Covering Local Tragedies
Ochberg Fellowship Program
Chantal McLaughlin wrote the following in a case study published online by the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism:
"The American Psychiatric Association characterizes PTSD as at least three months of recurrent and intrusive recollections of the event, emotional numbing, and avoidance of people and places that are reminders of the event. Another common symptom is hyperarousal, which may include irritability, jittery behavior, poor concentration, sleep disturbances and feeling a lack of security. Trauma survivors often become depressed and have trouble with work and family relationships. People with the disorder may not understand what is causing their symptoms and may never be diagnosed, suffering in silence, perhaps for years."
Stress is a normal reaction to extreme or prolonged exposure to violence and other human tragedies. But an exceptional thing about journalists is that we alone seem to think that we are exceptional in our reactions. Violence and its emotional aftermath affect all first responders, including police, fire and ambulance workers as well as journalists.
Reporters are no different from cops or emergency crews in that most are more comfortable opening up before peers than strangers. A coffee shop or a bar may provide colleagues with an invaluable venue in which to talk and perhaps debrief each other about the emotions of their work. Honest debriefings, however, require no showmanship, something that anthropologist Mark Pedelty, author of War Stories: The Culture of Foreign Correspondents, says is ingrained in journalists' "machista" culture.
Recognizing the need for a debriefing forum or the opportunity to articulate emotions in the aftermath of a school-yard massacre or the World Trade Center attacks is not a sign of weakness, as too many journalists seem to think. Instead, when done successfully, debriefing fosters strength. The act of articulation - writing, drawing, painting, talking or crying - seems to change the way a traumatic memory is stored in the brain, as if it somehow moves the memory from one part of the hard drive to another. Child survivors from Guatemala to Bosnia have begun to heal by drawing or coloring out images of attacks. Especially when the act is coupled with the opportunity to grieve, articulation often provides a release of the emotions associated with the event and leaves its author able to recall the memory in the future with less or no pain.
Journalists often accomplish the same by writing or producing a report, but there is also "stuff you can't put in the paper because it is too gruesome or too out there or whatever," said staff writer Penny Owen of The Oklahoman. "What I really needed [after the Oklahoma City bombing] was time with fellow journalists . to talk through all the things that happened." But, she added, "by the time we slowed down, everyone was so tired of the bombing that we never really got [to] have that big hashing out session."
Journalists are people who, like almost everyone else who is exposed to pain, feel it whether it is theirs or not. Keeping it bottled up may only prolong its impact and make it worse in the future. The need to articulate feelings after covering mass tragedies is obvious, and it is more likely to happen sooner rather than later if a counselor who is paid to listen is on hand. Providing professional debriefing as a service of employment benefits news employers and employees alike, as the result is usually more sensitive and compelling journalism. Journalists, including free-lancers, should seek and take advantage of opportunities for both peer and professional counseling.
The news is out. Talking it out with others works.
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The Dart Center is a project of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.