The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

They risk it all to cover war in Ukraine. Are people still watching?

It takes a lot of money, logistics and courage for TV news networks to report from Ukraine’s front line. One year in, correspondents and executives agree it’s worth it.

Fox News correspondent Trey Yingst, center, reporting in Ukraine. (Fox News)
10 min

When CBS News correspondent Charlie D’Agata finished a recent report about Ukrainian and Russian troops fighting “close enough to throw grenades” on the front lines in eastern Ukraine, morning show co-host Gayle King sought to put things in perspective — and may have inadvertently spoken for American viewers who have followed the conflict since it began in late February 2022.

“Boy, Charlie, the one-year anniversary [this] week and it’s still going on,” King said. “No end in sight.”

As some American news consumers scroll past updates about Ukraine in relentless news cycles filled with mystery balloons and 2024 presidential politics, correspondents for CBS, NBC, ABC, CNN and Fox News who are covering the war — and executives overseeing that coverage — said they have an obligation to find and broadcast stories that resonate with the audience back home.

“I think we have a massive responsibility to make people care about this story,” said Fox News correspondent Trey Yingst, on assignment in Dnipro.

“I think there’s a danger that the American people might think that somehow this is under control, or somehow it’s a fire that they don’t have to be concerned about,” said CBS News correspondent Scott Pelley, who recently fronted a “60 Minutes” report about attacks on Ukraine’s energy infrastructure. “The consequences are enormous, and this is no less dangerous today for the world than it was on the day of the invasion.”

The cost of covering a war with no end in sight means network executives must plan and spend carefully, particularly as major media companies face revenue shortfalls.

Mike McCarthy, executive vice president of CNN International, said the network has spent “millions” on coverage of Ukraine, often hundreds of thousands of dollars per week. “No one has questioned what we’re spending, how we’re spending, because I think everyone believes this is what CNN is built for,” he said. “This is what we do.”

“We’re watching every penny we spend across the entire system, and that enables us to put the proper resources into a story like Ukraine,” said an NBC News executive who spoke on the condition of anonymity to candidly discuss company resources.

NBC walled off a neighborhood for journalists and local producers to live in while covering the Iraq War, and did something similar in Afghanistan. While there is no “green zone,” per se, in Ukraine, NBC has created a communications and safety system that is intentionally “redundant” to help provide extra layers of protection for journalists in the field. “It’s an expensive proposition,” the executive said.

Because the fighting is now concentrated in the east, with a front line that extends several hundred miles, journalists “have to traverse the entire country” to get close enough to cover the combat, according to NBC’s chief foreign correspondent Richard Engel. “There’s a lot of driving in this country.”

Engel can’t remember another time he’s been able to focus on one story, Ukraine, for nearly the entire year. “It is fascinating, it is important, it is happening now, it’s evolving and I think it has consequences,” he said.

But, he added, “I feel guilty because there are other stories out there that are being neglected. I feel terrible that I didn’t get to go to Afghanistan this year. Just because Ukraine is happening doesn’t mean there aren’t other things happening that deserve attention. I can only be in one place at one time.”

ABC News chief foreign correspondent Ian Pannell traveled back to Ukraine after covering the deadly earthquake in Turkey. “I came from an earthquake to a war zone,” he said. “Probably not your ideal fortnight.”

“The key to good, if not great, TV news is focusing on the individual stories that people will care about,” he said. “It’s hard to care every single day about a big thing. It’s much easier to connect and care about someone’s individual stories. We are also storytellers, and that’s what we should be trying to do to keep the audience engaged.”

Unsurprisingly, broadcast network coverage of the war in Ukraine is down significantly from highs in February, March and April 2022, when the conflict was the top story on the NBC, ABC and CBS evening news shows. In January this year, the Ukraine war received 40 minutes of total coverage on the evening news shows hosted by Lester Holt, David Muir and Norah O’Donnell, according to data provided by industry analyst Andrew Tyndall, compared with a high of 562 minutes last March. The top story last month was revelations about classified documents found at the home of President Biden. In December, the war received 34 minutes of broadcast show coverage, compared with the month’s top story, winter weather and associated delays, which received 110 minutes of coverage.

“Viewers get fatigued. That’s understandable,” said CBS News foreign correspondent Holly Williams, who recently returned from reporting a “60 Minutes” piece about the town of Kherson, which was occupied by the Russians for eight months before being liberated — though it still endures regular shelling. “It’s our job to make sure it’s front and center, to make sure people don’t get sick of hearing about it. … There isn’t a more important story in the world right now.”

William B. Taylor Jr., the former U.S. ambassador in Ukraine, said he’s been impressed by the scope and bravery of the coverage. “The more it’s in the press, the more we can see what the Ukrainians are fighting for, the more it will increase and maintain [American] support,” he said. “If the attention wanders, there will be the concern that the support for Ukraine will decline. So far, we haven’t seen very much.”

News organizations have tried different strategies for presenting updates in a quickly digestible fashion. NPR packages daily updates about the war in a podcast called “State of Ukraine” that launched the week after the invasion and “has attracted a steady base of listeners,” said NPR chief international editor Didi Schanche. “As long as ‘State of Ukraine’ has an audience, our intention is to continue the podcast.”

“Quite frankly, I’m surprised how big the interest still is in the war,” said CNN senior international correspondent Frederik Pleitgen. “It’s been going on for a year and I do very often see fatigue sometimes in stories that go on for that long.” (ABC’s Pannell also said the level of engagement in the story is “remarkable.”)

According to a CNN tally of on-air mentions of the word “Ukraine” since the invasion, the network has covered the conflict 37 percent more than MSNBC and 60 percent more than Fox News, including 4,500 live reports and 830 hours of live broadcasting from Ukraine — though CNN is built around a significantly larger international news footprint than almost any other network in the world, besides the BBC. The network began the war with a team of about 75 people in the country and reached a peak of 120 people, though it now has about 35 employees and local contractors there.

All networks have emphasized the importance of rotating correspondents in and out of the country, giving them an opportunity to mentally decompress and rest up for their next assignment. Doing so is vital for making rapid in-the-field decisions and staying safe, several correspondents said.

In interviews with dozens of reporters who have covered the war in Ukraine since it began, the same point has been made over and over: This conflict is almost singularly dangerous for journalists, considering the sheer amount of artillery being fired and the high-tech targeting capabilities employed by Russian forces.

While the pace of journalists being killed has slowed down since the very deadly first two months of the war, that doesn’t mean teams working for American networks have avoided danger. On the afternoon of Feb. 2, Pleitgen and his colleagues had parked their car in front of a building in the town of Kramatorsk, in eastern Ukraine, and prepared to report on the aftermath of an overnight airstrike. While his team had taken their usual security precautions, the town was “a little bit away” from where the fighting was going on between Russian and Ukrainian forces. Then, a missile hit in the courtyard behind the building, followed by another missile in the vicinity of the first strike.

It was one of Pleitgen’s closest calls in his lengthy career as a foreign correspondent. “I was extremely surprised and flabbergasted,” he said. “I do think this is by far the most dangerous war that I’ve ever covered.”

Pleitgen said that CNN’s security protocols worked well in Kramatorsk, where his team had identified a bunker to take cover. “We’re blessed to have a very robust, rigorous safety and security protocol, and it’s been tested to its limit,” McCarthy, the CNN executive, said.

The NBC News executive said the network weighs the editorial upside of an assignment against the potential security risk before sending out a correspondent. NBC also has three calls per day, seven days per week, to discuss the security situation in Ukraine and military movements. (The network even distributes twice-daily wind reports to determine where a toxic nuclear cloud might drift if a nuclear power plant was hit by a missile.)

Fox News is still reeling from the March 14, 2022 attack on a team of journalists in the village of Horenka that killed cameraman Pierre Zakrzewski, local producer Oleksandra Kuvshynova and badly injured correspondent Benjamin Hall, who has written a book about the attack called “Saved.” Fox is also putting together a documentary about the attack and Hall’s long road to recovery after losing a leg, his feet and an eye in the blasts.

Fox has been reporting from Ukraine since mid-January 2022, employing a team of nearly 20 reporters, along with a rotating group of 50 producers, photographers and engineers.

Yingst, who was staying in the Kyiv Intercontinental Hotel at the same time as the Fox News crew that was attacked, keeps tabs on the war when he’s reporting from his home base of Tel Aviv or on another foreign assignment. “It’s difficult to disconnect from this story,” he said. When he was covering the first anniversary of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, he was communicating with sources in Kyiv.

“There are millions of civilians at stake,” Yingst said. “The broader stability of Europe is on the line. It does affect American people.”

So, the question he often asks himself is this: “How do I humanize this story and make people care?”