Preparing Journalists for Emotions

A journalism educator tells the personal story of why she works to prepare journalists for the unique challenges of covering traumatic events.

I can’t forget one of my first experiences covering a criminal trial. I was a 21-year-old cub reporter at the Guthrie News Leader, a five-day-a-week community newspaper with a circulation of less than 5,000. I received the affidavit on a Friday afternoon during a regular visit to the county courthouse. After working my beat, I went back to the office to write.

The understaffed newsroom was empty. I sat down at my antiquated computer to compose a story for Sunday’s edition. Combing through the affidavit, I identified key issues. Two 15-year-old girls went to a football game with a car full of boys from school. The older boys had alcohol; the girls drank too, even though none were of legal drinking age. After a short visit to the game, the boys drove the girls to a field “party” where they met several other cars full of boys. With the cars’ headlights shining on a set of mattresses, an unknown number of boys gang raped the girls.

I read the affidavit repeatedly, trying to determine what to include and what was too much detail for the newspaper’s readers. Then I cried.

Journalism school prepared me for how to interview sources, construct stories and deal with stealthy government, but it didn’t prepare me for the emotions that came along with the coverage—emotions reporters are trained not to have or show. College also didn’t prepare me for the regular writing about the trial that followed, including testimonies from coaches about the male athletes’ futures and how the trial could damage them and their community-leader parents. The trial ended with the boys being exonerated.

It was the first of many crimes I would cover and never forget, and a lesson in the importance for me personally of being able to debrief after covering a violent event. I talked a lot about the coverage. I spoke to my understanding editor, my husband and family, and my friends. It was a release for me. I had dreams about the girls, the boys and the trial. My heart ached for all of their parents. But, for the most part, at the end of the day I went home to my “normal” life and didn’t think much about it. I debriefed and moved on. It was a pattern for coping with the emotional strain of covering traumatic events that I developed early in my career and still use. It wasn’t until I was in my graduate studies and working full-time at The Oklahoman that I discovered that not all reporters have the ability to gather the news, report it and then move on.

I was studying education at the University of Central Oklahoma in Edmond and working as a full-time reporter. I was in an upper-level journalism course called “Victims in the Media.” As part of the class, I wrote a research paper about victims’ coverage. I chose to interview my coworkers—many of whom were interviewed in the textbook we used in the class—about covering the Oklahoma City bombing. That’s when I heard a story that ignited a passionate curiosity in me.

Ann DeFrange, a columnist and close friend who sat next to me in the newsroom, shared her story and those of many of our colleagues: about a month after she was one of the first reporters to arrive on the scene of the April 19, 1995 bombing, it was Twinkies and potato chips, not the ongoing coverage of victims and terrorists, that made her cry for the first time. She got tears in her eyes talking about the snack food that came in a large box and was x-rayed for bomb components by the newspaper’s security staff before it was delivered to the newsroom. It was from a newspaper in Rockford, Ill., and DeFrange said she thought finally someone really understood what the reporters were experiencing.

Remembering the box of snacks led DeFrange to talk about the month before it arrived and all of the tragic things that had happened, starting with walking up to the bombing site and seeing body pieces on the streets of their downtown. She and her co-workers spent weeks at the office with little time off, even for sleep. They ate in the newspaper’s dining commons or in the newsroom and showered in the fitness center locker room while relationships with family and friends and their physical and mental health fell apart.

DeFrange said she thought the work conditions were the most traumatic thing the journalists experienced, but said the reporters “over achieved,” going beyond what editors and supervisors asked them to do. She said they felt like they owed it to their community, and that they personally had been attacked. They pretended not be affected, not to grieve, and did the job.

I worked in the newsroom when these same reporters covered the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks. I was amazed at the different reactions I saw. Some of them went right back into a depression, rarely talking or looking others in the eye. Others began retelling their stories of the bombing, reliving a day that seemed to be repeating itself in New York. Even others were angry because they had no longer experienced the worst. It was as if New York had taken away something that was rightfully theirs. I also saw new reporters experiencing the trauma for the first time. They were mentally and emotionally exhausted, but afraid to go home or take a break and leave such an important assignment.

I began to notice that it wasn’t just large-scale events that affected reporters’ emotional states. My partner, for example, would stay up all night crying and become sick at her stomach when she knew she was going to have to write an obituary-type story or cover a violent crime. She stopped watching the television news at night so she wouldn’t know what was coming the next morning. If she came into the office and discovered that she was going to have to cover one of these types of events, she would beg me to trade assignments so she could write something more emotionally safe. It was something I did regularly because it made me feel like I had a chance to tell someone’s story when it really deserved to be told.

After about three years at The Oklahoman, the opportunity arose for me to teach journalism at Oklahoma City University. During my stint at the paper I had completed my master’s degree with the idea of some day teaching at my alma mater. One of the caveats was that I had to seek a terminal degree in mass communications. I currently am a doctoral student in the Gaylord College of Journalism and Mass Communications at the University of Oklahoma in Norman. I am passionate about researching the secondary victimization of journalist and continuing to add to the knowledge in this field. I plan to continue this line of research through my dissertation and beyond.