Self-Study Unit: Covering Terrorism

Early live reports of terrorist attacks are sometimes confusing and misleading. Yet there are also extraordinary examples of media excellence, with journalists risking their lives to inform the nation about an unfolding crisis.

Rose Arce was getting her morning coffee at the deli across the street from her Greenwich Village apartment when she heard an enormous roar emanating from farther downtown. Pulling her cell phone out of her pocket, the veteran Cable News Network producer raced toward the chaotic scene at the World Trade Center. From her cell and pay phones on the path down Sixth Avenue, she provided some of the first live commentary both on the impact of the planes into the twin towers of the World Trade Center and the subsequent collapse of the skyscrapers.

Arthur Santana, a crime reporter at The Washington Post, was driving to work when he heard radio reports about the deliberate crash of the jumbo jet into the Pentagon. One of the first journalists on the scene of the wreckage at the Pentagon, he spent the day in its parking lot and that night in the inner courtyard, helping rescue workers search for bodies and befriending those who had lost colleagues and loved ones in the fiery collision.

As David Handschuh drove along the West Side Highway to the 9:30 a.m. graduate photojournalism class he teaches at New York University, he noticed smoke billowing from lower Manhattan. He called the nearby offices of the New York Daily News, where he is a staff photographer, and headed toward the World Trade Center. There he photographed the previously unimaginable, even for a veteran chronicler of horror: falling debris, flaming buildings, body parts, images that to this day he has never shown another human being. As a second plane slammed into the north tower, he snapped a shot he still does not remember taking. As the first tower collapsed, a thunderous wave of hot gravel and glass catapulted Handschuh an entire city block, trapping him under a car. After rescue workers carried his unconscious body to safety, he became trapped again in a deli as the second tower came down. Handschuh, who broke his leg, was evacuated across the Hudson. He spent the rest of the fall and winter recuperating from both the physical and emotional wounds he sustained. His only regret: he had relinquished his camera in the chaos.

These courageous journalists were three of several hundred who faced enormous challenges that day, most without any experience covering terrorism or even the most rudimentary training or schooling. It was new terrain in part because terrorism in the United States, such as the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah federal building in Oklahoma City, has been primarily domestic in origin. Like rescue workers armed only with notebooks, journalists, in many cases, raced to the scene without contemplating the danger they faced.

Each journalist faced distinct challenges. Arce, for instance, juggled her journalistic duty to get the story and inform the public with concerns about her own physical safety. She escaped the collapsing buildings in part because police and fire officials ordered her to evacuate what would become known as Ground Zero. It only dawned on her that she was in danger when she observed rescue workers racing away from the site. At night, she returned home to a residential neighborhood swarming with security and under a cloud of dust and ash, the remnants of which would linger for months. Blocks away at St. Vincent’s Hospital, friends and family of those believed to be trapped in the towers when they collapsed kept vigil.

Santana never feared for his life. But he was faced with another ethical dilemma. Should he inform Pentagon and police officials of his press credentials and risk being expelled from the scene? After consulting with his editors via cell phone, he decided that it was his obligation to display his Post press pass. Instead of being sent packing after his revelation, Santana was enlisted by officials to help with the search and rescue efforts. During the long, exhausting ordeal, with fires raging all around, he befriended a middle-aged man, Kenneth Foster, who watched the rescue efforts with a particularly acute sense of dread. Foster’s wife Sandra had worked in the quadrangle of the Pentagon that had taken a direct hit from the airplane. He had lost touch with her since the impact. Santana’s remarkable inside story of Foster’s struggle ended up on page one of the Sept. 13 edition of the Post.

Handschuh, meanwhile, relied heavily on family, friends and colleagues during his recovery from wounds that were far more than physical. “As I turned my camera lens on the flaming north tower, I realized that not all the debris falling to the street was glass and metal,” Handschuh writes in his essay on the ordeal, “A Lens on Life and Death.” “I can’t begin to describe what it looked like as some chose to jump to their deaths rather than confront the reality that they were about to be burned alive.”

In emergencies, the media serve as an alternative early warning system. The world learned about the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon first through television, radio, and news sites on the Web. The public turned to daily newspapers and newsmagazines to fill in the details in special editions and provide second-day analysis.

Early live reports on the attacks were sometimes confusing and misleading — predictable given the chaotic circumstances — contributing in part to the panic that gripped the nation in the aftermath of the four hijacked airliner crashes. Yet there were also extraordinary examples of media excellence, with journalists risking their lives to inform the nation about the unfolding crisis. The empathy they displayed went a long way toward humanizing the events, leading to an outpouring of support and compassion for victims, their survivors, rescue workers, and everyone affected by the atrocity.

“I was very aware that it was important when I was on the air that I be calm and professional,” said NBC News correspondent Anne Thompson. “The rest of the country was seeing this, and you didn’t want to add to a sense of panic. You had to be in control that day; it was more important than ever.”

This journalism curriculum is designed to outline the challenges, both professional and psychological, confronting reporters and editors who find themselves in the position of covering terrorism. Based on extensive interviews with journalists, it suggests ways to cover those affected by terrorism with accuracy, sensitivity and clarity. It discusses ways that terrorists have sought to use the media, and how journalistic skepticism can prevent manipulation. It also reviews interesting angles, stories and approaches to covering terrorism.

This curriculum also examines the impact upon journalists of internalizing the images of both physical and emotional suffering described in their coverage. Based on the latest clinical research about emotional responses to trauma, it outlines some measures journalists are taking to reduce work-related distress and possibly confront — and prevent — Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

Finally, it traces steps media organizations are taking to prepare their staffs to cover terrorism.

I. What is Terrorism?

Sept. 11, 2001, was a particularly diabolical instance of terrorism. But there are many forms of terror. Some are so much a part of our ordinary lives that we hardly recognize them as such. Examples include child and spousal abuse, gang violence and hate crimes. “Acts of nature” — from hurricanes to earthquakes — inflict terror on both those directly affected and observers.

The events of September were categorically different. The scope of the damage and the number of casualties — more than 3,000 — were unprecedented, at least on American soil. The primary distinction between terrorism and terror is that the former is the intentional infliction of suffering and destruction, nearly always aimed at civilian targets. While the actual event may be short-lived, the ripple, or secondary, effects can include lingering health hazards, economic ruin, and the suffering of survivors.

Terrorism on such a massive scale creates an enormous range of direct and indirect victims, from rescue workers to medical personnel. As a result, it inflicts dire consequences far beyond the actual victim group, causing fear and intimidation across an entire community or even nation. The invisibility of the perpetrators exacerbates the sense of fury and dislocation felt by the community under siege. Children are particularly sensitive to the immediate fallout from trauma. According to a May 2002 study by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 10.5 percent of New York City schoolchildren from the 4th through 12th grades suffered PTSD six months after Sept. 11. Another 10 percent suffered a related condition, agoraphobia, or the fear of public spaces. Latino children faced even higher risk of contracting both conditions. (The study was based on a sample size of 8,266, the largest of its kind.) Among adults queried one to two months after Sept. 11 in the National Study of Americans’ Reactions to September 11th, the prevalence of probable PTSD was higher in NYC (11.2 percent) than anywhere else in the nation. (2.7-4.0 percent, depending on location).

The political theorist Michael Walzer, author of Just and Unjust Wars, defines the phenomenon this way:

Terrorism is the deliberate killing of innocent people, at random, in order to spread fear through a whole population and force the hand of its political leaders.

The common element is the targeting of people who are, in both the military and political senses, noncombatants: not soldiers, not public officials, just ordinary people. And they aren't killed incidentally in the course of actions aimed elsewhere; they are killed intentionally.

Domestic terrorism has long been a regular beat for American journalists, with the Oklahoma City bombing — and the voluminous coverage it spawned — being just one example. A series of abortion clinic bombings in the 1990s, linked to fugitive John Eric Rudolph, is another. The 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, a harbinger of worse things to come, has been linked to Middle Eastern extremists. In May 2002, pipe bombs planted in mailboxes injured six and created panic across the across the mid-west and south. A college student in Minnesota confessed to the crime spree.

Robert Jay Lifton, a historian who has studied terrorist groups, Nazi doctors and other perpetrators, defines terrorism as “apocalyptic violence.” Moral certitude and “end-of-world” aspirations motivate this form of violence. “There is an impulse behind this act toward destroying much of the world,” Lifton has said. “It has political purposes — defeating America or getting America out of the Middle East or bringing down America — but it has the grander aim of unlimited destruction. That is why we call it apocalyptic violence, where the destructive impulse is accompanied by a vision of purification and renewal. We haven't been exposed to this before."

Indeed, a key component of terrorism is the generation of widespread panic and fear. As fear evokers, terrorists aim to create a climate of distrust and uncertainty that will somehow awaken people to the righteousness of their “cause.” Journalists are intended to serve as the medium for the articulation of this message.

II. Journalism and Terror

On 9/11/01 terrorists attacked New York City and Arlington, Va., just outside Washington, D.C. — international symbols of American economic and military might. They are also the media capitals of the western world. In the past, terrorists primarily targeted U.S. interests overseas, such as the USS Cole, attacked in Yemen in 1998, resulting in the deaths of 17 sailors. Moreover, attacks were often focused on groups that could be viewed, erroneously, as abstract others, in a faraway land. This time, journalists found themselves in the especially uncomfortable position of standing squarely in the bull’s-eye. From 2001 to 2002, 40 journalists including Daniel Pearl were killed while covering traumatic events, according to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists.

The anthrax scare, which followed later in September of 2001 and was thought to be domestic in origin, also took aim at journalists at NBC News, the New York Post, and the National Enquirer.

Anthrax-tainted letters were addressed to political leaders at the Capitol Building, the locus of national political reporting in the United States.

This year, anti-American terrorists in Pakistan kidnapped and murdered Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, who was investigating links between extremists in that country and Richard Reid, the “shoe-bomber.” Pearl’s murder received international scrutiny. But other journalists have been targeted as well. Boston Globe reporter Anthony Shadid, for instance, was shot in the shoulder last summer while covering a story in Ramallah. In December 2000, two vehicles registered to the Washington Post were firebombed outside the newspaper’s Jerusalem bureau.

Outside the line of fire, the rhetorical bombardment can be fierce. When USA Today Middle East correspondent Jack Kelly covered the shooting of Palestinians by Jewish settlers on the West Bank in August 2001, the reaction was ferocious. “I got 3,000 e-mails a day for ten straight days, including several death threats,” Kelly told The Washington Post. “Someone sent a bouquet of white funeral flowers. The message was loud and clear: ‘If you don’t play our way, you will suffer the consequences.’”

The journalists-as-target scenario presents dilemmas for editorial decision-makers. Because terrorism is generally intended in part to garner publicity for a “cause,” no matter how dubious, the media are faced with a Hobson’s choice between publicizing attacks against its own and ignoring the violence unleashed in the name of the cause.

Journalists strive to balance the need to present accurate information of these sensational events while dampening the terrorists’ goal of producing widespread panic. They balance the public’s need to know with the private sensitivities of those most directly affected. For instance, after CBS aired a portion of the video from Pearl’s captors months after his death, Pearl’s family criticized the network as heartless. “Terrorists have made this video confident that the American media would broadcast it and thereby serve their exact purpose,” said Pearl’s father. CBS anchor Dan Rather responded that the anti-American propaganda displayed in the video is newsworthy because it helped explain the motives of the perpetrators.

For journalists, that’s only one of many ethical quagmires. Over the years, the term terrorism has been politicized, and journalists have learned to invoke the term carefully. A state may define border skirmishes or domestic dissension as terrorism to bolster its credibility and international standing. In April, Minnesota political leaders signed a full-page ad in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, accusing the newspaper of a “double standard” for describing Palestinian militants as “suicide bombers” rather than terrorists. Tribune editor Tim McGuire responded that the paper’s policy calls for the specific term — “suicide bomber” — because both sides are accusing the other of terrorism. The term “suicide bomber” has also been contested, with critics pushing for the application of the term “homicide bomber.”

Terrorism can be intensely personal, affecting cherished journalistic values of fairness, balance and objectivity. “We sat in our places and passed on information as best we could when we had it,” said Judy Woodruff, the anchor of CNN’s InsidePolitics and WorldView. “That was what we were supposed to do, but we had to do it as human beings. It was our country that was being attacked. We are supposed to be detached journalists, but I’m an American citizen first. This was not just another story for me. It was my country, my city.” (p. 171, Covering Catastrophe).

Despite the passions common to all Americans during this trying time, journalists generally projected a sense of calm during the early, emergency coverage of 9/11. ABC News anchor Peter Jennings strove to maintain an emotional balance. “I have always believed that my emotion has no more validity than anybody else’s,” he said. (p. 170, Covering Catastrophe).

Tom Brokaw, the veteran NBC News anchor, acknowledges that you can’t always “suppress your personal feelings. They just spill out, and I think that’s understandable to the audience. My operating rule is: You’re not the story; you’re the conduit for the audience to the story. You ought not let your emotions become the story or become a distraction. But at the same time, obviously, you had a human reaction to a lot of this stuff.” (p. 170, Covering Catastrophe). Each of these veteran television journalists strove to provide basic facts about transportation, communications and safety.

Many news media professionals employed a technique unfamiliar to the trade: silence. “We went into silent mode for a short time,” says Jennings. “It was not necessary for us to add our own anxiety or shock. It was all too evident for everybody… Throughout my entire career I have always been conscious that there are times when some people on television simply talk too much. Silence of natural sound on occasion is infinitely more powerful and relevant.” (p. 84, Covering Catastrophe).

This lesson helped newscasters cope with the often conflicting and erroneous data that flowed over the wires. In fact, as CNN’s Aaron Brown said, “In all those years of watching Peter Jennings work at ABC, I had learned the power of the pause…of silence. I suspect my best work that day was knowing when not to speak…I needed that time too. This was my city under attack, my country. I was sure I knew people who would not make it.” (p. 130, Covering Catastrophe)

III. Effects

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.

IV. Interviewing

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.

V. Telling Stories

"At the WTC, there were other people who were much better prepared than I was to rescue the victims. I felt that what I could best do with my energy was pay tribute to the men and women who got out in those difficult conditions and made those gestures of help. The reason I would justify that cameramen and photographers and journalists be present in these situations is not because they are making money or because they’re parasites. It’s because 50 years from now, it’s important that people contemplate the decency that so many people demonstrated in trying to do the right thing in a situation that was difficult. I don’t know how that can be communicated without images, without words, without film.”

Photographer Peter Turnley (Nieman Reports, 2001 (4), p. 9)

The stories journalists tell, visually and verbally, help the public make sense of confusing, threatening times. In fact there is evidence that putting language to traumatic experiences helps individuals cope. Although it is not a stated mission of the press to heal, articulating the event for others may have a therapeutic effect on the larger community.

Yet headlines of September 12 often neglected the personal stories. Instead, they focused on the cause (“Attack on America”), to consequences (“Disaster,” “Nightmare”) to interpretation (“Bastards,” “The Longest Day,”) to the future (“What Now?”) The human consequences only showed up as second-day angles.

There are many non-stereotypical ways to portray grief both visually and in narrative form. Fred Richen, former photo editor for The New York Times Sunday Magazine, warns that journalists tend to portray grief differently when it takes place in what they consider their own community.

Before assigning or reporting a news story, reporters and editors might consider asking themselves the following questions:

  • If I were chronicling events directly affecting my family and me, would I alter the wording in any way?
  • Are graphic descriptions or images necessary to the angle of the story?
  • Could any of the reporting in this story prove harmful to the subjects of the story?
  • If so, is this information necessary for the story?

VI. Care of the Self

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.”

VII. Preparation

For the first time, many media companies have begun systematically to plan for emergency coverage of traumatic events.

Some were already doing so. With its global network of bureaus and continuous crisis coverage, CNN had contingency plans in place well before Sept. 11. After all, it had made its name with coverage of the Persian Gulf War.

On 9/11, Edith Chapin, deputy bureau chief managing editor of CNN, first focused on ascertaining the safety of her staff. “Instantly I knew I had to account for the whereabouts and safety of all of them. Many began phoning in with information; I put a check mark next to each name once someone had spoken to him or her.” (Covering Catastrophe) Consider how to contact staff at home, submit stories using multiple technologies in case one is inoperable, and provide access to cameras when people are not in the office.

CNN was hardly alone. Many news outlets had alternative plans on how to print a paper. The Wall Street Journal, for instance, put out a paper although its offices near the WTC had been evacuated. In order to prepare for contingencies in the age of the Internet, technology must be considered. Websites should up dated frequently.

Hit by attacks in its own backyard, followed closely by the anthrax scare, even CNN had its resources stretched to the breaking point. Smaller media outlets were generally less well versed in covering catastrophe. With little or no organizational support system, freelancers faced a special burden. Moreover, journalists often lack even the minimal security protection utilized by police, rescue workers, military personnel or diplomats.

"Not only are [journalists] soft targets, you are attractive targets because terrorism is about changing opinions," Robert Klamser, executive director of Crisis Consulting International, which helps aid groups and religious organizations cope with hostage situations, told a National Press Club audience in April 2002. Journalists require safety training to understand risk.

Chris Cramer, president of CNN International Networks, has taken a leading role in journalistic preparedness. He urges news organizations to create a culture in which discussing physical safety and emotional stress is as routine as deadlines. "This profession is really stupid when it comes to certain things — safety, stress," Cramer has said. "There are an army of news organizations in this country who do not get it."

There is no way to eliminate danger altogether. Terry Anderson, honorary co-chairman of the Committee to Protect Journalists, noted that while some stories require taking reasonable risks, no story is worth death. "We are journalists. We do take risks," said Anderson, a former Beirut bureau chief for the Associated Press who spent nearly seven years as a hostage in Lebanon. "The point is not to encourage risk-taking beyond the line." In preparing guidelines for journalists, news organizations are grappling with many complicated problems. Questions include whether journalists in violence-torn regions should carry weapons, wear bulletproof vests or use armed guards, and how news agencies should respond to ransom demands.

After managing the bombing coverage at the Oklahoman, Joe Hight suggests:

  • Educating an executive-level editor in trauma to coordinate response
  • Making counseling available to all
  • Emailing tips on stress management, positive letters to the editor, and other encouraging messages
  • Encouraging staff and freelances to look after themselves

Sources and Resources

Covering Violence
A Guide to Ethical Reporting about Victims & Trauma

by William Coté & Roger Simpson

Understanding Journalists’ Experience of September 11, 2001: The Need for a Research Agenda (unpublished manuscript)
by Elana Newman, Ph.D. & Barbara Monseu

Understanding Violence
By Elizabeth Kandel Englander

Tragedies & Journalists
A Guide for More Effective Coverage

by Frank Smyth and Joe Hight
Dart Center for Journalism & Trauma

Covering Catastrophe: Broadcast Journalists Report September 11
Edited by Alison Gilbert, Phil Hirschkorn, Melinda Murphy, Robin Walensky and Mitchell Stephens

At Ground Zero: 25 Stories from Young Reporters Who Were There
Edited By Chris Bull and Sam Erman

Crimes of War: What the Public Should Know
Edited by Roy Gutman and David Reiff

Risking More Than Their Lives: The Effects of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder on Journalists
Freedom Forum

“Psychological sequelae of the September 11 terrorist attacks in New York City.” New England Journal of Medicine Vol 346(13), Mar 2002, 982-987
Galea, Sandro ; Ahern, Jennifer ; Resnick, Heidi ; Kilpatrick, Dean ; Bucuvalas, Michael ; Gold, Joel ; Vlahov, David

“Reactions to Terrorist Attacks: Findings form the National Study of Americans’ Reactions to September 11,” Journal of American Medical Association, 288, 5, 581-588.Schlenger, W. E., Caddell, J. M., Ebert, L., Jordan, B.,K., Rourke, K. M., Wilson, D., Thalji, L., Dennis, J.M., Fairbank, J.A., & Kulka, R. A.(August 7, 2002) Psychological


Other Resources

Dart Center for Journalism & Trauma

Poynter Institute for Media Studies

International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies

National Center for PTSD

National Press Photographers Association

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention