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Honoring brave journalists with the annual Dart Center Awards

In behavior, blogging, books, business, Crime, culture, education, film, Health, journalism, Media, news, photography, science, sports, the military on May 3, 2012 at 12:22 am
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journalists_guide_to_firearms_ak47_glock1 (Photo credit: gnotalex)

It’s a fact easily overlooked — the news we read and hear and watch is brought to us by human beings with hearts.

Some of the stories they gather, and some of the very best in my view, are the ones we skip over because they’re dark, disturbing and deeply painful.

Journalists who gather this material often end up suffering from a condition known as “secondary trauma” which can cause insomnia, nightmares, anxiety and depression. It’s a form of PTSD, which soldiers experience after the violence and brutality of war. I experienced it myself after writing my first book about American women and guns, after steeping myself in reports and interviews of violence, suicide and homicide for months.

A female friend who returned from Haiti after reporting there for weeks began telling her Facebook friends she couldn’t sleep, night after night. I suggested her insomnia was quite likely the result of secondary trauma. Another female friend wrote a searing book about MRSA, the flesh-eating infection, and she too experienced the aftereffects of recounting terrible stories, receiving a Dart Center fellowship to deal with it.

Most journalists aren’t trained in any way to know that this even exists. They work in, or return to, newsrooms filled with colleagues who have no experience or understanding of the horrors they may have seen, smelled, heard or survived, and few bosses with training to recognize or handle it either.

The very compassion and empathy that leads journalists into this tough work can also leave them shattered by it.

The Dart Center is an American non-profit organization whose focus is helping journalists prepare for, and recover from, reporting stories of this nature. I admire them and the men and women who do this work.

A panel discussion is being held tonight from 6 to 8pm at the Columbia School of Journalism in New York City honoring this year’s winners.

From the Dart Center website:

The New York Times received the Dart Award for “Punched Out: The Life and Death of a Hockey Enforcer.” (John Branch, reporter; Marcus Yam, photographer; Shayla Harris, videojournalist; Josh Williams, multimedia producer.) This searing three-part investigative series tells the story of Derek Boogaard, one of the N.H.L.’s most feared “enforcers,” who died with massive brain injuries at age 28. The series reveals the consequences – physical, psychological and social – of the adulation of violence surrounding the sport.

Judges called “Punched Out: The Life and Death of a Hockey Enforcer” a “groundbreaking” and “exemplary piece of accountability journalism.” They praised Branch for his “masterful storytelling” and “tender objectivity,” and for focusing on “human beings, science and anguish instead of thrill, agony and defeat.” They commended the series for “taking on the sports page” and “drawing attention to sanctioned violence of fans.” Judges also recognized the far-reaching, and wide-ranging impact of the series that has made it nearly impossible for those most vested in hockey to turn a blind eye to its cruel reality and disastrous impact.

WNYC received the Dart Award for “Living 9/11,” which was presented by PRX, the Public Radio Exchange (Marianne McCune, reporter and producer; Emily Botein, producer; Karen Frillman, editor; Fred Mogul and Beth Fertig, reporters; Eric Leinung, Jillian Suarez, Erin Reeg, Norhan Basuni, Radio Rookies; Courtney Stein, Sanda Htyte, Radio Rookies producers; Kaari Pitkin, Radio Rookies senior producer; Chris Bannon, executive producer; Andy Lanset, original 9/11 recordings; John Ellis, composer; Paul Schneider and Jim Briggs III, mix engineers.) This hour-long documentary guides listeners through the stories of people who were deeply affected by the September 11, 2001 attacks and who are still struggling to make sense of the events.  The documentary is built around a diverse range of viewpoints, capturing visceral and immediate emotional reactions to the attacks while also illuminating universal truths about 9/11’s lasting impact.

Judges called “Living 9/11” “insightful,” “hard-hitting” and “deeply sensitive,” going far beyond more conventional anniversary programs in its integration of history, science and narrative.

  1. Thanks for pointing this out. I always wondered how journalists can write about the horrors without being affected. I think that’s why I veered away from journalism. It scared me too much.

    • I think we have — like cops, doctors, nurses — coping mechanisms. Like liquor and a lot of joking to defuse tension. Some really black humor. At worst, people get cold and hard and disgustingly callous. I’ve seen it. But I also really value most the people who do this work and the stories like that I’ve worked on, as has my husband. It can take a toll but you also have some comrades who get it.

  2. Personally I do not know how these journos cope with the things they witness. I never understood how they remain impartial and ‘objective’ to bring to the rest of us reports that both fascinate and horrify. That these people suffer PTSD shows that they are human too and not simply our abstracted eyes and ears. I never understood how journalists in these situations could so seemingly abstract themselves from their surroundings- say to record and not assist … or to see but not feel because to feel would render them incapable of continuing … the locking away of these things comes at a price. Hats off to them.

    Thank you once again for a thought-provoking article…

    • Many of us never talk about it openly, with our non-journo friends or family because they can’t handle it and freak out. I once made the mistake of sharing some of the appalling details I had learned while reporting on 9/11 and told a “civilian” a woman from my church who called me back hysterically weeping and furious I had shared it. I thought ” what a wuss.” Seriously. Do people really think we live in Disneyworld?! What do you THINK happened at the World Trade Center collapse?

      I think we become inured to it and somewhat de-sensitized. You have to care enough to do the work and to relate to the people you interview. But you also have to pull back emotionally somehow to protect your own mental health. By the time I finished interviewing so many people for my gun book I felt exhausted, like I had a magnet on my head attracting non-stop darkness. It was rough. I went to a therapist and my minister to off-load and that helped. But I will carry, as does my husband, many memories I’d rather not…

  3. I remember reading ‘The Hot Zone’ – the first book I ever saw documenting the horrors of the Ebola virus – and being so horrified by the details that I actually became depressed and anxious for many months! I imagine the writer suffered rather more than that.
    I think striving for emotional distance is more difficult than it sounds! Witness the number of alcoholics in the professions like journos, police, nurses, who see the horrible side of life up close and personal but who aren’t given the recognition of that as a problem. Secondary trauma is still trauma!

    • Trauma is tough. These are essential jobs and caring is part of the job. But how much to care is the challenge. I also think, if you’re lucky — esp. for nurses and journos — you have a balance in the work…i.e. if you’re a nurse you also see many people heal and get better and appreciate you. For every grim and depressing story I’ve done, there are many that were pure fun. Without that, you do go mad.

      The saddest cases are those who become (and they do) addicted to war coverage. Talk about dark and damaged.

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