Journalism and the Tsunami

Barry Petersen, Tokyo bureau chief for CBS News, explained that, in Indonesia during the weeks after the December tsunami, when one journalist said to another, “I'm having a bad day,” that was a signal for others to “back off.”

The common phrase became a code to let colleagues know that the pressures of working amid what Petersen called "the psychic onslaught" of devastation and loss, and the sights and smells of death and decay, had begun to take a toll.

Petersen joined other journalists for a panel discussion about what they saw and learned while covering the tsunami aftermath in Southeast Asia.

The session started with a slide show of photos taken by Seattle Times photographer Betty Udesen in the Aceh province of Indonesia. The images flowed in somber procession onto the screen, accompanied by the recorded singing of Ferian Murdi, a young man from Meulaboh, a town in Aceh. As Murdi softly sang for his lost father, the roomful of usually voluble journalists quickly joined the hush.

Udesen acknowledged having several bad days. While following local efforts to collect the bodies of victims, Udesen fell into a covered drainage ditch and received a puncture wound to her leg. Under extremely unsanitary conditions, the wound quickly became infected and forced Udesen to be evacuated. But with conditions what they were on the Indonesian coast, by the time Udesen was actually able to leave, the wound had become gangrenous and required multiple surgeries. Udesen is still undergoing physical therapy as a result of her wound.

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In addition to facing the risk of physical injury, journalists also had to contend with extreme living conditions in Aceh. Udesen's colleague, Seattle Times reporter Hal Bernton, told of living in tents and enduring tropical heat and humidity, all while relying on a tenuous supply of food and water.

Petersen recalled sleep deprivation. He stayed awake more than 24 hours just to reach the area to begin reporting. Then, because of time-zone constraints and needing to provide segments for morning and evening broadcasts, he was forced to make do with two to four hours of sleep a night throughout his time in Thailand and Indonesia. He said the lack of sleep made dealing with the horrific nature of the story all the more difficult.

"I came out of stories where I almost wasn't ... where I thought I wasn't going to be able function for a while," Petersen said. Though he recognizes that reporting is a job that requires attention to dealing with emotions, he noted: "We're not paid to cry on the air."

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When the tsunami hit Thailand, Kimina Lyall, Southeast Asia correspondent for The Australian and normally stationed in Bangkok, was visiting a coastal village where she and her partner own a vacation home. She saw people she knew swept away, some of whom didn't return.

In that moment Lyall became part of a story that she also had a responsibility to cover. The conflict of being involved with the story in two ways was a difficult for her to deal with, and difficult for those around her to understand. People in her community could not understand why she had to leave them in a moment of need to report on people in much the same condition. People within her trade had difficulty understanding what it was like to have the distance she normally relies on suddenly swept away from her.

Her perception of failing to be the neighbor or reporter she wished to be only made it more difficult to be either, she said. "I was crying all the time," Lyall recalled. "I was a basket case four five times a day."

She credits colleagues and her partner with getting her through. Help did not always take the form of a shoulder to cry on. Lyall told of one instance when a colleague stepped in and guided her through the organization of a difficult story she was having a hard time completing.

ABC news correspondent Brian Rooney told several anecdotes about scenes that never made it into his news broadcasts. He described watching as Thai officials moved from body to body at a makeshift morgue, collecting teeth and flesh samples in the hope of keeping something that could be used for DNA identification.

He also told about an incident in Aceh, when the corpse of a baby fell from the back of a truck loaded with bodies. The truck kept going, on its way to a mass grave, leaving the dead baby lying on the road. Eventually, Rooney said, a medic employed by the BBC retrieved the body and added it to a nearby pyre.