Opinion | In the Age of the Smartphone, We Need War Reporters More Than Ever

We are living in the most thoroughly documented time in human existence. There are billions of us carrying cameras in our pockets, and the videos we make ricochet across the internet with astonishing ease: silly things, like dance moves and pratfalls, along with deadly serious things, like police officers murdering unarmed civilians or children choking on chemical weapons.

And yet we see through a glass darkly. We consume a stream of snippets, served to us chopped up and sometimes algorithmically curated, often stripped of context.

It is precisely because of this never-ending stream of images that the devastating new documentary “20 Days in Mariupol” seared into my brain when I saw it in a theater last week. The film is the work of an astonishingly brave team of Ukrainian journalists who remained in the city of Mariupol at the very beginning of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in early 2022, risking their lives to document the siege.

If you paid any attention to the news from Ukraine then, you probably saw some of this team’s work. Mstyslav Chernov, a Ukrainian journalist and filmmaker, along with Evgeniy Maloletka, a still photographer, and Vasilisa Stepanenko, a field producer, documented the siege for The Associated Press.

They were, after a fashion, accidental war correspondents. War arrived on their doorstep, and each of them, somehow, found the courage to meet it. Chernov was an artist who increasingly moved to making news photos and videos when Russia menaced and ultimately invaded Ukraine. Stepanenko, the daughter of a pioneer of hip-hop dance in Ukraine, was just 22 years old during the siege of Mariupol. She chose journalism as a career because she had grown up in a city a couple of dozen miles from the border, in the shadow of Russian aggression. Maloletka cut his teeth photographing Russia’s 2014 invasion of Ukraine.

Newscasts led with snippets of their footage, demonstrating in the starkest terms just how pitiless Vladimir Putin’s prosecution of the invasion would be: Doctors frantically perform CPR on a lifeless toddler. A father wails over the body of his 16-year-old son, who died after his legs were blown off by an airstrike during a soccer game. A woman on the verge of giving birth is carried out of a bombed hospital, dazed, bleeding, clutching her swollen belly.

Woven into a documentary that unfolds over 95 excruciating minutes, these moments become something else: a chronicle of what it means to witness and document atrocity, the extraordinary risks these journalists took to tell these stories.

I recently returned to field reporting after a decade as an editor and media executive, working safely behind a desk and in conference rooms, to discover a changed world for journalists. The crucial concept of the neutrality of journalists in conflict, a tenuously accepted idea in the best of times, has all but vanished amid a thicket of propaganda, lies and disinformation. I have watched helplessly as friends and colleagues have been jailed, beaten and killed simply for trying to do their work with honor and integrity.

This work has always been difficult and dangerous, but it has become ever more so, most especially for journalists like those who made this film: local journalists, many of them freelancers for international organizations, covering brutal events unfolding in their own backyards.

Since 2003, about 1,700 journalists have been killed in the line of duty around the world. The deaths of Western journalists tend to get the most attention: the horror of reporters beheaded by the Islamic State; celebrated photographers who died under artillery fire in the post-Arab Spring battle for Libya; a legendary foreign correspondent killed by government shelling in the Syrian city of Homs.

But the butcher’s bill is the longest for local journalists covering the crises in their homelands, countries like Syria, Iraq and Yemen, as well as places like Mexico, where drug cartels frequently target journalists for assassination. Since the beginning of Russia’s full-scale invasion in February 2022, at least 17 journalists have been killed in Ukraine, 11 of them Ukrainian.

Governments are jailing more journalists, too. Last year, the number of detained journalists spiked to 363, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, in authoritarian countries like China, Eritrea, Iran and Myanmar but also in troubled democracies like Turkey. (Disclosure: I serve on C.P.J.’s board.) As I write this, Evan Gershkovich, a Wall Street Journal reporter, has been held prisoner by the Russian government for more than 100 days for simply doing his job.

I’ve seen the growing danger firsthand. Last fall, I traveled to Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince, where I was once able to walk deep into the city’s sprawling slums to interview residents about their lives. This time, amid open gang warfare and a plague of kidnappings, I had no choice but to travel around the city in a sport utility vehicle convoy with an armed guard. In Haiti, a country under siege by warring gangs aligned to powerful political and business interests, at least seven journalists were killed in 2022, and at least two have been killed this year.

Last month, I went to the borderlands between Sudan and Chad to report on the crisis engulfing Darfur. I have visited the area many times, even crossing the border on foot to try to document war crimes in Sudan when the Sudanese government refused to permit me to enter Darfur legally. These days the region has become so lawless, and respect for the vital work of journalists so meaningless, that I was required by the Chadian authorities to travel with a security detail.

So it is not surprising that images like the ones captured in “20 Days in Mariupol” feel so vanishingly rare.

A pivotal scene in the film comes on Day 14 of the siege, March 9. Russian troops have just bombed a maternity hospital. A heavily pregnant woman is carried out on a stretcher, gravely wounded and apparently in shock. Women clutching infants stream out of the bombed-out building. A little boy screams for his mother.

The team runs to the scene, cameras rolling, and captures it all.

And then comes the hard part: How to send these images to the team’s editors at The Associated Press? The cellphone networks have been down for days. Chernov and his team have dodged airstrikes to capture this atrocity. Can they safely get it out to the world?

A police officer named Volodymyr tells Chernov that he knows a place — just outside a looted supermarket there is a patch of cellphone signal. They drive there, a risky proposition given the warplanes streaking over the city. A plane roars overhead. The team dives behind a stairwell for safety.

“Is there internet?” someone asks.

“Volodymyr said the footage from the maternity hospital would change the course of the war,” Chernov narrates over these scenes. “But we have seen so many dead people. Dead children. How could more death change anything?”

Despite the exceptional courage of the team and the remarkable scenes they capture, a feeling of futility hangs over the film. It’s not hard to understand why. Most of us got into journalism hoping to change the world. Surely, showing atrocities will lead to action. But the more common pattern is this: A horror is revealed, and then, for a long time, not much happens.

The massacre at My Lai was exposed in 1969; it surely increased domestic opposition to the war in Vietnam, but it hardly led directly to the end of the pointless slaughter there, which came years later.

The publication of the torture photos from Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad was shocking. But it hardly slowed, much less halted, America’s slide toward ever escalating atrocities in the “war on terror.”

The revelation that Syria’s dictator, Bashar al-Assad, had used chemical weapons that maimed and killed children brought global condemnation but little action. Today the regional foes who once swore to isolate and remove Assad from power are beckoning him back into the fold of acceptable autocrats.

I asked Chernov about this. A few times in the documentary he mentions being apart from his young daughters. Each day in Mariupol risked a greater chance he might never see them again. If he was so unsure of the impact of his work, why stay?

“If you don’t do anything, you also feel like a criminal,” Chernov told me. “Like you are helping the killers. You are helping the criminals to continue to do their crimes. And I can’t. After all we lived through, this is not something I can do. I am aware that my efforts are not as productive as I would want them to be. But still, at least, at least do something.”

As he spoke, I thought of another journalist I admire, working half a world away. Hiba Morgan, a journalist of Sudanese and South Sudanese origin, is one of the few reporters still working in Sudan’s capital, Khartoum. She is the correspondent for Al Jazeera, and with her team she has documented at great peril the street-by-street fight between two rival generals and their troops to control the city and the country. The fighting has stretched on for more than three months, killing thousands of people. Her team had had many close calls — stray bullets and wayward artillery coming uncomfortably close. When I called her recently, she listened for incoming airstrikes or gun battles that ricocheted too close as we talked. I asked her what kept her here, when so many others had fled.

“A couple of weeks ago we went to a hospital, and the doctors were running out of medicines,” she told me. They needed to remove a bullet from a 7-year-old boy. They didn’t have enough anesthesia to put him under, so they used a local anesthetic.

“You could clearly hear the child was crying and in pain,“ she said. “We came out of that, we were all crying as well, and we had a chat afterward. We all wondered, what are we doing? And I think we know that it may not make a difference now, but we’re documenting history. We are creating a record. People will know what happened here.”

Her words made me realize that Chernov’s film left me feeling something that was quite the opposite of futility. Morgan, like Chernov, is a journalist committed to going to and staying in the hard places, the painful ones, and telling the stories of the people she finds there. These brave journalists do this work not because they think they can make an immediate difference, but because doing nothing in the face of such cruelty is intolerable. Their work is humbling, inspiring and necessary. It demands and requires our rapt attention.

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Lydia Polgreen has been a New York Times Opinion columnist since 2022. She spent a decade as a correspondent for The Times in Africa and Asia, winning Polk and Livingston Awards for her coverage of ethnic cleansing in Darfur and resource conflicts in West Africa. She also served as editor in chief of HuffPost. @lpolgreen

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