Cable and Network Correspondents in Ukraine on the Most Challenging Parts of Their Coverage

By A.J. Katz 

Russian president Vladimir Putin began a military invasion of Ukraine on Thursday, with fighting forces attacking the neighboring nation by land, sea and air. U.S. TV news outlets have dispatched their international correspondents to the scene to report on the events as they happen.

TVNewser caught up with foreign correspondents from ABC, CBS, CNN and Fox News, getting their thoughts on covering this invasion from the ground.

They include a quartet of CBS Newsers, namely foreign correspondents Charlie D’Agata and Holly Williams, foreign affairs correspondent Christina Ruffini and CBS News Streaming reporter Haley Ott. CNN senior international correspondent Fred Pleitgen, CNN international security editor Nick Paton Walsh (pictured right), ABC News senior foreign correspondent Ian Pannell, ABC News chief national correspondent Matt Gutman, ABC News correspondent Aaron Katersky and Fox News foreign correspondent Trey Yingst. All of them are on the ground in Ukraine except for Pleitgen, who is in Russia, 20 miles from the border.

TVNewser: What’s been the most challenging part of your coverage so far?

D’Agata: The most challenging part of the coverage has been trying to predict the unpredictability of the pace and scope of the Russian invasion and getting as close as we can, while staying out of harm’s way. We’re about to enter the most dangerous phase as Russian forces enter the capital itself. And it’s kind of hard to take cover from an airstrike.

Charlie D’Agata/CBS

Gutman: Being a witness to so much misery and desperation. My producer Robert Zepeda and I crossed into Ukraine from Poland earlier today [Saturday]. Driving in our car split a sea of desperate humans—pressing up against the gates and thrusting arms with documents through the bars of the border terminal.  There were about 3000 people right there at terminal. So many of them kids, out there in the cold—many of them had walked for hours to get there.  When we got out to speak to people, one woman told me she was American and pleaded for help, showing me her passport. We spoke to multiple fathers taking leave of their families: dropping them off at the border and saying goodbye, just holding on to their loved ones for as long as possible, whispering a few loving last words … They were unsure when they’d see them again, as they go off to join the fight. There are tens and tens of thousands stacked behind them in the traffic jams that radiate outward for over 15 miles. There are hundreds of abandoned cars. I’ve covered a lot of conflict, but the scale of this exodus is tough to comprehend. And seeing this, as a parent of two kids myself, just really got me. In another life, any one of those parents could have been me.

Katersky: For me the most challenging part of the coverage is the difficulty of the circumstances Ukrainians are fleeing.  A week ago this was, in large part, a modern, thriving country and in an instant it turned into a battlespace where ordinary people are filling empty beer bottles with gasoline and dish rags. And for the escapees who come through Lviv where we have been the waiting, the worry, the weariness is evident on their faces. That’s challenging to see and properly convey.

Aaron Katersky/ABC

Ott: This is a hugely significant moment geopolitically and in the life of every person we speak to. I feel a lot of responsibility to tell each of their stories, and the larger one, well. That is my primary concern and that’s how our team calculates the risks we are willing to take.  If something is dangerous but vital for the story, we think hard about it. If it’s risky but not vital, we don’t do it. On a practical level, this story is happening 24-hours a day. That means there is no off time. We get hardly any sleep and are always either reporting or planning interviews or doing lives. Maintaining that rhythm is hard but certainly worth it. It’s an honor to be exhausted for this job.

Pannell: There are many challenges around the clock to covering a story like this. The hardest one is the physical; living off a handful of hours sleep a night, constantly having to be alert and ready to get up and broadcast or potentially evacuate the city at a moment’s notice. As I write this, air raid sirens blare across the city and the sound of booms and gunfire can be heard on the outskirts of the city. This is the second biggest challenge of covering a conflict: the psychological effect. Learning to deal with ever present danger and managing fear is essential. It is also the closest any of us gets to knowing what it must be like to be residents of a city under siege in a time of war.

Ian Pannell/ABC

Paton Walsh: There are very few drivers and cars. People need them to flee and men want to protect their families or fight. That makes it very hard to get around.

Pleitgen: Russia is the biggest country in the world, but the infrastructure is often lacking. So driving—and driving safely over long distances—is a major challenge. On top of that, we are operating in a war zone, so navigating checkpoints requires a lot of experience and often patience.

Fred Pleitgen/CNN

Ruffini: Asking people who have just had one of the worst days of their life to come and talk to us. But it’s important that we tell these stories. It’s vital that we hear the voices of the people who are being forced to flee their homes in the middle of the night. Some walked 18 hours in the cold, in the dark. Some have been carrying their kids for hours. The guilt I feel asking them to stop their tired, frozen feet and let me ask them a few quick questions never goes away. But I try to be as respectful and efficient as possible. I never force someone who doesn’t want to talk. And I know that showing Americans the consequences of this conflict, the faces being hurt, will help in the long run. It just never feels good.

Williams: It’s just been so intense, especially for the last 48 hours, with things moving really, really quickly. So, the past couple of days have been very draining mentally and physically, not just for me but for the entire country. The other aspect of it is, my team and I have been covering Ukraine since 2014, so we have friends here, we know people here. We’ve spent an enormous amount of time on the front lines out east with young soldiers. We got to speak to them about their lives, their hopes for themselves, their country and whether or not they are willing to risk their lives. Now they are risking their lives and some of them in all likelihood have lost their lives. On a personal level, that’s quite challenging.

Holly Williams/CBS

Yingst: The difficult part about covering conflict, especially the way that we do, has to do with the fact that we often go to places before conflict erupts. We put in the time and reporting before the big event happens in order to get an understanding for our viewers of what’s actually going on in Ukraine.

So we were out on the frontlines in territory that was controlled by Ukraine last week—and we were talking to soldiers who were fighting to protect their country—and this was before the war erupted. That area that we were in, part of it is controlled by the Russians now. When this all started, we landed with the military at an airport in Kramatorsk. It’s a town very close to the front lines and I just remember when this campaign first started by the Russians, Kramatorsk was getting hit extremely hard with Russian strikes and we had just been there. And while it was very close to the front lines, people were living their lives.

And I think what’s always difficult in war is that you meet these humans along the way and then you know that their lives have been radically changed in a negative way once they continue on. I’m thinking back today of the soldiers that we met on the frontline and I don’t know if they’re alive or not. I don’t know if they’re injured or not. They were some of the frontline troops against these Russian forces who have now advanced to those positions. I think sometimes there’s a sense of guilt in covering things where we can fly in and fly out. We went to this really active hot spot and you meet these people and they are there and then like, we can come back from the front. We don’t have to stay at the front the whole time. These people had to stay there and they were clobbered by a Russian military offensive. And like I said, we don’t know what happened to them. But I think the thing that I find the most difficult is not knowing what happens to the interview subjects that we meet along the way.

TVNewser: What is a must-have tool in your on-the-ground reporting kit?

D’Agata: A pillow. If I go anywhere that I’m hauling around a flak jacket, I can squeeze in a pillow. Whether I’m sleeping in a safe house, on the floor of a bombed-out building or in some dusty bunker, sleep is not only a force multiplier, a lack of sleep can be lethal. That’s my pro tip.

Gutman: A steady supply of empathy.

Matt Gutman/ABC

Katersky: The must-have isn’t a tool but a person, or in our case a couple of people. Without our local producers and other Ukrainians who have stayed—perhaps at their own personal peril or against their family’s preference—to help us, we could not honor our commitment to the audience.  They are crucial to the reporting, the logistics and they’re reliable companions under rather dim circumstances.

Ott: My cell phone. I shoot on my phone, record audio on my phone, do live hits from my phone and stay connected with my phone. It’s the most important piece of equipment I have to do my job. I also need a comfortable pair of shoes.

Haley Ott/CBS

Pannell: There are many answers to this question and I don’t think there’s one single thing that trumps all others. Empathy, resourcefulness, stamina, a good camera and a microphone, A great team, a flak jacket and the odd luxury. Mine is a dwindling jar of peanut butter, which is now under strict rationing.

Paton Walsh: A phone. Sorry. That’s boring. I have things I plug into it, but it’s really the phone. Used to be a piece of paper and pen 20 years ago. Now I never have a pen. Ever.

Pleitgen: The first thing I always make sure I have is the largest power bank available to make sure I can communicate and keep up to date. But on top of that, in areas where roads might be closed or you have to take side paths, a good old map is often really important. It often offers more detail on the terrain and side paths and it won’t go away in case your phone dies.

Ruffini: A great team: A producer, cameraperson, driver, etc. TV news is always a group effort. But if we’re talking gadgets: a portable battery pack. A big one. It’s the size of my head. It’s actually not mine. I got it from my gadget-guy brother before I left. This one will charge my phone about five times and can run my laptop in a pinch.

Christina Ruffini/CBS

Williams: I always say, if you have a cell phone and a notepad, you kind of got everything you need. That’s one of the great things in the modern world is that if you have your cell phone on you, that essentially can be your asset. I will say, being in Ukraine, a clean pair of socks and some gloves as well could go a long way because it’s so cold.

Yingst: I feel like this is a bit more obtuse of an answer, but I think a good team. I don’t want to be cliché about it but a good team is critical and, I think I would speak on behalf of all great correspondents, they have great teams. I have a fantastic cameraman with me, I have fantastic producers with me, I have a great security team. And to go even further, the support. We have incredible support from our executive team who not only gives us the flexibility to report as we see fit in the locations that we see fit, but also the resources because this is not easy. There is a lot that goes on behind the scenes in terms of logistics and planning and movement of personnel to get this news to our viewers—and they have made it easy for us to operate and do our jobs.

Also, it’s important to remember that a lot of our executives are former field producers. Two of my bosses, the president of the company, Jay Wallace and the Vice President of News Greg Headen are former field producers. So they understand not only what we need in the field, but also the need for flexibility. And I think it’s a critical part in how we’re able to cover stories with so many teams on the ground. And I think it is due to the fact that the people running the company and making these executive level decisions have field experience. I think it’s a critical part to what we do because when I pick up the phone and say I need something, they understand. They have not sat behind a desk their whole career, they know what the field crew needs and they give it to us and it gives us the ability to always be there on the big stories.

If we are talking about objects, I would say hand warmers, they have been critical. It’s very cold here, and I use my phone for notes when I’m reporting. By the time the shot is over, my hand feels numb.

Trey Yingst/Fox News