In 1997, 16 young Ukrainian journalists went to the western hinterlands of their country as part of an experiment. The objective: to learn how to conduct small focus groups to try to find out how people were coping in a time of great political and economic turmoil. This was seven years before the Orange Revolution, which took place late in 2004, in which millions of Ukrainians took to the streets to protest a fraudridden election for president, resulting in an unprecedented new election won by reformer Viktor Yushchenko.

Back in 1997, Ukrainian wages hovered at about $35 a month, and often neither wages nor pensions were paid. In nearby Poland, after eight years of rapid change following the election of Solidarity reformers to the Parliament and the Polish Communist government’s subsequent handover of power to a Solidarity government, monthly wages had passed the $200 mark for state jobs, and in the thriving private sector many young professionals were paid $1200 a month.

But reform efforts continued to go awry in Ukraine. Investors—not just multinationals but also émigré Ukrainians—were stymied. Political leaders, attached to Moscow, held tight to their considerable governing and legal powers. The notion of creating a “democracy” and civil society there—as some advocates within the country and others from the West wanted to do—remained a hard sell. As a result, with an economy stuck in the past, thousands of Ukrainians went overseas for better jobs. Some found themselves trapped in sex-slavery jobs. Tens of thousands of others became traders, hauling huge plastic bags of goods to sell in other countries’ street markets, returning home with cash enough to buy more supplies and set out again.

While abroad, Ukrainians saw the rapid improvement in living standards in the Baltic nations, Poland and Hungary. They also could see what was not happening back home to improve the living conditions of millions of Ukrainians, who despite their situation were showing few outward signs of distress.

Asking Questions

So how were Ukrainians surviving? And what did they think about the economic and social changes going on around them? These are some of the questions that these 16 journalists set out to pose to groups of Ukrainian citizens.

These journalists were part of a training program sponsored by Women in Development Technical Assistance Project (WIDTECH). I was one of two consultants to this project. By 1997, I had spent most of the decade covering the democratic and economic reforms in Eastern Europe as a freelance reporter for a variety of U.S. and European business publications including Business Week, CBS News, European Banker, and Media & Marketing Europe. For five years I had written a weekly column for the Warsaw Business Journal. For seven semesters in the early 1990’s I taught about the U.S. mass media at Warsaw University. With those students I shared information that was not so much how to report but about the roles that journalists play in a democratic, capitalistic society.

In this Ukrainian program—based in the Western city of L’viv—my teaching colleague was Leslie Snyder, a University of Connecticut communications science professor. Her specialty was using focus groups as one strategy to find out what people were thinking and what they were doing. The 16 young journalists with whom we worked were from a variety of cities in the Ukraine (L’viv, Kiev, Donets’k, Poltava and Chernivtsi). Two of the participants were men, and all were either print reporters or broadcast reporters and producers.

In two intensive days of discussion, we talked about focus-group principles and role-played an assortment of interviewing styles and skills. One goal was to communicate to these journalists the value of open-ended questions when trying to elicit information from strangers. To make this point, we downplayed a confrontational approach. We also tried to get them to determine in advance the main thrust of what they wanted to learn from these interviews and then worked with them on how to structure and ask questions that might lead those who were being interviewed to give them some helpful answers.

After this introductory work, these journalists conducted eight focus groups in three different locations. No Western consultants were with them when they interviewed the focus-group participants, who had been chosen in advance by another contractor. There were eight to 12 people in each focus group; six of them were comprised solely of women and two of men. In three of these groups, the women were 40 and older; in the others, they were between 20 and 40. One reason for the emphasis on women was that our WIDTECH sponsors wanted us to encourage and enable reporters to rely more on women as sources for stories (since the bulk of government officials were men, and it was a relative rarity for a woman to be profiled and quoted in the Ukraine press). By learning more about women’s lives, it was believed that these reporters would discover how families were surviving in these ruinous economic times and also learn how they looked at the economy in general.

One of our goals as trainers was to equip the journalists with tools they could use to talk with strangers who lived in rural parts of the country where few reporters ventured. By doing this, they’d come to understand that ordinary folks had important stories to share and, in fact, were a critical part of the equation of how Ukraine was faring. We wanted to get them to report beyond press releases and false assurances of the politicians and bureaucrats. We suspected that if they’d talk with people who were struggling under the policies of their government, then what they wrote and broadcast would be different.

During our time there, Snyder and I also interviewed local business leaders, a regional director of economic reforms, and half a dozen villagers who were rethinking the concept of collective farming. We found some entrepreneurs were prevailing against great odds. I wanted to share what I had found out in these interviews to help these young journalists discover some lessons in those stories, as well.

Lessons Learned

Inevitably, we experienced some bumps in the road. The focus groups were a hit. The journalists were stunned to hear what these city, town and village folk told them. Nearly everyone seemed to be trying to earn an income, though some used unorthodox, homegrown methods, such as baking breads or cakes in their kitchens, and others bartered what they had for what they needed. In the villages, bartering often meant looking the other way when loggers cut into forest preserves while, in exchange, they trucked in food and other supplies for the villagers.

Perhaps what hit home most with the journalists was the adamant attitude most women had as they told the reporters how they couldn’t wait for the politicians to get their act together. They had to find ways to put food on their tables. And the journalists were astounded when these women scolded the occasional focus-group participant who took a “woe is me” attitude—and began to coach them on resources they hadn’t yet thought to use.

In our classroom discussions after the focus-group interviews, the reporters were euphoric and amazed at all they had learned. I had less success in selling them on story ideas based on my interviews with business entrepreneurs in L’viv. One of the people I’d interviewed was a physician who’d had a scholarship to a Kansas university course on small business startups. She’d come back and bought a pharmacy (a sector of the economy that was then being privatized), found a storefront space, hired a pharmacist, but was confronted then by neighborhood toughs demanding protection money. It turned out that her husband had gone to the United States on another type of exchange program, one tailored for police in transition countries. One thing he learned there was how to deal with extortion threats. The two of them had met with those who demanded this payment, and it turned out that by pushing back against these threats, they dissolved; they were local thugs, not affiliated with any national extortion scam. This ability of local folks to stand their ground was something few Ukrainians knew about at the time.

Another story I presented to them was about an economist who’d taken control of a Lvov regional bank that once handled money for state enterprises. She had transformed it into an engine of regional business growth. The bank kept some investment stakes in the most promising of state enterprises in its region but also added private clients and pulled in Western advisors. She’d also hired mostly women for the bank’s executive jobs.

When I told the young journalists that these experiences seemed to offer several good angles for stories, my idea was met with an uneasy silence. Finally, one brave person raised his hand. They couldn’t write a story about this woman and her bank, they told me, because that would be free publicity for the bank. Nor could they write about her as an example of a woman entrepreneur moving to the top (after decades of state socialism in which women were permanent number two’s) because that would be puffery for her. And finally another journalist spelled out the wretched reality: Their editors demanded advertisements before any stories could be written on business people. No ads, no story.

I was appalled at hearing this, and I said so. It wasn’t just the corruption of the process or the deplorable conflict of interest. But how, I asked them, could they educate the public about such rare successes taking place if they couldn’t mention them? Didn’t this pose a dilemma for them, as reporters, and hamper their ability to find out which economic strategies worked and which didn’t and to pass that on to their readers in this very confusing time in Ukraine?

They didn’t have answers to offer.

But my discouragement was tempered by my thrill at seeing these young journalists get so excited about what they’d experienced in these focus groups. From those interviews, they’d discovered many angles for stories and saw ways in which they could replicate these reporting methods when they got back to their newsrooms. A few wrote stories about this seminar and their work with the focus groups. Others went on to pursue such interviews with “real” folks back home, realizing that these voices and experiences could play a key role in helping them to report about how people coped in times of extreme adversity.

And in my book, that’s success.

Peggy Simpson, a 1979 Nieman Fellow, is a freelance reporter in Washington, D.C.. She is working on a book about her time in Poland, including the key role played by entrepreneurs— many of them in the media— in fueling Poland’s successful transition from a Soviet-controlled satellite country after World War II to a free country with membership in NATO and the European Union.

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