Self-Study Unit: Covering Terrorism

Most journalists today are a far cry from the mythologized war correspondent coping with internalized images of violence, suffering and despair through stiff drinks and bawdy jokes. Like every human being, newswomen and men suffer emotional consequences from their work. Common responses include anxiety, fear, nervousness, worry, gastrointestinal distress, anger, disbelief, shock, and unremitting recall of disturbing images, social disconnection, and emotional numbness.

In a random sampling of 1008 residents living south of 110th Street in Manhattan five to eight weeks after Sept. 11, 7.5 percent of respondents reported symptoms consistent with PTSD. Another 9.7% reported symptoms consistent with depression. Among respondents who lived south of Canal Street, just north of the World Trade Center, the prevalence of PTSD was even greater — 20 percent. (New England Journal of Medicine, March 2002, 982).

Because research on journalists and PTSD as it relates to 9/11 is still in its infancy, little is known about the specific effect of the terrorist events upon journalists or the way in which they differ from non-journalists. However, it is safe to assume that they are at high risk. When assigned to cover these catastrophic events, they are immersed in the harrowing details for far longer and for more intense periods than their non-journalist counterparts. Like rescue workers and government officials assigned to the scene, they are likely to experience more pronounced exposure. New York residents, for instance, could turn off their TV or take a break from the morning paper. Journalists, particularly those assigned to the story, had no such luxury. There was no way to avoid internalizing some of the images they were chronicling, whether they were reporters, copy editors or camera operators.

The wisdom of experience can moderate the effects but not eliminate them. It doesn’t help that the public often blames the “messengers” for the events. Secondary stress, however, does not take place in a vacuum. A variety of circumstances can contribute to the syndrome. They include professional isolation, empathy drain, compassion fatigue, exhaustion, deadline pressure, previous personal traumatic events and guilt about a perceived failure to lessen the suffering of sources. Quite naturally, many reporters described feeling that in light of the suffering of the subjects of their stories, they had no right to experience emotional pain themselves. That someone else’s suffering is worse should not serve as an excuse to deny or minimize your own.

At high enough thresholds, this immersion can trigger the diagnosis of acute stress disorder, a milder form of PTSD that can be a harbinger. Symptoms of ASD include dissociation (e.g., feelings of unreality, loss of time, and/or disconnection), intrusive thoughts and images, efforts to avoid reminders of the traumatic experiences, and generalized anxiety that may occur in the month following the event. When these experiences last more than a month, they are described by the diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder.

PTSD sufferers often relive the experience through nightmares, flashbacks, and estrangement from their own emotions and surrounds. These symptoms, in turn, may lead to insomnia and other conditions. They may be severe and enduring enough to significantly impair daily life. PTSD is marked by measurable biological changes as well as harder-to-gauge psychological symptoms. The disorder is complicated by the fact that it frequently occurs in conjunction with maladies such as depression, substance abuse, memory and cognition impairment and other problems of physical and mental health. (For more information on PTSD, visit the National Center for PTSD)

Although we assume that journalists’ responses to traumatic events may be severe, it is important to remember that every individual has a unique emotional reaction. Two people with similar exposure to traumatic events may have very different emotional responses.

Though the research on journalists and 9/11 hasn’t been conducted, there is considerable anecdotal evidence of emotional effects from the testimony of journalists themselves. “You don’t get rid of [those] pictures, they keep coming back,” Jim Pensiero, vice president of news operations at the Wall Street Journal, said of witnessing people jumping to their deaths from the World Trade Center.

Christine Haughney of the Washington Post put it this way: “I didn’t know how to share with my friends and relatives what I was going through. It almost felt like everything I had to say about work was too depressing. When my friends joked that a crushed bag of potato chips resembled World Trade Center victims, I remarked that the remains I saw were far more pulverized than potato chip crumbs. When my boyfriend tried to rent a movie to watch with me, it took three tries to find something that didn’t have a plane crash or a terrorist in it.”

In January 2002, the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma established a New York City Office. Founding directors Elana Newman and Barbara Monseu spent considerable time reaching out to journalists who covered 9/11. Many described an inability to eliminate the stench of death from their nasal cavities. Some described being overwhelmed by intrusive images of body parts seemingly etched in their memory. Many more reported that they were so busy covering the event in the weeks and months following the event that they only experienced the emotional effects months later.