Self-Study Unit: Covering Terrorism

Arthur Santana spent Sept. 11 juggling conflicting loyalties. He eschewed his journalistic opportunities to assist the rescue efforts at the Pentagon, where the west wing was engulfed by flames and smoke. During this long day and night, he happened across Kenneth Foster.

“The military commanders addressing the unfolding tragedy needed help, and Foster became another anonymous rescuer, but one with an awful mission,” Santana wrote in the


. “His wife, Sandra, is a civilian employee who works on the third floor, in the outermost corridor, part of which was now obliterated, and Foster was determined to be her rescuer.”

Having bonded with Foster during their rescue mission, Santana then approached the grieving husband the next day, Sept. 12, after Foster realized that his wife had perished. Rather than recoiling in horror at the idea of being profiled, as Santana had anticipated, Foster leapt at the opportunity. “Ken saw it as a chance to honor the memory of his wife,” explained Santana in an interview with the Dart Center. “He saw that I had laid down my notebook to help with the rescue efforts. He saw me as a human being and not as a journalist. I think he trusted I could get the story right.”

The result was a unique inside look at victim and survivor, a variation on a theme that would emerge over and over again that September. “Foster was reduced to scanning the crowd for the Duchess, as he called his wife,” Santana wrote. “‘I could just see legs and arms and feet and the color of their clothes,’ Foster said of those of those around him. ‘I was looking for her face.’”

“I drew strength from observing and writing about Ken’s strength,” says Santana, who stayed in touch with his source after the publication of the story. “You can’t help but wonder whether you would be as strong.”

But for every positive experience, there were agonizing ones. Heather Nauert, for instance, dreaded conducting live interviews with friends and family of the disappeared. The general assignment reporter at Fox News in New York feared that by encouraging her sources to tell their stories of hope for survivors, she would be complicit in a cruel hoax. Having surveyed Ground Zero herself, she knew that hope had died along with the collapse of the twin towers.

“It wasn’t my place to tell Ron Jr. about the empty hospitals or about the doctors and rescue workers or that it looked like nobody made it out alive,” Nauert wrote about a young man searching for his father in the ruins of the WTC in At Ground Zero: 25 Stories From Young Reporters Who Were There. “I felt hopeless, knowing that I could only dampen his hopes... Our eyes locked for a minute and mine welled up with tears. I looked away and noticed that other reporters had begun to cry too. I had to walk away. I wondered if American reporters had ever covered a story like this, a story that we were this closely tied to. I was sucked in. After all, many of them knew people in the buildings and families who were missing loved ones.”

Journalists take no Hippocratic Oath. There is little question that tackling a difficult story is a hazardous process for both journalist and source. In times of international strife, stories chronicling suffering and loss, and exposing injustices, are the stock and trade of the profession. The issue is how to minimize the risk. In the past, journalists sometimes have been taught that the interview process must be adversarial. Painful questions must be answered, the thinking went, no matter what the price.

This need not always be the case. The journalist’s primary responsibility is to the story. Journalists are in no position to play the role of therapist, even if they are occasionally tempted by it. But at the same time, journalists can and do think about the emotional costs of interviews to their subjects. Few interviews, no matter how powerful, are worth re-traumatizing someone who has just suffered an agonizing loss. If nothing else, insights into the psychology of those affected by terrorism will help both inform the interview and limit emotional fallout for the source — and the journalist.

Today, conscientious journalists strive to avoid harming their subjects. The stereotype of aggressive reporters shoving microphones in the faces of grieving widows is becoming an exception to the rule. Despite the progress, many journalists may not realize that there is a well-developed field of study of the psychological effects of trauma to guide them in approaching victims. In addition to the studies of PTSD and Vietnam veterans, researchers have looked at survivors of the Oklahoma City bombing and the Tokyo subway sarin-gas poisoning.

What emerges is a method for approaching victims that can be mutually beneficial for reporter and subject. It is sometimes obvious when a survivor of such an ordeal is emotionally unprepared to participate in the process. But in other instances, it is impossible to know whether the interviewing process will harm or help. Santana, for instance, felt comfortable pursuing Foster because he was able to articulate his feelings clearly, just hours after the traumatic event. In fact, Santana had the distinct impression that the interview process was actually therapeutic for his traumatized source. Obviously, journalists are in no position to psychoanalyze their sources. But there are a few rules of thumb to keep in mind.

Since every person experiences trauma uniquely, assumptions can be dangerous. Even in the age of talk-show confessionals, no one but those directly affect by the event can truly understand their own emotional experience. And even victims must struggle to come to terms with their own psychological reaction to trauma. Because of a combination of shock, disbelief and stress, some people may not show outward symptoms of PTSD. Others may view discussing their feelings as beneficial, even therapeutic, believing it will contribute to the cause of understanding victimization. The passage of time from a cataclysmic event may cause the victims to appear to control their emotions better than they actually do.

Recovery is a process, and recovery rates vary according to individual and circumstance. Exposure to toxic contamination, in the form of bio-terrorism, may increase the probability of PTSD because of lingering concerns over long-term health consequences. Exposure to toxic substances may trigger fatigue, tremors and cardiac arrest. Nerve agents such as sarin, tabun, soman and VX are known depressants. Blister agents like nitrogen and sulfur are known to cause delirium. Exposure to extreme destruction, such as “suicide bombings,” may also increase risk.

As Roger Simpson and William Coté point out in Covering Violence: A Guide to Ethical Reporting About Victims & Trauma, the most important single concept in the relationship between journalist and victim is consent. A shared understanding of consent is obtained by clearly stating the intention of the interview, the content of the story and the potential size and scope of the audience. Unfamiliar with the media, sources can be blindsided by just how public their stories quickly become, especially in the case of broadcast news.

In general, journalists seek to convey a sense of compassion without condescension. They try to avoid the temptation to befriend the victim. Approaching with deference and respect lesson the chances that the victim will view the interview as exploitative. Familiarity with PTSD can facilitate this outcome.

In “Words Sting,” an essay written for the Poynter Institute, Kay Lapp James, managing editor of the Central Wisconsin Newspapers group, offers advice for covering victims:

  1. Don't assume that that the grieving person won't share. When I first started as a reporter, I found the idea of calling someone who had lost a loved one repulsive. I was sure the person would not want to talk and would be angry if I asked. Every person grieves differently. Some will need and want to talk; some will not.
  2. Ask why and how. We process our pain through talking about what happened.
  3. Respect the privacy of the bereaved. As far as I'm concerned there is no public right to know how much or how I grieve. I do not have to share my personal feelings and what I'm going through with anyone.
  4. Let the person cry. Tears are a necessary part of the grieving process. Don't shut them off by holding or patting the person's hand, shoving a tissue in his or her face. Such actions show that you care, but they are analogous to a mother coaxing a child to stop crying.
  5. Place tissues within reach when tears are shed.
  6. Don't say "I understand," unless you have had the same experience or relationship. [In fact, Roger Simpson of the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma warns that this should rarely if ever be said to a victim of terrorism.]
  7. Temper the impulse to share your own experiences of grief. Share only if the relationship is the same as that of the interviewee. If you're speaking with a husband who is grieving over the death of his wife and you have also lost a spouse, let your own feelings and sensitivity guide you in deciding whether or not to share this. If you're speaking with a mother who has lost her child, don't share that you've lost a mother, father or spouse. It's not the same.
  8. Be careful with use of these phrases: "Get on with your life," "Get over it," and "Recovery."
  9. Don't use the words "still" or "even today." This implies that grieving has a defined time period and that extending that period is unusual or unnatural.
  10. Be wary of the word "closure." It implies that grief comes to an end — that the person no longer needs to grieve. Some grieving people do use the word closure; be sure you ask the person to define what he or she means by it. If the person doesn't use the word, don't add it to the story. [Similarly, terms and ideas of stages of grieving vary by age, culture, etc.]
  11. Don't confuse closure with "reinvestment." Many who grieve find that doing something — building a playground, erecting a memorial — eases the pain. The force behind that is usually to keep the person's name and memorial alive. Others may become involved in a cause such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving. The urge to do something, anything, to prevent others from going through the same pain can be extremely strong.