What it takes to tell a powerful story : NPR Public Editor Navigating the trauma of children

What it takes to tell a powerful story

Navigating the trauma of children

Carlos Carmonamedina for NPR Public Editor
Illustration by Carlos Carmonamedina
Carlos Carmonamedina for NPR Public Editor

Every once in a while, a single, human story is so powerful it offers insight into a complex truth. We are devoting today's newsletter to one such story that caught the collective attention of many in NPR's audience.

When Russian artillery damaged a school in Kharkiv, Ukraine, last August, an NPR reporter wondered what had happened to the students. So she kept in contact with many of the families of one kindergarten class as they scattered across the globe.

Among the stories that grew from this one incident was a particularly poignant narrative of two best friends, now separated by the war.

Given the wide response from the audience, we decided to delve into the story behind the story. If the mission of the Public Editor is to hold NPR to its highest standards, one method for doing so is to identify work executed at the highest standard and then figure out how it came to be.

Read on to learn how this reporter tapped into her knowledge of education, worked with child trauma experts, and collaborated with a photojournalist and an editor to craft an intimate story that many people say they will not soon forget.


Here are a few quotes from the Public Editor's inbox that resonated with us. Letters are edited for length and clarity. You can share your questions and concerns with us through the NPR Contact page.

Powerful reporting on a Ukrainian kindergarten

Rabih Torbay tweeted on April 12: What a powerful story by @ElissaNadworny for @NPR. Children from Ukraine have endured unimaginable loss and heartache over the last 14+ months.

Maryam Kia-Keating tweeted on April 12: ... The way that @ElissaNadworny tells the stories of children and their lives, through their own words, will speak to your heart.

Barbara Gault tweeted on April 13: What a story. Elissa you always amaze me with your unique, gripping, and compassionate reporting.

The story that listeners heard on April 12 actually began back in August 2022 when NPR correspondent Elissa Nadworny visited a Kharkiv, Ukraine, school building damaged by Russian artillery. She had been in the city close to the border with Russia to report several stories for NPR, including one about the upcoming start of the school year. Kindergarten No. 323 had nearly all its windows broken and some stairs destroyed, but its classrooms hinted at a life before.

Nadworny's tour of the school became a story for Morning Edition. She interviewed the head of school, Yana Tsyhanenko, and gave listeners a glimpse into the many traces of childhood left behind.

"As we were leaving the head of school said to me: 'It's not the damage to the school that I'm mourning. It's the destruction of childhood,'" Nadworny told us in an email. "I couldn't stop thinking about that. I got this idea that I had to find the students who used to learn in this school."

So began a monthslong reporting journey. Nadworny called Nishant Dahiya, her editor in Ukraine, and asked to go back to Kharkiv to find a teacher and families to interview. Two weeks later, she was there, talking to one of the school's teachers.

Nadworny's stories from the school paint a picture of devastation and trauma, not only for the children and families who left Ukraine, but for those who stayed.

One story focused on Iryna Sahan, a kindergarten teacher who visited her empty classroom. From there, Nadworny visited several families across Ukraine. She and Lauren Migaki, a senior producer with NPR's education desk, profiled several of the students who had scattered across the world and Ukraine for All Things Considered.

The story that seemed to resonate most with listeners was the one Nadworny produced about Daniel Bizyayev and Aurora Demchenko, a pair of 6-year-old best friends who were separated by the Russian invasion.

Nadworny spent several months following their story with NPR photographer and visuals editor Claire Harbage in the United States, where Daniel is now living with his family, and Spain, where Aurora now lives with hers. In a white two-story house about an hour from New York City, Daniel still gushes about Aurora. He sent his friend a video message, but she never answered. Thousands of miles away in Valencia, Spain, we meet a shy Aurora and her family in a high-rise apartment. While looking over her kindergarten yearbook from Kharkiv, Aurora's mom asks her about Daniel. "Do you remember you always saved a seat for him?" her mom asks. Aurora says no, she does not remember.

Nadworny's reporting in this story is masterful. Through the use of dialogue, the story lays bare the different ways trauma manifests in children. It's sobering as you take in all 11 minutes.

We wondered how Nadworny prepared to interview children who've experienced trauma.

"I've covered education now for almost a decade, and a lot of that work is talking with and to children," she said. "The Education Writers Association is a great resource — I've gone to many workshops and sessions about conducting trauma-informed interviews. The Dart Center for Journalism & Trauma also has a ton of great resources on this. This list of tips on interviewing children was especially helpful. Because I was talking with child psychologists who study trauma and migration for the story, that also helped in how I approached the reporting."

Readers and listeners shared and reacted to the story of Daniel and Aurora online.

Beth Fertig, a senior education editor for XQ America, tweeted: "I can't stop thinking about this morning's beautiful #NPR story about two Ukrainian children who were best friends in kindergarten but are now thousands of miles away from each other. @ElissaNadworny did a wonderful job navigating the trauma. Must Listen."

Dr. Dana Suskind, a surgeon, said the story was "a haunting look at the lifelong toll of war on Ukraine's children, whose future is our future."

We asked Nadworny why she thought listeners appreciated this story so much.

"The story of friendship is so transcendent — no matter where you are in the world or what you've experienced, I think we can all connect to that idea of an early childhood friend," she said. "I think the thing I really loved about this story was just how far from the center a conflict travels. The war in Ukraine — and really most wars — has a really far reach. There are lingering impacts on families — and children — all over the world. Seeing that on a very micro level helps make a story, that's really about millions of children, feel more real and personal."

This investment in reporting and story craft pays off in an intimate look at a war that at times seems too big to comprehend. — Amaris Castillo

The Office of the Public Editor is a team. Editor Kayla Randall, reporters Amaris Castillo and Emily Barske, and copy editor Merrill Perlman make this newsletter possible. Illustrations are by Carlos Carmonamedina. We are still reading all of your messages on Facebook, Twitter and from our inbox. As always, keep them coming.

Kelly McBride
NPR Public Editor
Craig Newmark Center for Ethics & Leadership at the Poynter Institute