Women Reporting on Ukraine for WaPo Win IWMF’s Courage in Journalism Award

The International Women’s Media Foundation honored the women of the Washington Post covering the Russian occupation of Ukraine, with its coveted Courage in Journalism award.

People in Kherson, Ukraine, celebrate on Nov. 12, 2022, after Russian forces withdrew from the region. (Wojciech Grzedzinski for The Washington Post via Getty Images)

On Feb. 21, 2022, Siobhán O’Grady of the Washington Post boarded a flight from Cairo, Egypt, to Kyiv, Ukraine. Rumors had been swirling for weeks that the Russian invasion was imminent. But that did not prepare O’Grady for what would happen next: Just three days after arriving in Kyiv, Ukraine was under a full-scale attack, and she would spend the next seven weeks in the basement of her hotel. 

This year, the International Women’s Media Foundation honored O’Grady, chief Ukraine correspondent, with the Courage in Journalism award, along with several other women from the Washington Post reporting from Ukraine—including Ukraine bureau chief Isabelle Khurshudyan, video journalists Whitney Shefte and Whitney Leaming, contributing photojournalist Heidi Levine, Baghdad bureau chief Louisa Loveluck, national security reporter Missy Ryan, Bogotá bureau chief Samantha Schmidt, Berlin bureau chief Loveday Morris, contributing photographer Kasia Strek.  

An estimated 20,000 to 50,000 women are enlisted in the Ukrainian military, but regulated to “women-specific roles,” they rarely see combat. The lack of gender diversity in combat zones has led to unique difficulties for women journalists. Despite her years of experience in combat zones, Khurshudyan said she still has to pass a proverbial “ability check” when she reports from the frontline. 

“What’s frustrating to me is that men [soldiers] might take me less seriously, or won’t take me to the frontlines because I’m a woman,” she said. “That aspect definitely exists, that definitely happens. You have to try and show your credentials. Other women will try to slip in other work they’ve done.” 

O’Grady shared a similar view: Daily inequities with even the simplest things, such as hygiene issues or finding a safe spot to relieve oneself, can be exacerbated by the precarity of war reporting and can impact one’s ability to focus on the task.

Each time they go out to report from a combat area, there is a conversation between everyone on the team. Khurshudyan said they go with the opinion of whoever is the least comfortable: If someone on the team is concerned about the security of a location, they don’t go there. 

Weighing your safety and the safety of your peers against reporting can be a constant battle. Dealing with the idea that you could witness or be a victim of extreme violence takes a toll on war reporters. 

Khurshudyan and other women reporters from the Washington Post stayed throughout the bombings of Kharkiv in the Donetsk region. O’Grady was targeted twice while reporting on artillery combat.

Washington Post correspondent Isabelle Khurshudyan with her great-aunt in Odessa, Ukraine. This photo was included in an essay by Khurshudyan, “I always dreamed of visiting my ancestral home of Odessa. But not like this.” (Whitney Leaming / The Washington Post via Getty Images)

What makes the reporting from the Washington Post on the war in Ukraine stand out is the focus on the universality of the trauma of war. Writing about war comes with traumas that the journalists themselves carry. O’Grady said on some level, she related to the family separation that the Ukrainian families she worked with had experienced; when she took the job in Ukraine, she was separated from her husband. 

Khurshudyan has been in Ukraine longer than any other foreign reporter for the Washington Post. Memories of soldiers she interviewed who died only a few weeks after linger in her memory.

“As you settle down and have Ukrainian friends, you see how much suffering they are experiencing and how much their lives have changed starts to weigh on you, these horrible things are happening to people that you love,”  She said. 

The friendships with local Ukrainians that developed carried a kind of trauma; grief is a communal experience. As the journalists became more enmeshed in their communities, they watched as their new friends processed loss and took on a part of the pain. Khurshudyan said that at times, “separating the difficulties of being at war and the impact of that and the professional detachment you need as a journalist can be difficult to maneuver but at the same time we’re in the thick of it and that makes the reporting stronger.”

O’Grady’s journalistic passion lies in “human-centric stories”—an ethos seemingly shared by the other women reporters from the Washington Post covering Ukraine. O’Grady said being a woman in journalism opens doors that may be closed to her male peers. “The benefit of working as a woman is the gift of being welcomed into women’s lives here.”

This style of storytelling really shined in Shefte and O’Grady’s coverage of a “bunker” maternity ward in Kyiv which centered on the humanity of expectant couples as they waited for birth and contemplated the potential loss that lingers in the minds of every Ukrainian since the beginning of the occupation. She described the atmosphere of a wartime maternity ward as “birth and joy amid horrific suffering.” 

The stories they captured drew attention to an often-forgotten wartime heroism: parenthood. When Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky declared martial law, which implemented a travel ban on most men between the ages of 18 and 60, the women of Ukraine became the de facto caregivers., 

“Women’s lesser position in society has given women greater freedom of movement and protection from frontline military duties,” Washington Post contributor and Professor Jessica Trisko Darden said “On the other hand, Ukraine’s military policies helped to reinforce gender norms that fail to distribute family responsibilities equally.” 

As mothers fled Ukraine with their children, fathers were sent to war or stayed behind in their homes waiting for the call to arms. In her coverage of the underground hospital, O’Grady captures the intensities of these young families’ contemplation: Either they stay together in the Ukraine, or separate.

The most dangerous thing a journalist can do is become disconnected from the people they’re writing about.

Siobhán O’Grady

The barriers that exist for women journalists are plenty—they face specific gender violence on and offline, but what comes forth in the coverage from the Washington Post’s women writers is the power of shared global bonds of womanhood and the communicative power that comes with that. 

“I’ve been able to have these really intimate conversations with these people, a straight macho war reporter might not be able to create the same sense of comfort,” O’Grady said. “I’m able to move between worlds, I can do the front line work, and I can do the sacred work of being in a maternity hospital underground in the first weeks of the war.” 

O’Grady recalled working on a story with two other journalists recognized by IWMF, Whitney Shefte and Anastacia Galouchka, covering the rape of a woman by Russian FSB agents. Having an all-female team covering these sensitive stories means they are able to make more space for comfort—something O’Grady recognizes occurs more often with women in the press corp. Covering stories of rape and other stories of war crimes against marginalized communities takes care, and the women of the Washington Post have made it clear that they enter these interviews from a place of shared humanity.  

“The most dangerous thing a journalist can do is become disconnected from the people they’re writing about,” O’Grady said. “I hope I never become less human.” 

Stories of motherhood, soldiers, civilians, grandparents, dogs, cats, and even the politicization of Aperol Spritz interweave in their storytelling, giving readers a better understanding of the vastness of living through a modern war. 

Amongst the rubble, these women were able to uncover beauty, humor and humanity—which is perhaps best exemplified through the story of an older Ukrainian woman that stayed in her dilapidated building after a bombing that said she’d “rather sh*t outside in Ukraine than use the bathroom in Russia.” Or through the young soldier learning to use an AK-47 for the first time that said he hadn’t used a gun but had played Call of Duty.

O’Grady is a testament to IWMF’s impact on women journalists; she credits IWMF with her career. When she was 23, she applied for a grant through IWMF. Despite her lack of experience, the organization took a chance on her. She went on a trip to the Democratic Republic of Congo, where she gained experience in foreign correspondence and went through their hostile environment training. This cemented her interest in this style of journalism and set her up on a trajectory that led to her full-circle career and winning the Courage in Journalism award along with her peers from the Washington Post.

The IWMF relies on donations to keep fighting for women journalists. You can donate here.

If you want to attend this year’s award reception gala in DC, NYC or LA, you can learn more here.

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Max Fallon-Goodwin is a former editorial intern at Ms. and is completing their undergraduate degree in Africana studies and the study of women and gender at Smith College. Their work focuses on Black queer radical histories and cultural critique. Their work constantly engages with other Black queer theorists and cultural mappers.