Featured Article

‘We started realising our responsibility’: an interview with Tetiana Troshchynska, Gongadze Prize 2024 winner, journalist and radio host

Published on May 23, 2024

Ukrainian article of the week published in the 31st edition of the "What about Ukraine" newsletter on May 23rd, 2024. The article was written by Oleksandra Horchynska for Life.nv and was translated for n-ost by Olesia Storozhuk. 

Read the original article here.

Check out the complete edition of this week's newsletter

Radio host, journalist, and producer Tetiana Troshchynska speaks on the difficulties for women building a career in media in the past, why the topic of grief remains taboo in the country that has been in war for ten years, and whether the government can influence Telegram use in Ukraine.

Every year the Georgiy Gongadze Prize awards an individual for high achievement in Ukrainian journalism. This year, for the first time in the award’s history, the three finalists are all women. These are Anna Babinets — investigative journalist and CEO of the Slidstvo.info agency, Olga Rudenko — editor-in-chief and founder of The Kyiv Independent, and Tetiana Troshchynska — director of the Department of Strategic Analysis and Development of Socially Influential Content at Suspilne, producer of the socio-political talk show New Countdown, radio host at Kultura, and former editor-in-chief of Hromadske Radio. Troshchynska was previously shortlisted in 2022.

The Gongadze Prize was established in 2019 and is traditionally awarded on the birthday of the journalist Georgyi Gongadze, who was murdered in 2000. The Prize aims to support journalists who are not afraid of challenges, find innovative ways to deliver information, foster liberal reforms in Ukraine, open new opportunities for the whole media environment, are capable of keeping their work sustainable, and stay true to professional principles and values.

In the interview for NV, one of the prize finalists Tetiana Troshchynska reflects on why journalism in Ukraine has a female face, recalls her development in the profession, and speaks about the challenges journalists might face soon. [Following the publishing of this interview, Troshchynska won the award].

— This is the second time you became a finalist of the Gongadze Prize. Were you surprised then, and are you now?

— The peculiarity of this prize is that both the first and the second time were unexpected — it’s always a surprise. That makes the prize special; contrary to [another similar competition] Honour of Profession, you don’t have to submit your work, some documents, or your biography to prove your existence. The jury lists the people who, in their opinion, deserve to be candidates, then discusses and votes on them. That’s how you reach the final. So it’s always a surprise.

As for 2022 — who thought of any prizes or awards in April 2022? Therefore, yes, it was a shocking story. It was also unexpected this time, because, frankly speaking, I thought I played my role in 2022. But it was even more pleasant to realise that maybe some job I’ve done throughout the last two years didn’t go unnoticed.

— This year, three women entered the final for the first time. I looked up the prize’s history and saw that, in the beginning, there were usually three male finalists, occasionally interspersed with a woman. Why, in your opinion, are all three female now?

— Journalism in Ukraine is a profession that has numerous female faces and voices. Women hold different positions. Journalism in Ukraine has lots of female managers. When the news came out that all three finalists were female, I saw a lot of comments, even though humorous, like: what a gender imbalance! In the case of three males, though, hardly anyone would ever mention such an imbalance.

It’s difficult for me to say precisely why the jury chose three women. As for Anna [Babinets] and Olga [Rudenko], I see their work, which is very powerful, and for me, it’s obvious why they were chosen. As for my candidacy, you should ask someone else. But, probably, all three of us, in the jury’s opinion, have become visible doing some important institutional work in journalism at this time.

For me, it’s all about justice, as female voices are present in Ukrainian journalism, and it’s not about, “damsels”, as we are often referred to. It’s about women who, like men, have spent years in this profession and made institutional changes in the journalistic environment. Therefore, I am particularly pleased because no matter who wins, it will be a woman.

— You’ve mentioned that journalism has many female faces. Do you feel female solidarity in the profession?

— When I applied for a place in journalism school in 1990, only males were accepted to the international journalism group. Many people reading us now probably can’t imagine that. Being a female and having low perseverance, I lost my English skills — despite a good base and a good start. For two years, I attended both my group’s classes and, with our professor’s permission, unofficially, the international journalism classes. However, it was very hard to study in two groups simultaneously; moreover, I had a job parallel to my studies. So, after the second year, I decided to put international journalism on pause.

I have had numerous cases in my life when male managers have supported me. At the same time, some people who came to the spots I hosted but didn’t know me asked me to make them coffee. As one of them said, it never occurred to them that “this little blondie” is actually the host. For quite a long time, this perception of people based on appearance, age or gender was predominant. Nowadays, there is less of that. Many would probably say that it still exists, but as a person who has been in the profession for so long, I can compare it to the past, and it is decreasing. And this is happening due to women’s struggle — primarily female journalists, editors-in-chief, correspondents and camerawomen, who also hardly existed when I started journalism.

Speaking about professional solidarity in general, I am very very pleased about current developments. This includes the work of Mediarukh (Media Movement), the Commission for Journalism Ethics, and the media community’s work in general — even those who are not formally members of such organisations. These are the green shoots of solidarity, which in this competitive, scattered environment, including in terms of funding, are, for me, very positive signs of a professional attitude towards each other.

This profession is neither male nor female — it’s a profession of people who want to tell people about other people, about facts, about the world, who want to analyse the world, want to make decisions or analyse decisions of decision-makers, and so on.

— Recently, you shared your observations on Facebook that for “journalists, bloggers and opinion leaders, the attitude to the mobilisation [of citizens] depends on their own and their closest circle’s relation to the army”. Can you elaborate on this thought?

— Objectivity doesn’t exist, there can only be balance. Because we are all human, and we perceive everything through our human context. Whether we are working on CNN or Al Jazeera, on TSN or Suspilne — there is always this human context. What helps us adapt our human contexts to journalism standards? Clearly written editorial charters that determine our values and the values of our audience. It is indeed difficult for many media organisations to work without an editorial charter. A good editorial charter works only if it is not too long and clearly states the principles that the editorial staff has discussed and agreed upon. It happens that people who don’t share the values declared in the editorial charter simply cannot work in that organisation, and they leave. The environment expels them.

Balance is essential, and it can’t be artificial. I belong to the generation of journalists who often admit that they made mistakes in their career. For us back then, balance meant that if we invited a person with an absolutely inadequate position, people would hear them and see how inadequate they were [such as a pro-Russian on a news program]. However, there will always be some viewers who will accept this position. Therefore, balance is about all the positions relevant to the topic and not just hosting a ‘devil’s advocate’.

There is another significant issue in the Ukrainian war for national liberation. People who deny Ukraine’s existence, even if they do it not as straightforward as it seems, to my mind, add no balance to any of the existing viewpoints. We can discuss how to fight for Ukraine, build or support democracy, and achieve inner reforms. But we cannot deny the existence of this country.

Now, back to the topic of war and mobilisation: I wrote this post very sincerely, and I am glad I wrote it because it is rarely spoken about. I see my colleagues breaking down on the issue of mobilisation — quite often. I see this from their intonations, choice of words, and inability to discuss these themes honestly enough because the war is very close to them. And yes, we have lots of people in journalism whose relatives were affected, died or were wounded, or serve in the army. My husband serves in the Armed Forces, for instance. But I see that for many, it is difficult to speak about this, because if you want to write ‘Territorial Centres of Recruitment (TCR) seizes/grabs everyone in the streets’ in the headline to get more clicks, while half of the editorial staff have relatives in the army, you have to think twice.

Another aspect is: what responsibility do you bear to the audience? Aren’t you similar to [former advisor to the President Oleksii] Arestovych, whom we laugh at when recalling his failure to explain the problems of mobilisation in plain words? Who messed it up, or why was it messed up? Why didn’t the authorities consider all the pros and cons and didn’t dare to find the right words to speak about that to people? Why is it believed that only those making this choice voluntarily have to fight? The percentage of enthusiasts for war in society isn’t that high. You can read about that in numerous studies. Many historians write and speak about that. There are plenty of examples of different types of motivation [for going to fight] — and it’s not just about passion. But journalists’ task is to sort this out, make an analysis, and speak about that instead of just putting a headline that Territorial Centres of Recruitment (TCR) seize people in the streets.

To a great extent, it’s the media’s fault that we have shown only TCRs grabbing people in the streets without looking deeper into the issue. The fact that TCR simply puts people on the bus is a bad thing, but the reason behind it is the unfinished reform of the armed forces. And the question is not about the draft dodgers, but about those who allow some people to play according to the rules and others to violate them. Is there a corruption component for those illegally leaving the country, are those helping them to leave punished? Is there a corruption component in fake documents, and if so, are those people who destroy the system punished? That is a journalist’s task to find out.

— In my experience, our foreign colleagues often call Ukrainian journalists too emotional and not objective in covering the war in Ukraine due to this very reason — like, how can we objectively deliver information if we live everything through us and overreact? But it is crucial for us to be able to spread the word about the developments in Ukraine further abroad, for our opinion to be considered. Is that possible?

— This is a good question. I wish I could discuss it with the British journalists who lived and worked between 1939 and 1945. If someone introduces me to one of these wartime journalists, I will then speak to them about the attitude toward the enemy, how to behave when bombs are flying over your child’s head, and how to speak about people who lose everything, including their homes and families. There are examples of foreign colleagues who brilliantly tell the stories of people who were the only ones from their families to survive, and who have lost absolutely everyone. Therefore, I am ready to talk only to those journalists who have relevant experience. In that case, we could discuss how we develop standards for working and living during the war. I don’t mean they don’t have the right to exist; I mean that we can communicate equally only when comparing these experiences.

— In recent years, the Ukrainian media space has been full of death, and of scenes that were considered shocking in the past but have become our new normality. Does the Ukrainian audience really need this content?

— I have observed several aspects in recent years. The first one is very positive. Some journalists might not agree with me, but I believe Ukrainian journalism has made an exceptional journey towards ethical standards. And, as painful as it is, the closeness of the war has contributed to this. The closer it is and the better you realise that it happened to you, to your relatives, friends, and neighbours, or — can happen, the more empathetic you become, the more you understand how to put yourself in the shoes of a person you report on. Recently, I haven’t heard stories similar to 2022 ones when right after the liberation of the Kyiv region some journalists allowed themselves to bluntly put questions on camera to a woman who was raped by Russian soldiers, or, for example, the story of an Italian freelancer breaking into a hospital in Vinnytsia.

Sometimes, I laugh at myself and say that I became a one-role actress or a journalist training on a single subject – sensitivity – in the last two years. I talk to my colleagues from local or regional media and see they have tremendous experience. It’s fantastic, it’s bigger than mine. We simply discuss our dilemmas at these training sessions, and I don’t teach them how to live. But these spaces where we discuss our worries are very important. So, from an ethical point of view, we have made an exceptional journey towards respect, responsibility and preserving the dignity of the people we talk about.

The first obvious rule of sensitive journalism is that this story doesn’t belong to you. You can do whatever you want to get the clickbait. Let’s not lie to each other: we all want our stories to be read. But it is not our story. It is our hero’s story. So, you work sincerely and honestly and tell them that the next morning, it will appear in all the newspapers, using the terminology of the 1970s. And many people who don’t work in public professions, compared to us, can’t imagine how their life can change when everyone starts speaking about them in a village, in a small neighbourhood, or in a town.

The second important rule is to consider whether we should help this person. Do we keep them safe? Won’t some of their relatives in the occupied territories be affected? Or when speaking with a witness, isn’t the affected person still in the occupied territory? Or if we talk to a victim, aren’t the witnesses or people who helped them still in the occupied territory? We think about this ourselves, and we discuss this with our heroes.

Thirdly, we don’t want to move the people we interview to tears. I am speaking about my rules. Why should we make people cry who are already drowning in oceans of tears? It’s absolutely unserious, because at some points, people indeed cry and cry uncontrollably. I cry myself, speaking to people. It’s unprofessional, but it happens. We must think about the emotions and the re-traumatisation we can cause.

There is another crucial aspect that is seldom discussed in professional settings. But, fortunately, when psychologists give advice to journalists, they refer to it. A recently traumatised person can get facts wrong and not really answer what was asked. A trauma that hasn’t been worked through can play different tricks on our memory. So, if we want to talk to someone hot on the heels of events, it is not always good for us as journalists, as we can file a story that didn’t happen. A person can also diminish what happened to them or exaggerate, so the story acquires unnecessary details.

— Have readers and viewers got used to this?

— Our foreign colleagues look at our life as a TV series. I can’t blame them for this. For a long time, we looked at other parts of the planet where conflicts happened also as a series. What did we know about the conflicts in Africa? What did we know about the conflict in the Middle East? How did we imagine Israel? How did we imagine life in Israel before the missiles attacked us? So, it’s difficult to blame others.

I believe that we have our job, and they have theirs. Sometimes, they try to give us a task, as freelancers or as colleagues they know, to find a woman raped by Russians whose husband serves in the AFU with two children, a good-looking 35-year-old brunette who would agree to speak on the camera. But this is absolutely insensitive and unrealistic. We don’t have to do that, but we have to explain why that’s impossible.

— You have launched the podcast Liubov Ne Mynaie (‘Love does not pass’), which is focused on the topic of losing people close to us. To what extent is this theme — of grief and living through a loss — taboo in today's Ukraine, in the times when these losses are everywhere and we face them daily? How comfortable is speaking about grief? Can people discuss it adequately?

— Thank you for mentioning this podcast. It is probably the most important thing for me in my work, and it was difficult to dare to start it. This is a story of me as a mother, not as a journalist. I had many consultations with Iryna Slavinska, producer of Kultura radio, on how to make it the author’s programme in a diary format plus interviews, without crossing an ethical line [of making it too personal].

My 18-year-old son, Taras, quickly died a year ago from cancer, just 18 days after the disease was discovered. We tried to cure him, of course. There were no signs, the disease appeared like a flash. He was a first-grade student at the Kyiv-Mohyla Academy. What strikes not only me and my family, and lots of our acquaintances, is we have grown up with the moral imperative assuming that if we try to live as a good person, nothing bad will happen to us. Life shows that, sometimes, for a long time, nothing bad happens to the evil, but it happens to the good, unfortunately. And that's why this is shocking.

Why did I start to write about Taras's death? I am not too public, but I have my followers on Facebook, and I am invited to some public events. It was honest from my side — to speak out. This is a vital part of my personal story. My private inbox and comments section were flooded with people who wrote whatever they wanted. From gratitude for speaking out loud to insults that I don't blame them for. They noted that as a journalist, I have a platform to speak. Some people told me that living in a small village, they have no chance to speak about their fallen son because people would just walk on by. Those who ignore such grief simply don't know how to ask about such things, or don’t want to ask, or believe in the superstition that if you start talking to a person who has suffered a tragedy, this tragedy will visit you too. This is such a crazy myth. But it exists.

This topic is taboo in the country that has been at war for ten years and for two years in its hot phase. We walk the streets, take the subway, a trolley bus, or a minibus, or stand in a shopping queue, having no idea about the losses that people around us might have suffered. Their grief is not marked on their foreheads. That's why I started to talk about this. It's a great help for me. My own psychotherapy, so to say. I don't work with psychotherapists. I don't know why. I just don't.

So, honestly speaking, I feel easier by doing that. However, crossing this line was important for me. I have a metaphor — don’t wind the intestines around your hand. Many people do that and even try to build careers on other's pain. This is unacceptable for me. In my opinion, I should always think about what other people feel when they read or hear my words. And I don't know what kind of people they are, where they are, or at which stage of their own grieving process they are in.

I know everything about the feeling of guilt. Because I know everything about this feeling towards my son. I realise that we could not save him, but then, from time to time, I go back to thinking about what if we could and what if it was my fault that I didn't save him. He believed so much that I would find a way to succeed. And I understand that some people may feel guilty that they ignore their own feelings.

Believe me, the slogan that 'heroes never die' is beautiful until the hero is a close friend of yours. Heroes do die, and non-heroes die too. And this pain is tremendous. It’s better that they live. It was an important aim for me as a journalist — being a mother, to try and find the observer in me. I don't know if I managed to do this.

— How did journalistic ethics change during the war? Do Ukrainian media workers stick to professional ethical standards?

— I will try to answer from different angles. Firstly, we started realising that context matters, and it matters if you are trying to deliver balanced information — the relevant points of view matter rather than a formal balance. Secondly, we started to talk to each other, and to become more united. Not everyone, of course, could join in.

If the Security Service of Ukraine is putting [the investigative journalist Denys] Bihus and his team under surveillance, then there is an active part of the journalistic environment that stands up [for him]. If someone in the government doesn't understand why a democratic country needs Suspilne, a big part of the journalistic environment stands up for it. Such things are very remarkable and valuable to me.

We have started realising our responsibility to our heroes — for their safety, avoiding their retraumatisation, and their life beyond war in society. We have started realising that our story often doesn't last for only a day. When we talk about people in terrible situations, it is important to talk about their resources, what helped them survive, and what supported them. To my mind, this is a very crucial aspect when speaking about ethics. We move towards notattributing stories to ourselves [but to our subjects] and towards critical thinking. We work with the fact that an expert's viewpoint and the perspective of a person from the street differ, and we try to deliver that to our audiences.

But there are difficult stories as well. YouTube, which we all admire so much, has made a mess of many people's brains. Of course, many people can't distinguish experts who have studied military strategies for years from someone, roughly speaking, sitting next to a bookshelf and uploading gigabytes of their thoughts into the information space. That is challenging to deal with since those offering gigabytes of thoughts are often preferred by our audience. We, as humans, have evolved to make our life easier, and we tend to listen to those we like more. We hate those who take us out of our comfort zone.

— I have found your 2022 interview, where you state that 'in Ukrainian journalism, the lyrical approach of a “school essay” still often dominates, as well as the belief that everyone who can write a post on Facebook is a journalist'. It's been a year since the new media law has been in force, which, in fact, allows Facebook and other social media authors to equate themselves to journalists. What is your opinion on that?

— I understand the nature of these novelties, and I understand the EU's pursuit of regulating the issue. The problem with regulations worldwide, especially in the media, or any technological sphere, is that technologies develop faster than institutions. Institutions are very slow and clumsy, and the mechanisms allowing us to regulate fast-developing technologies lag behind.

Nevertheless, institutions still try to regulate this in some way. In my opinion, the idea of registering everyone as media, even if you are a single person sharing how you grow different sorts of cabbage, is quite normal, as this is an attempt to somehow regulate what is going on in the information space.

On the other hand, this is a very difficult and complex process. Many of my colleagues don't share this viewpoint, but I consistently support press cards: for everyone, including freelancers who mark their work as journalism, not blogging. I think press cards would be helpful in this case.

Any fast-growing technology is a fast way for people to gain popularity, enrichment, and social capital. Say, yesterday, you were a great member of parliament, not a very popular one, and tomorrow you open a YouTube channel and woah — you are an opinion leader, a more significant one than when, being a public official and sitting in the Verkhovna Rada, you had to adopt laws.

Anyway, we have to work towards educating our audiences so that at least part of them understand the difference between bloggers and journalists who work according to journalistic standards, the difference between a columnist and a reporter who works for a specific outlet, the difference between a politician who you simply like streaming and, for instance, an expert who is a Doctor of History and has studied the Middle Ages for a long time. So, that's all very complicated and very uncomfortable for people. They just want to recognise some faces, listen to them, and believe them. But we have no other option than to try to explain that these are all different things with different aims.

— How do you see the future of journalism, taking into account today's challenges: artificial intelligence, social networks, and channels on Telegram [an app owned by Russians]?

— As for Telegram channels, the answer is straightforward: all Ukrainian authorities should leave Telegram in one day and announce this publicly. This won't happen soon, but I would like to see what would happen one hour later. I think this would be the right decision.

I would close all of my Telegram channels and leave [this application] here and now if it were not for the chats created by my colleagues which remain there. That is why this is a problem for me. For me, Telegram is inconvenient, unclear, and not mine at all.

As for artificial intelligence, sometimes, reading the pieces created by artificial intelligence, I remember my university work some 15 years ago. At the end of the course, my students brought me some copy-pasted taken from the Internet, and that is how AI-generated texts look now — like those papers. I think the problem with Ukrainian content is probably due to the language — the Ukrainian language AI hasn’t developed so fast. I see this as a threat, and if it is discussed at the World Economic Forum in Davos, my advice is unnecessary here.

Right now, I think we still need real people. At least, we will need them for conversations, for some time. What can Ukrainian journalism be? It must survive, it must help Ukrainian democracy survive, and help Ukraine to survive. And I believe that the aim of Ukrainian journalism is nothing different from the aims of all of us who are citizens of this country.