Self-Study Unit: Covering Terrorism

After her harrowing day at ground zero, Rose Arce threw herself back into her work at the CNN bureau in midtown Manhattan. The collaborative mission of telling the story allowed her to focus her grief in a productive manner. Returning to her Greenwich Village apartment at night, she barely had time to eat and sleep before returning to the office early the next morning. She felt no need for the counseling that CNN management had made available to all employees.

Three months later as the holiday season drew near and her professional duties returned to a semblance of normalcy, Arce began to experience symptoms of stress. She would return home after work, where overpowering images of what she witnessed began to flood her consciousness.

Journalists like Arce who were immersed in the events of 9/11 relied upon a variety of coping strategies, of which individual therapy is just one. Other methods include everything from “debriefing” with other journalists to the stress reduction of exercise. Understanding the emotional experience of victims and survivors alike will help journalists cope with their own emotional experience.

Systematic research into the emotional effects of covering trauma is still at the nascent stage. To date, there are only six published surveys on the topic, some with small sample sizes. In Understanding Journalists’ Experience of September 11, 2001: The Need for a Research Agenda, Elana Newman and Barbara Monseu provide a summary of the research.

In the three most recent surveys of American journalists and photojournalists, more than 80 percent reported covering at least one story in which someone was killed or injured.

The exposure to these stories was both frequent and continuous. In one study, 15 journalists who witnessed executions were found to have short-term anxiety including symptoms of dissociation.

Even without this emerging research, it is well established anecdotally that journalists who cover traumatic events may suffer from PTSD, especially after prolonged exposure. Researchers have termed this phenomenon secondary traumatic stress. “It’s one thing to walk into a room full of dead bodies and then walk out again,” says an anonymous journalist in Risking More Than Their Lives: The Effects of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder on Journalists, conducted by the Freedom Forum. “It’s quite another to walk into a room of dead bodies and spend 20 minutes trying to get a picture. You are more likely to see things that remain with you. I’ve had to come to terms with a lot of this stuff — let’s say it’s an ongoing process. I’m still quite confused about the effects of the last decade of my life. News organizations could find ways to make counseling or analysis more attractive but they need a system of anonymity. Until they get serious about that, I don’t think that they are going to get very far.”

With proper support, guidance and care, it is possible to find a measure of satisfaction in contributing to the coverage of this important story. Michael Howerton, who covered victims of the World Trade Center bombing for Connecticut’s Stamford Advocate, describes sitting in his car, gathering the strength to knock on the door of grieving family members who had lost a father and husband. He recognized the intrusiveness of this aspect of his job. Once inside, he treaded lightly.

Yet Howerton also recognized the benefit of chronicling private pain for public consumption — for himself and, by extension, for his audience. “The desire to sit in that house is a mix of curiosity, fear, and ego,” he wrote. “If I can get close enough to study misfortune and calamity, to record the texture and measure the pain, maybe I can inoculate myself from its reach. By being close to the target, I could surely avoid the next strike. It was as if by withstanding the heat from the fire I could prove my own toughness, and by watching the victim, learn how not to be burned.”

In Tragedies & Journalists: A Guide for More Effective Coverage, Joe Hight and Frank Smyth offer “Tips for taking care of yourself”:

  • Know your limits. If you’ve been given a troublesome assignment that you feel you cannot perform, politely express concern to your supervisor. Tell the supervisor that you may not be the best person for the assignment. Explain why.
  • Take breaks. A few minutes or a few hours away from the situation may help relieve your stress.
  • Find someone who is a sensitive listener. It can be an editor or a peer, but you must trust that the listener will not pass judgment on you. Perhaps it is someone who has faced a similar experience. Since a traumatic event often shatters one’s connection with others and trust, it is important to create alternative experiences.
  • Learn how to deal with your stress. Find a hobby, exercise, attend a house of worship or, most important, spend time with your family, a significant other or friends—or all four. Try deep breathing.
  • Understand that your problems may become overwhelming. Before he died in April 1945, war correspondent Ernie Pyle wrote, “I’ve been immersed in it too long. My spirit is wobbly and my mind is confused. The hurt has become too great.” If this happens to you, seek counseling from a professional.

Acknowledging the difficulty of covering terrorism is the first step. Michael Reed, cameraman at WWCP/WATM-TV in Johnstown, Pa., discussed his immediate reaction to covering the Shanksville crash. “Never had I doubted my job so much,” he said. “I did my job. I got the shots. But never had my job been so painful. In those moments, I lost that thing, whatever it might be, whereby news people take the humanity out of a story.”