Simon Ostrovsky: A Conversation over Zoom

Award-winning journalist and documentary filmmaker Simon Ostrovsky spoke to Neil Cruz and David Hennessy’s contemporary World History class via Zoom. Additionally, a few journalism students from Katherine Slattery’s class and North Current reporters were able to attend. Best known for covering the war in Ukraine for VICE News, Ostrovsky talked about his experience while covering the war in Ukraine and answered questions about journalism in general. 

Ostrovsky, who works closely with the Pulitzer center, started off by talking about the organization that “set up” this Zoom talk. He said, “The Pulitzer Center means when they say they support underreported stories is that they literally give money to journalists like myself to go out there and back these stories.” The Pulitzer center is primarily focused on getting out underreported stories like the war in Ukraine. He went there around the one year anniversary of the full-scale invasion. 

One of Ostrovsky’s notable works in Ukraine was his report on Bucha, which is a town located in the Kyiv region. Bucha became a notable place because of the horrible war crimes the Russian forces have been accused of committing. He said, “We saw horrific things, things that we didn’t really expect to see and I’ve covered a lot of wars, you know, I’ve covered the war in Chechnya. I’ve covered Nagorno and Karabakh, which is a war between Azerbaijan and Armenia. I even covered the American war in Iraq in 2006. So I’ve seen a lot of things, but nothing really prepared me for what I saw in Bucha.”

To give a clear picture of what it was like in Bucha, he went deeper and talked about some of the victims in this city located west of Kyiv. He and his team came across an office building that Russians used as their headquarters for their forces. Behind the office they saw a gruesome reality of the war. “We found a group of eight bodies, some of them with their hands tied behind their backs and with, you know, bullet holes in their chest and their head.”  

Talking about the war crimes in Ukraine, especially in Bucha, to GN students is a bit upsetting, but it matters and is important for students to know because it is something that is going on in the world and needs more awareness. Some students who participated in the talk are interested in learning about the war in Ukraine and journalism in general. The war in Ukraine is something that should not be brushed under the rug; it needs to be talked about more to bring awareness to Russia’s aggression and the people who have suffered because of this war. 

There are also many Glenbard North students interested in journalism, who came to listen more from a career angle than for world history reasons. Ostrovsky talked about the different components of journalism. For example, interviewing different types of people and how to approach them. “If you’re holding a politician to account on corruption, for example in a live television studio. Then you don’t want to pull your punches you know, you want to go full bore and ask them really tough questions and put them on the stop and make them uncomfortable.” He explained that interviewing politicians is different from talking to people who are vulnerable. During his trip to Ukraine, he talked to Russian prisoners of war in Ukraine. Ostrovsky said, “When you are interviewing somebody who is in a vulnerable position as a prisoner of war, you really have to treat them with kid gloves and I have no way of verifying whether some of what they told me was true or not true.”   

Some students and teachers who were present asked questions. Ricky Mendez, ‘23, asked Ostrovsky about his experience choosing the area of journalism. He answered, “I think the most important thing to be doing in journalism is to think about whether you are bringing out information that hasn’t been exposed before.” 

Another question that was asked by a student from Mr. Hennessy’s class was about the destruction and diminishing of free press around the world. He said, “Well, I think fortunately, in the United States, at least, we don’t have a huge problem with freedom of speech and a free press. I mean, I think here, we almost have the opposite problem, right? If you look at outlets like Fox News, for example, are programs like Tucker Carlson’s program where they can actually say things that are blatantly untrue.” 

Katherine Slattery asked Ostrovsky about his perspective on what he would tell a student, who’s just self conscious and is tensed about saying something wrong, when gathering information about their topic. He responded, “I think that’s totally normal because journalism is a really awkward activity. You’re going up to people you’ve never met before, and you’re asking them sometimes very personal questions, and you’re expecting them to answer you.” As he continued, he shared this personal experience as well. When he was at the St. Petersburg Times in Russia, his job was to rewrite bank press releases. He had to talk to the PR department of the bank to confirm some of the numbers in the press release and he stared at the phone for 10 to 15 minutes because he was nervous. He said that it is normal for reporters and journalists to feel nervous because people are sharing their stories and experiences.