. We had guidelines. But these kinds of trips are always harder for the family than they are for you because you know what you're doing and they don't."

While Michel wasn't concerned with her physical safety, she mentioned aspects of her mental well-being. "I've sort of trained myself to check in on myself, you know, like, OK, what's going on here? Basically just stop for a minute and sit still and think, What am I feeling? Why do I feel this? Let me just stop." She highlighted the reason she didn't fear for her physical safety. "Something that a lot of white people don't understand about Black and brown people is that we live in a war zone all the time. Many of us do. Not all of us, but many of us live in a state of siege."

Warsaw, Poland, buildings are lit up in the blue & yellow of the Ukrainian flag Ari Shapiro hide caption

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Ari Shapiro

Warsaw, Poland, buildings are lit up in the blue & yellow of the Ukrainian flag

Ari Shapiro

Mary Louise shared her family's similar experience. "My kids are teenagers. So it's not like leaving a newborn and toddler kid, which I have also done. On one level, they are used to it. Many of the places, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, North Korea, Iran all over. So they are used to me taking that kind of assignment. As they get older, I think they understand it a little bit more. My older son was asking me, 'Where are you going to stay? What's the exit strategy like if the embassy closes? What are you going to do? How do you get out?' And so it was interesting to answer those questions, and I have always said to them and said to myself, When my work and my family collide, my family comes first. Obviously it's so easy to say but it can be hard in practice to do that. And so I have wrestled, I will be honest, with when and how to go back to Ukraine. I never want to take an assignment that I'm not pretty sure I'm going to come back from. I always think, not that my life is more valuable than anyone else's, of course, but somebody else can tell that story, and nobody else can be mom to my kids and they need it. And I think about that. I'm thinking about it."

Meanwhile, A's daughter's main concern was whether he could bring her back some clothes. (Spoiler alert: he did.)

Traditional Ukrainian dress for A's daughter A Martinez hide caption

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A Martinez

Traditional Ukrainian dress for A's daughter

A Martinez

The responsibility of sharing these stories

Every one of the hosts mentioned the strong feeling of responsibility they experienced when hearing and sharing stories from Eastern Europe. Ari reflected, "When I'm in a situation like that, my biggest fear, my biggest concern is doing justice to the stories of the people who are trusting me to tell them. Over my career I have been surprised at how often people are really eager to have the opportunity to tell their story and how appreciative they are of having somebody who will listen. And so even in moments when it feels like I might be an unwelcome presence, I find that just by asking people if they want to share their story, it's often surprising how grateful they are for that opportunity. And that adds to the sense that I'm not just there as a vampire, taking somebody's trauma and putting it on the air to earn a paycheck. I'm actually allowing people to share a story that they might not have had the chance to share otherwise. And I'm allowing our audience, our listeners, our readers, to connect with somebody far away who they might feel distant from, but actually have a lot in common with, and build a bridge across difference."