Mstyslav Chernov, Evgeniy Maloletka and Vasilisa Stepanenko have been awarded the James Foley Medill Medal for Courage in Journalism for their exclusive coverage in Mariupol, Ukraine. Their five-part story, “Erasing Mariupol,” chronicles the attacks of Russia on innocent Ukrainian civilians during the early stages of the Russian-Ukraine war.
The award is given by the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications at Northwestern University.
As the only international media remaining in the country, the journalists risked their lives to report harrowing details of children as young as 18-months-old buried in trenches. Chernov’s first-person writing describes the journalists’ narrow escape out of the country after learning Russian forces were hunting them down.
“Alone among Western journalists, the AP team remained in an increasingly terrorized Mariupol. They sent the outside world graphic photos, video and narrative, exposing the horror of the Russian siege,” said Medill Professor Emeritus and co-judge Donna Leff. “Their bravery under fire and their work to help the people of Mariupol, guiding them to shelters and protecting them, define courage in journalism.”
Upon learning of a growing Russian disinformation campaign to discredit the journalists’ work, the trio knew it was imperative to get to safety and share their reporting with the world. Stepanenko wore and smuggled a tampon embedded with a tiny data card through 15 Russian checkpoints. The card contained exclusive footage from a Ukrainian medic, Yuliia Paievska (known as Taira in Ukraine), who was captured by Russia days after entrusting the team with the footage.
Russia freed Taira from custody in June 2022 after the AP published the resulting story and video from Talia’s footage on May 20, 2022. She personally credited the AP for her release. Even after escaping from Mariupol, the team continued to cover the war in Ukraine and were the first to document a mass grave and torture chambers in the city of Izium.
“With shelling going on all around them and a Russian target on their back, the AP trio found a way to sneak dispatches and photographs out of the besieged city of Mariupol, providing a lifeline to the city’s desperate residents,” said co-judge judge Al From, a Medill Board of Advisers member and the Democratic Leadership Council founder. “I cannot think of more heroic journalism under more dangerous conditions.”
“The important reporting by this team of AP journalists at great risk to their own safety gave the world a much better understanding of what war looks like to civilians living through it,” co-judge and Medill Professor Emeritus Ellen Shearer said. “Their work embodies the moral courage that Jim Foley stood for.”
Foley was a Medill alumnus killed by ISIS extremists for his reporting in 2014.
Since the stories’ publication throughout March and October 2022, Chernov, Maloletka and Stepaneko’s coverage has saved thousands of lives and drawn attention to atrocities that would have otherwise gone largely unnoticed.
This year’s honorable mention was awarded to Lynzy Billing for her coverage of CIA-backed night raids killing hundreds of civilians in Afghanistan. Her story, “The Night Raids,” which was published by ProPublica, revealed the Zero Units, squadrons of the U.S. trained Afghan special forces soldiers killing civilians based on faulty intelligence.
Over the course of more than three years, Billing conducted more than 350 interviews with current and former Afghan and U.S. government, defense and security officials. Courageously, she was on the ground in rural pockets of Afghanistan few reporters have visited before.
“Billing’s investigative reporting on the CIA-aided night raids in Afghanistan is a remarkable piece of journalism,” From said. “By her dogged persistence and incredible courage, she uncovered a little-known and under-reported story that casts a dark shadow over covert American activities in a tragic war.”
About the James Foley Medill Medal for Courage in Journalism
The medal is given for work published during a calendar year to an individual or team of journalists working for a U.S.-based media outlet who best displayed moral, physical, ethical, financial or political courage in pursuit of a story or series of stories. In 2014, the name of the award was changed to honor Medill alumnus James Foley (MSJ08). Foley was captured while reporting in Syria in 2012 and killed by ISIS extremists in 2014. The award comes with a $5,000 prize.
The selection committee included Democratic Leadership Council founder Al From, Medill Professor Emeritus Donna Leff and Medill Professor Emeritus Ellen Shearer.