In 2002, the American public learned just how dangerous a journalist’s job can be. In January and February of that year, Daniel Pearl, a reporter for the Wall Street Journal, was abducted and murdered by terrorists in Karachi, Pakistan. The case made world headlines and prompted much soul-searching among those who made reporting their livelihoods: "All journalists will mourn him as a courageous colleague whose story has reminded us that the pursuit of truth is sometimes no protection in a dangerous world," wrote Frank Pellegrini in Time, shortly after Pearl’s murder.
But most war correspondents or those reporting from "hot spots" would probably tell you they already know the world is a dangerous place. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 51 journalists were killed on the job in 2003 and 41 have been killed so far this year. Since Pearl’s death, more than ever, the general public has been made aware of the great risks many journalists face just by doing their jobs.
Death is only one hazard a journalist encounters on the job. While journalists, as logical human beings, usually try to keep themselves out of harm's way, they often fail to anticipate another threat: the danger witnessing death, injury, and destruction poises to their psyche.
Most people don't ponder how reporting on tragic events affects journalists. In fact, some would say our culture espouses a notion that the journalist is able to seamlessly detach himself from the disaster and destruction he writes or speaks about. He is an emotional Superman, able to leap from one tragedy to the next without feeling a thing.
Yet much research over the past two decades has shown that witnesses to death, destruction, war, and other tragic occurrences, are affected emotionally by what they see. Are journalists any different? How do their jobs affect them?
Craig Wall, a reporter for WFLD, a Fox affiliate in Chicago, has been a reporter for 17 years. "I like to sarcastically joke that my beat centers around the disaster du jour," he said. "Plane crashes, tornadoes, multiple murders, you name it, I’ve covered it."
Wall covered September 11, reporting from Ground Zero. But that was not his most difficult story. He remembers a time when he was reporting for KSL-TV, in Salt Lake City, on a murder trial. The case involved a divorcing couple who had two children. One night, the soon-to-be-ex-husband snuck into the house of his estranged wife and murdered her, while his children slept. Wall and his crew at KSL were the first reporters granted an interview with the slain wife’s parents. "I sat down and did a very emotional interview with the maternal grandparents," said Wall. "And then they told me that the kids wanted to say something. Usually, I won’t ask kids to interview out of sensitivity to them, but they wanted to speak with me." Wall conducted the interview with the children and describes it as "so gut-wrenching that I found myself wiping away tears."
Wall says he normally does not find himself getting so emotionally overwhelmed on the job, but deeply empathized with his subjects because he has three children himself. "I was trying my best not to cry in front of them, but it was one of those circumstances where there was no keeping [the tears] back. It was that powerful an interview and that emotional a time." Wall was so distressed by the interview that when he got back to the newsroom, he asked his news director to allow him to perform the interview straight to tape as opposed to live (as had been planned). "I said, ‘Listen, we just need to do this straight to tape, straight package, because I’m not sure, under these circumstances, that I will be able to keep my emotions down during the live intro and tag on the package.’"
How common is a story like Craig Wall’s? According to Roger Simpson, Ph.D., executive director of the Dart Center for Journalism & Trauma, an educational and research organization that studies trauma in journalists, and an associate professor at the University of Washington in Seattle's Department of Communication, it’s certainly not unusual. "What we know now that we didn’t know 30, 40 years ago, is that journalists are just as vulnerable emotionally to these dire events as anybody else is."
"There are many journalists that I have spoken to—I spoke to broadcasters more after 9/11—who were moved and changed and distressed by what they covered. It is a problem," said Elana Newman, Ph.D., an associate professor of psychology at the University of Tulsa who has conducted extensive research on the psychological and physical effects of trauma. Newman says that journalists who have repeatedly witnessed tragic occurrences in the course of their work are vulnerable to developing long-term psychological disorders such as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and depression and prone to alcohol and substance abuse.
Not surprisingly, the population of journalists—both print and broadcast—that seems to be most emotionally vulnerable are war correspondents. A recent study of 140 war correspondents by researcher Anthony Feinstein, Ph.D., M.D., found 28.6% of this group to have a lifetime diagnosis of PTSD (as opposed to none of the control group, which comprised non-war journalists) and 21.4% of the group to have a lifetime diagnosis of major depression (as opposed to 5.3% of the control group).
But even non-war correspondents might feel the effects of reporting on "everyday" violence on the domestic front—natural disasters, murders, fires, etc. "Car accidents are rated by journalists as some of the most stressful to cover," said Newman. Although she said there is no definitive research showing non-war journalists to be vulnerable to psychological damage, she has a hunch this group might also have elevated levels of PTSD and depression.
In any case, Newman says most people (including non-journalists) respond to disastrous situations with certain acute reactions. "The kinds of reactions that people would have in general would be fear and nervousness," she said. People also tend to get more edgy, jumpy, and moody. Some people, such as those who may have narrowly escaped death, might feel survivor’s guilt. Others might become overly cynical, seeing only the worst parts of life. A person’s attention span may be affected; they might have trouble concentrating in their daily life.
In some people, these feelings do not abate over time. They may develop PTSD. People with PTSD suffer from persistent re-experiencing (i.e., "flashbacks") of the traumatic event, feelings of emotional numbness, and chronic symptoms of increased physiological arousal. They also actively avoid stimuli associated with the traumatic event. One thing Newman noted when she spoke to journalists who reported on 9/11 is that many of them felt distinct psychological and physiological distress when they saw a clear blue sky (the sky on the morning of September 11 was a such a color).
Approach And Denial
Anyone who has taken Biology 101 knows about the "fight or flight" response, that particular physiological reaction our bodies have when confronting a potentially dangerous situation. We either gear up to fight the perceived danger or we flee from it. Either way, it puts our bodies in a heightened state of arousal. Newman says research on PTSD shows that some people suffering from the disorder seem to have this state of arousal imprinted upon their memories. This may explain why there seems to be a breed of journalist almost "addicted" to dangerous reporting. "There’s a certain kind of journalist who thrives on danger," said Newman. "They thrive and they adapt and they’re used to living in those kinds of constant states." According to Newman, this addiction to atrocity can also occur with soldiers and emergency personnel working in war zones and "hot spots" around the world. Some of them are able to channel their heightened arousal successfully into careers back home: "Many of our best firemen were Vietnam veterans," said Newman. "They got used to living in a state of adrenaline and then got civil service jobs." But what happens to journalists trapped in this state of arousal? Some might continue to feed it by heading back, again and again, to war, tragedy, and destruction. "Whenever anything bad happens our bodies do two things: they either shut down or get in gear. It’s our mind’s response: You either let it in and it’s overwhelming or you shut it off," said Newman.
As for the aspect of shutting off, some people responding to trauma do that as well. In trying to process overwhelming emotions, they might experience feelings of disassociation. "Disassociative symptoms are spacing out, leaving your body," said Newman. "In acute stages of danger, these responses can be very adaptive. But sometimes after an event, people continue to have these responses." Newman says this can end up affecting a person’s relationships, even the way he or she performs on the job. She says there is no conclusive data on disassociation in journalists, but it does happen often in trauma victims.
David Wright, a London-based correspondent for ABC World News Tonight, has witnessed the aftermath of war firsthand. As part of a bureau that covers Africa, Europe, and the Middle East, he has traveled to Afghanistan, Iraq, and Congo in the past two years. In Iraq, he has had guns pulled on him by Ahmed Chalabi's security guards, was caught in a violent scuffle at Baghdad University with demonstrators, and witnessed the eruption of an anti-American demonstration after a bomb leveled a brand-new hotel in Baghdad. In Afghanistan he has been at the scene of several bombings.
Wright admits to having felt depressed as result of his work. "I'm not a psychiatrist, but I've been depressed after witnessing a tough situation. It'd be inhuman not to be."
Congo especially, a country plagued by civil unrest and an AIDS epidemic for more than a decade, touched Wright. "The most depressed I've been after a trip wasn't in Iraq. It was in Congo, where the scale of human suffering is just so vast. You've got 11-year-olds with machine guns and just a completely hopeless society where half the women get raped." The depressed feelings Wright relates are a common reaction to witnessing distressful scenes. As with PTSD, if these feelings don't go away after a few months, their sufferer could develop major depression. People with major depression feel "down" most of the day for weeks or even months at a time, have a diminished interest in activities that used to be pleasurable to them, tend to sleep too much or too little, feel lethargic, and often lose or gain significant amounts of weight. Sometimes they are suicidal.
Sometimes traumatized individuals will try to soothe their pain through alcohol or substance abuse. Feinstein’s study of war correspondents found male war correspondents drank an average of 14.7 units (a unit being a regular-sized bottle of beer, a glass of wine, or a shot of spirits) of alcohol a week. Female war correspondents drank an average of 10.8 units of alcohol a week. Newman points out that the traditional "go-to-the-bar-after-work" culture of the newsroom may lead already traumatized reporters to alcohol abuse. "There’s just a culture of drinking after work," she said. "I think that’s changing to some degree, because many people, at least in print journalism, are now working from home. But there’s a subculture of going to the bar afterwards, which could lead to problems of substance abuse."
Support (Or Lack Thereof) In The Newsroom
If there are traumatized journalists out there, where do they turn? According to the Dart Center’s Simpson, not the newsroom. "What I’ve been told by some journalists is that in the newsroom climate they’re working in, there just isn’t an opportunity to speak about your own stress or share with others, to have it acknowledged that you’re performing very stressful work for the station or the company."
In fact, he says, there often isn’t even enough time between one stressful assignment and another for a journalist to "decompress." "I see a lot of television people who get in the car or the van and wheel out to the next assignment. Camera operators have told me the same thing."
According to Simpson, many journalists feel there is a macho ethos in the newsroom that discourages people from talking about their feelings. He says the roots of this go back more than 100 years, when print journalists were not on the payroll of newspapers. "They were paid by the story, and the juicier the story, the more they got paid." Subsequently, many journalists went after every murder, fire, or disaster they could find. The competition between reporters was fierce. "In that kind of environment, if you said, ‘You know, I’m having nightmares’ or ‘I’m getting angry about things and I don’t know why I am,’ the editors would drop you and move on to someone else. And I think that attitude just got moved along into the modern payroll system. It’s been there for a long time, nobody has tried to challenge it or undermine it."
At least not until the last decade. "I think the challenge to this way of thinking began seriously in the wake of the Oklahoma City bombings," said Simpson. Print and broadcast reporters who descended upon Oklahoma City after the bombings in 1995 were confronted with the largest-scale domestic tragedy they had ever witnessed. It affected them. "They came back and began to talk about it—not so much formally within newsrooms—but outside," said Simpson. According to him, Oklahoma City got the ball rolling, and that ball rolled, through the onslaught of school shootings in the late 1990s that culminated with the Columbine massacre, and then on to September 11. "September 11 really changed things. All of the doubters had to recognize that people all around them, especially in the New York area and Washington, [DC] were profoundly affected by what happened."
In the past decade, Simpson has seen the launch of several journalism programs teaching students about the emotional impacts of reporting on difficult events. In fact, he started a similar program at his university shortly before the Oklahoma City bombings. He also noted a program that has been instituted at the BBC to train its journalists on coping with trauma. He hopes that program will influence other news organizations to create similar programs. Yet he still feels there is a stigma against discussing trauma in the newsroom. "A young woman in Seattle actually told me after a Society of Professional Journalists meeting, ‘It’s fine to talk about this here, but I cannot bring this up in the newsroom.’"
There is also a concern that by reporting feelings of trauma to an employer, an employee runs the risk of receiving less important assignments. Simpson said this is a legitimate fear, and he has no simple solution for dealing with it. "Sometimes the union can be helpful," he said. "Sometimes there’s someone else in the newsroom who can be a kind of mediator and kind of pass the message along." When these tactics fail or are impractical, Simpson says a traumatized journalist may have to seek help outside the newsroom, through such organizations as the DART Center and the Committee to Protect Journalists. "I think some journalists really have to go outside to get their support. And in the worst cases, the cases where they are most troubled, they should probably seek professional help."
Contrary to the comment by the Society of Professional Journalists meeting attendee, Craig Wall says his newsroom is sympathetic to the emotional difficulties a reporter can face on the job. Wall's news director accepted his request not to do the live intro of that interview with the children of the woman killed by her husband. He said all of the newsrooms he has worked in have been understanding of their employees' emotional boundaries.
The Story Itself
A traumatized journalist does not seem likely to quit his or her job altogether. In fact, as mentioned earlier, some might feel drawn to tough stories. What Simpson and other researchers don’t have the answer to is how an emotionally disturbed reporter does his or her job. "What I think we don’t know about is the smaller choices that journalists make, in terms of the question they ask." For example, does a journalist, unaware that he or she is severely traumatized, subconsciously avoid asking questions that might bring up painful memories? Are they as cautious about listening for both the good and bad aspects of a story, or do they unconsciously overemphasize one or another? Simpson says there is no definitive research on this, but it’s one of issues he and the Dart Center plan to study.
Chuck Coppola, a reporter for WGN, the WB affiliate in Chicago, said being emotionally connected to a story helps him be a better reporter. He recalls reporting on the massive San Francisco earthquake in 1989. In the days just after the quake, he remembers watching the destruction of homes that were deemed unsafe to remain standing. "You could see that obviously this was someone’s home that was being ripped apart," he said. "It’s hard not to project your own home being ripped apart. You do have this sense of empathy that comes over you."
Newman agrees that a certain amount of empathy is healthy. "It’s a totally human response," she said. "And it usually means you are effectively getting the context of what you need to tell the story." But there is a risk of getting too emotionally involved, and reporters need to be cognizant of that.
@Subhead: Helping Journalists Help Themselves
@Body:There are many ways a traumatized journalist can find help. First, just having a chance to talk about one's experience can be tremendously beneficial. This does not have to take place in the confines of a therapist's office (although in the case of severely traumatized individuals, this might be the best course of action). "Find a place where people respect what you've been through and are willing to listen to you thoughtfully," suggested Simpson. "This can happen in newsrooms, sometimes it has to happen on the outside." Second, recognize that feeling an emotional response to a particularly difficult story is not abnormal. "We try to tell students as well as working journalists that these are normal reactions, not indications of mental disability or anything else," said Simpson. Third, try and cultivate a relationship among your co-workers where people feel comfortable talking about their emotions. "We can help each other out far more than most of us do," said Simpson. "So that if as a working journalist I understand that the person next to me is having some problems, I can do some things that will be helpful to the person."
For news directors, Simpson suggests building some downtime in between tough assignments. "What the camera folks and reporters, sometimes producers, are telling us is that they go into very difficult situations and they often don't have time to address what they see and hear in those situations. And then they're moved on, rather too quickly, to the next assignment."
For some people, these tactics will only go so far. They may need to seek the help of a therapist. "My own advice to journalists is if they are still having difficulty with a particular issue, after three months in particular, that may be the time to choose to see someone," said Newman.
A Double-Edged Sword
Not that being a journalist doesn't have its transcendent moments. In describing his work, Wright said, "I'm sure it takes its toll. But at the same time there's also something terribly compelling about having a front-row view to incredibly dramatic and often historic events." But for many journalists there is a trade-off: "The good news is you get to witness history, the bad news is history can be really bloody sometimes."
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