Award-winning documentary filmmaker, investigative journalist, and multiple Pulitzer Center grantee Simon Ostrovsky spent years covering conflict throughout the former Soviet Union and the Middle East.
One word of advice he had for students at the University of Oklahoma this fall: “Ideas are the coin of the realm.”
“The worth of the journalist is really in the ideas they come up with,” Ostrovsky said, noting that it is a misconception that editors simply assign projects to reporters. “Always be pitching your editor […and] grow thick skin [to move beyond rejection].”
He also urged students to make their stories relevant and avoid “couch journalism.”
“As soon as you go to a place, so many different angles […] open up to you,” said Ostrovsky, a special correspondent for PBS NewsHour.
Ostrovsky shared his thoughts via a two-day hybrid visit November 29 and 30, 2023, at the University of Oklahoma and its Gaylord College of Journalism and Mass Communication, one of more than 40 partners in the Pulitzer Center’s Campus Consortium network. Ostrovsky had hoped to visit campus, but he fell ill. Via Zoom, Ostrovsky shared some of his most recent investigations aired on PBS NewsHour and engaged with his audiences of more than 360 students and faculty over two days.
Ostrovsky covered his career trajectory, offered suggestions on ways to build skills, and shared his enthusiasm for the field of journalism—he was excited when hands flew up when he asked classes how many of the students wanted to be journalists.
Students and faculty asked questions: What is the future of long-form broadcast reporting? What is his process for selecting individuals to interview? How does he keep his composure in emotional situations? How does he select the issues he covers?
He shared the personal toll of covering conflict, his opportunity to participate in the University of Michigan’s Knight-Wallace Fellowship in 2021, and his decision to report on more detailed and complicated investigative projects.
With one of his latest Pulitzer Center-supported pieces, “Machinery From New York-Based Company Used To Build Russian Weapons Used in War on Ukraine,” Ostrovsky admitted he was concerned that audiences would not be interested in reporting on what “seemed technical” about a piece of equipment from a company few might have heard of that made it into Russian weapons manufacturing.
He was surprised to learn that nearly 700,000 people had watched his piece on YouTube, beyond the initial reach of the PBS NewsHour broadcast this fall. A related piece, part of the Pulitzer Center-supported project Russia Invades Ukraine, garnered more than 120,000 views several months earlier.
“I’m glad the Pulitzer Center believed in me and allowed me to go forward with it,” Ostrovsky told students. He told his audiences that he sought out stories with a higher purpose to “achieve a benefit for the public good.”
Key for Ostrovsky was “to try to increase awareness of what is happening in industry.” With an earlier project on the use of child labor to source cotton for clothing, he saw an “incredible reaction and outcry from the public,” who felt personal connections to what was happening thousands of miles away from them.
He said he now better understands that there is “important work to be done away from the frontline” that still connects readers to conflict.