Jerome Starkey on the perils and rewards of reporting from a war zone

The Press Awards News Reporter of the Year recalls his year on the Ukrainian frontline, and how he made sure his stories stood out from the pack

Jerome Starkey can vividly recall where he was when Russia invaded Ukraine – because he was, in many ways, far too close for comfort. The experienced foreign correspondent had been visiting the former frontline of the 2014 conflict as tensions swirled and woke on 23 February 2022 in the city of Severodonetsk, in the Luhansk region of the country, to the sound of mounting panic. “At four in the morning, everyone’s phones were buzzing and beeping. You could hear it along the entire corridor. At that point, I hadn’t heard the explosions from the bombs, but within half an hour people were outside in the car park and I’d had a call from London.”

Starkey and his fellow journalists were just a few miles from Shchastia, which within hours would become one of the first towns to be destroyed by the Russian bombardment. It was to become one of the most complicated, and dangerous, assignments of a 20-year career working for The Sun. Starkey’s reporting from the country over the following months would see him named News Reporter of the Year at the 2023 Press Awards, with judges praising his “courage, tenacity and professional skill” and the way he turned a “fluent and accessible style to the political gravity and emotional trauma of Ukraine.”

It was a fitting reward for an assignment that saw him bombarded by artillery shells and missiles and reporting amid a Russian tank assault. Starkey visited the site of an Easter Sunday rocket strike that targeted medics, uncovered serious allegations of war crimes in eastern Donbas, and reported first hand from the mass graves of the village of Bucha. His films were viewed more than 14 million times, and his first hand accounts ensured readers of the UK’s best selling newspaper were constantly aware of the unfolding atrocities on their doorstep.

He also secured the first interview with a Russian prisoner of war by a western media outlet. “I think it was really important to try and humanise the people on the other side of the conflict,” he says. “In the wake of Bucha, where really atrocious, horrific, horrendous things happened, – soldiers going door to door abducting and murdering people – it wasn't happening all the time. It was so awful, it's almost easy to totally dehumanise the Russian army and see them as animals.

“It wasn't like they could speak freely, but it was nonetheless fascinating to meet these guys and to get a sense of why they joined the army and what they were fighting for.”

Getting to the most important stories first is, he says, about doing your homework. Starkey carefully monitors social media channels including X (formerly Twitter) and Telegram, as well  as the Ukrainian and international press for leads. He follows them up the old-fashioned way: “If you just go somewhere and talk to people and you've got a nose for a story, normally you'll normally find something.”

But a strong network of connections is the other crucial part of the equation. Arriving in Ukraine without contacts in the country, he initially hitched a ride with rival journalists who were vital in providing information on checkpoints, safe hotels or reliable travel routes. “Journalists are naturally competitive. However, when you're on the road, competitive titles become a bit more collegiate,” says Starkey. “You need to look out for each other.”

Since then, he has built a reliable network including a photographer and a local ‘fixer’ who helps with translation and story gathering. In August 2023, he returned to the country to continue his reporting as the war entered a new and crucial phase. It is imperative, he says, to keep events in Ukraine at the forefront of the news agenda and in the minds of the wider public. 

It is a mission he will pursue for the same “mixture of selfish, occasionally slightly less selfish reasons” he first wanted to report from war zones: “For the adventure, for the excitement, for the sense that war is often the biggest story because it's the apex of human experience.” But as the Press Awards judges highlighted, it is Starkey’s ability to tell the human tales behind the conflict that make his work particularly valuable. As he puts it: “Normal life seeps through the cracks… people find ways to cope in extraordinary circumstances.”