McEvers: Stop Feeling Guilty Talking About Our Problems
After a devastating year covering the Middle East for NPR, Kelly McEvers unexpectedly turned the microphone on herself, as well as doctors, researchers, and fellow war correspondents. The result: a deeply personal radio documentary, "Diary of a Bad Year." McEvers will speak at a Dart sponsored forum Nov. 5.
As Middle East correspondent for NPR, Kelly McEvers traveled undercover to Bahrain, Yemen and Syria to follow the Arab uprisings. In Syria she was embedded with anti-government rebels known as the Free Syrian Army. McEvers is the recipient of the Alfred I. DuPont-Columbia Award, the Peabody Award, the Gracie Award, and an Overseas Press Club citation for her reporting in Syria.
In 2011, McEvers started to sense that things weren’t right. She started to “see things in slow motion” and began crying often and unpredictably. She was beginning to question why she put herself in harms way to be a war correspondent. Meanwhile it was one of the deadliest years on record for journalists. Chris Hondros, Tim Hetherington, Gilles Jacquier, Anthony Shadid, Marie Colvin, and Remy Ochlik were all killed covering conflicts. After considerable internal struggle, McEvers turned the microphone on herself, in addition to interviewing doctors, researchers and fellow war correspondents to learn why she continued to put herself at risk, and whether she should continue to do so.
The result is “Diary of a Bad Year” produced by McEvers in partnership with Jay Allison, an independent producer and founder of Transom.org, a showcase and workshop for new public radio based in Woods Hole, MA. The full piece is below:
Radio producer Lu Olkowski spoke with McEvers and Allison about the project.
LO: Can we start with the obvious: How did the project get started?
JA: Kelly came to Transom and said, “Can we talk about storytelling and how to try some new things in my reports?” Bit-by-bit, this idea of “I'm at a crossroads, I don't know quite what to do about it” came up. So I suggested that we structure some work around those questions.
KM: Exactly. We were having dinner and you and a lot of other people from Transom were asking me questions about what I do; really thoughtful questions that people don't always ask me... And, when you know someone cares, you say things that you wouldn't otherwise say. It was like Jay was my therapist. I poured it all out and said maybe this is what we should work on. That was during the high intensity Arab Spring.. I was high on the adrenaline of the story. It was at a point when the story was still pretty exhilarating: It was still good guys versus bad guys and we were reporting on the good guys. There wasn’t as much danger like there is now in Syria, but I knew I was getting swept up and it didn't feel quite right.
LO: Even before your reporting in Syria, you knew being a conflict reporter was starting to disturb you?
KM: Tim [Hetherington] and Chris [Hondros] had died earlier in 2011 [in Libya] and I was going toward more and more of these stories. I was feeling queasy about it, but as I kept going toward it, I was feeling more and more queasy. After Chris and Tim died, I spoke to the psychotherapist Mark Brayne because I already knew something was amiss. [UK-based psychiatrist Mark Brayne, a former BBC World Service correspondent, was the founding director of Dart Centre Europe.]
LO: You weren’t working on the diary yet. Why did you record that first therapy session?
KM: I thought I better record this in case there's something I forget that could help me. I didn't record my side of the conversation, but I wish I had because then I would know more about what was going on. At the time, I just knew I needed some advice and help.
JA: At that point the thought of a diary hadn’t quite gelled.
KM: That's definitely where Jay came in. He was the one who said, “Just try to pull back and record your thoughts while you're in the moment.”
LO: How many months did you keep the diary and how did it work?
KM: I think the earliest ones were November 2011.
JA: I'm actually looking at our old emails… They have titles like "brain dump." And then in February 2012, it kicked in quite a bit.
KM: Because Anthony [Shadid] and Marie [Colvin] died. I was in Bahrain. In January 2012, Gilles Jacquier died and I'd just moved to Beirut. I remember it was January because you (Jay) sent me a Christmas card and when I got it I started bawling. I asked myself, “Why did I move to Beirut? Look how nice it looks there (in Massachusetts). What am I doing with my life?”
JA: So much of the diary was testing premises to try and find out what she truly felt. My role was to ask her a lot of questions. Then she came to Woods Hole last August and stayed for 10 days. She did some interviews. I interviewed her, and she interviewed her husband, Nathan. Bit-by-bit Kelly got a clearer idea of what was still problematic for her. It was Kelly turning over rock after rock after rock. And the piece structurally just follows that path of overturned rocks.
LO: I think about that especially in terms of the goodbye letter Kelly wrote to her husband and daughter in the event of her death. Someone she interviewed suggests a letter and it leads to her letter…
JA: Right, and there was no sense that that would necessarily happen until late in the process. Lots of times you see documentaries that use the structure “I am going to go on a journey.” But often that’s only a way to structure a documentary, as opposed to a genuine exploration. That's what was nice about this one. It was not done with the idea of making something, but of really trying to solve something.
KM: There were a lot of times when I was recording a diary and I thought I was examining what was going on, but I wasn’t. I still wasn't able to take enough of a step back.
JA: There were some diaries that were just pure emotion. The tricky part is that you need the emotional intensity, but we couldn’t use a lot of them because well… we couldn’t have Kelly crying all the time.
KM: [laughing] That's totally true. Every time I tried to record a diary I was crying. Strangely, on the day Anthony died, I was stone-cold narrating, but when Marie died I was weepy. That one didn’t end up in the radio story because it was too sad, and I wasn't really being honest with myself.
JA: It wasn't that you weren’t honest, just not quite the right analysis.
KM: I was trying really hard to come up with something that I learned from Marie's death and it just, it wasn't really true.
LO: I didn’t know that NPR had a therapist on retainer. At what point, do you know that there's a therapist if you need one? Is it part of a basic benefits package for conflict journalists?
KM: A colleague recommended Mark Brayne. Mark is very involved with the Dart Center. He's part of a group of people who really advocate for this kind of thing at news organizations. I don't really know if it's part of NPR’s orientation or benefits package because back when I joined the company things were different than they are now.
At work, therapy was always this kind of thing that you wanted to do in complete confidentiality because you never want to be seen as weak at a news organization. I've tried to make it something that we talk about a little bit more—not who goes to see whom or when they go—but that it's available and we should all consider using it when we need it.
Dr. Anthony Feinstein, who I interviewed, talked about this a bit. Newsrooms are insanely competitive places. You don't want anyone to sniff weakness because then they'll come for your job. Doing this piece was a big risk and that's definitely one of the reasons.
The other thing is when you cover these horrible situations, you feel like a schmuck saying “poor me,” when the people around you have it so much worse than you, where there's hundreds of thousands of refugees and people are dying violent deaths every day. That's something you have to get over. Feinstein talks about this with his clients. He asks, “If you have a broken leg, but the guy next to you has broken leg, should you not fix your broken leg?” The truth is, we have to be well enough to tell people's stories. And if you're not well in the head, you're not going to be able to do it. We have to stop feeling guilty about talking about our problems.
LO: Anthony Feinstein is one of the few people who has studied war correspondents. In particular, why they put themselves in harms way… His answer was dopamine. Do you buy it?
KM: His theory is that certain people (like war correspondents) have higher levels of dopamine and—this is a super-simplistic way to explain it—and that we're more inclined to do this kind of work because we can think very clearly in situations of high stress. I don't totally buy it, but something about it sounds plausible. I’ve gone through life saying things like, “I just don't have a fear gene.”
LO: Do you still feel the same way?
KM: Do I not feel scared? I'm pretty much the same. My gut doesn't feel scared by things. But since I've done this piece, I think about the risks involved... because I have a family. It’s almost like my brain is stopping my body from doing what comes naturally.
LO: For me, the crux of the piece is when you're walking with your daughter in her stroller and you're recording a diary on your phone. You know you're going to go to Syria. Not because anyone else is pressuring you, but because you're going to make yourself. It’s pretty heartbreaking tape. I've heard people say again and again that women, in particular moms, can't be war correspondents. And yet your conversations with Jon Lee Andersen and Christiane Amanpour seem to say that family is the thing that makes you better at your job and better about keeping safe. What do you think?
KM: First of all, if you look at pretty much anyone covering Syria right now, they're all women. The bad-ass tribe of war correspondents right now are women. But I think that we do it differently. There are fewer of these testosterone-type conversations about “when I was at the front line.” Well, we were there, too. But we ask each other: “How did you avoid the front line when you went in that one neighborhood… [laughs.] We ask, “Is this safe?” We'll also put our hands on each other's shoulders and look into each other's eyes and say, “How are you doing? Are you okay?” And talk about being apart from our families.
LO: And that seems in direct opposition to people at news organizations who question whether women with children can do it.
KM: Yeah, and they're wrong. I just went to a big huge wedding that was two members of “the tribe” getting married. If you looked across the dance floor at the reception, everybody was dancing their brains out, some on R&R from covering Syria. It was insane how many of us are women. We have differing levels of family, some single, some married but no children. But several of us do have children. It definitely makes us different. It makes us safer and less likely to take risks, but the great thing is that our news organizations are taking risks on us and we're still being allowed to cover the story.
LO: About halfway through the radio piece, it seemed to pick up speed with you asking person after person, “Should I quit?” It almost sounded like you were begging your colleagues and your heroes to give you permission to quit, but none of them really do.
KM: Yeah...I know. They don't tell me to quit, except for Sebastian [Junger].
LO: What do you make of that?
KM: Sebastian is not going tell me what to do, but he himself is pretty clear about why he quit. That was probably the best conversation I had. It's the one I think about all the time. And Christiane Amanpour. She said, “Don't quit being a journalist.” But at the same time she quit being a conflict journalist after she had her son. She kind of said you can still fulfill the mission, but you don't have to die for it. They helped move me along.
JA: Kelly, what I like about those sessions is the way you ask that question—it’s so direct. Most people would say, “So what advice would you give to a person in my position?” And you just say, “Should I quit?” That's so brave and honest. I think it gave everybody you interviewed a chance to think about it in a real way. It certainly lets the audience see that this wasn't just an interview. This was a real genuine quest.
LO: Kelly, when you're in the middle of a big piece, it can sometimes be difficult to hear it as an outsider. Have you been able to hear this as an outsider yet?
KM: When I listen with other people, I hear it as they would. It's very intense. I find myself kind of saying, “I'm sorry I put you through this.”
LO: How have your family and friends responded?
KM: They played it on my local hometown station. All my parents' friends heard it, but I told my parents, I don't know if you should listen. All of us have had to be in a certain amount of denial for me to do this. I've tried to overcome that by doing this piece. I'm not sure if they’ve confronted the reality of my job, and so by listening, they'll have to confront a bunch of stuff. Ultimately, they have to decide whether they want to listen and I have to decide whether should I listen with them. And if I do, I don’t know if I should play the letter that I wrote to my husband and our daughter in case I die. Nathan, my husband, has heard the radio story. He's said, “I'm not listening to that letter because that letter is for something that is not true right now. You’re alive and I don't want to have to listen to the letter if I don't have to.”
JA: The letter was hard. There was this thought of whether this is just too emotional. During production, Kelly and I would never play it. We'd be working on the mix and get up to that spot and just stop. In fact, I did a mix of the whole piece and didn't realize that there was a microwave or an alarm clock beep in that letter. Even as an engineer I had trouble confronting the speakers.
KM: Other friends have said, “I had no idea what you did.” You have to remember, when you become a war correspondent, you become a kind of character. And when you go home, you don't know how to talk to people and they don't know how to talk to you. There's a whole bunch of questions people want to ask you. This kind of answers a lot of those, and…
JA: Right, it gives them permission to ask them, too.
KM: Absolutely. Even colleagues from NPR say that. The editors and producers back on the desk said, “We didn't really know how to talk to you, and wow, now we do.” Everyone has a better sense of what this is all about.
I'm shocked by the reaction that I've gotten from “the tribe” of conflict journalists. People I don't know are writing me long letters about their own lives and their own decisions. A real conversation has started and I'm excited about continuing it, especially as I move out of the Middle East and back to the States.
LO: So, Kelly, did you quit?
KM: I'm still a Middle East correspondent based in Beirut for NPR. Right now, I'm trying to just slow down and explore what I could do next. I'm still doing the stories, but I'm doing them very differently.
LO: How are you doing them differently?
KM: Well, I'm not going to Syria. That's huge. This may sound really incremental to you, but it's huge to me to say I'm not going into Syria. I haven't gone back to Syria for a long while now and I'm not sure that I ever will. [Shortly after this interview, McEvers decided to leave the Middle East and take a job with NPR in the U.S.]
LO: I know you’ve gone to J-school and were a International Reporting Project (IRP) Fellow, which gives foreign correspondents very practical training about how to be safe physically. In any of those forums do they touch on how do you keep your brain safe?
KM: No, as far as I know they don’t or at least they didn’t when I went through those programs. It's crazy, but this stuff is really new.
I hope that this piece can help people think about what's at stake. When journalists die in combat we become outraged, we want inquiries, we want investigations... and I'm not sure that's the right way to go. If we're honest with ourselves, that you could die doing this job, then maybe we would spend more time on preparedness... knowing exactly what your insurance is, making sure you have a will, talking to a psychotherapist before you go in. Talking about whether you should write a letter to your family before you die, instead of waiting until someone dies and then being shocked and outraged that they died in combat where, of course, people die.
It’s not just the preparedness that’s important, but helping other conflict reporters figure out what to do after. It's so excruciatingly hard to figure out. I think it’s really important to help people understand that it's going to be hard. We need to help their managers understand that it's going to be hard, and help everybody figure out how to do that with care...You're not a normal person on a job hunt. You're a person who's altered and you might just need a different set of HR things settled before you can move forward.