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Posts Tagged ‘secondary trauma’

What years of reporting violence does to journalists

In aging, behavior, blogging, books, business, Crime, film, journalism, life, Media, news, photography, television, the military, travel, war, women, work on August 28, 2013 at 12:11 am

By Caitlin Kelly

News journalism, no matter your gender, is a tough and macho business.

Showing weakness, fear or timidity is a career-killer and those who wade into the gore and muck and terror often win the best jobs, assignments and book contracts — no matter what the emotional toll.

English: Logo of NPR News.

English: Logo of NPR News. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Some of you may listen to Kelly McEvers, the MidEast correspondent for National Public Radio.

She recently did a documentary about her experience of trauma as a result of her work, a rare and brave admission of its effects.

Here’s a bit of a Q and A with Kelly:

LO: I didn’t know that NPR had a therapist on retainer. At what point, do you know that there’s a therapist if you need one? Is it part of a basic benefits package for conflict journalists? 

KM: A colleague recommended Mark Brayne. Mark is very involved with the Dart Center. He’s part of a group of people who really advocate for this kind of thing at news organizations. I don’t really know if it’s part of NPR’s orientation or benefits package because back when I joined the company things were different than they are now.

At work, therapy was always this kind of thing that you wanted to do in complete confidentiality because you never want to be seen as weak at a news organization. I’ve tried to make it something that we talk about a little bit more—not who goes to see whom or when they go—but that it’s available and we should all consider using it when we need it.

Dr. Anthony Feinstein, who I interviewed, talked about this a bit. Newsrooms are insanely competitive places. You don’t want anyone to sniff weakness because then they’ll come for your job. Doing this piece was a big risk and that’s definitely one of the reasons.

The other thing is when you cover these horrible situations, you feel like a schmuck saying “poor me,” when the people around you have it so much worse than you, where there’s hundreds of thousands of refugees and people are dying violent deaths every day. That’s something you have to get over. Feinstein talks about this with his clients. He asks, “If you have a broken leg, but the guy next to you has broken leg, should you not fix your broken leg?” The truth is, we have to be well enough to tell people’s stories. And if you’re not well in the head, you’re not going to be able to do it. We have to stop feeling guilty about talking about our problems.

Reporting on the larger world often begins with local reporting on cops and courts, where most journalists have never been before. Drug abuse, murder, sexual assault, rape — we cover it, talk to survivors of it, photograph it, write about it or broadcast its images. We may sit for days or weeks or months in a courtroom, listening to horrific details.

In the 1980s, while working at The Globe and Mail, I was sent into a Toronto courtroom to cover for the justice reporter for a few days. It might only have been a day, but every detail is as fresh to me as it was then. They wheeled in the blood-streaked freezer into which the accused shoved his victim, minus his limbs.

We called it, with typical black humor, the roast beef murder.

Then there were the parents who had pimped their own children to a circle of their friends.

Stupidly, I’d had no idea what nightmares swirled around us.

While working, briefly, for the Canadian Press, my Sunday evening shift included writing up every fatality that occurred in the province of Ontario that weekend: car crashes, drownings, you name it. I started to dread my job and its perky nickname “Fats”.

One evening I asked a fellow reporter, a woman whose husband was a cop, if this ever bothered her, all those dead bodies and grieving families. “It’s just numbers,” said Judy.

Asshole.

Those who cover war see and smell dead bodies. They learn to distinguish the specific deep thudding of a Blackhawk helicopter or the sound of an incoming mortar, to survive the choking stink of tear gas and strap on their Kevlar vest before starting their day.

UH-60L Blackhawk helicopter flies a low-level ...

UH-60L Blackhawk helicopter flies a low-level mission over Iraq (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Friends of mine have covered war, famine, rape, the aftermath of floods and hurricanes.

One, a colleague more than a personal friend, war reporter Michael Hastings, only 33, died in a fiery crash in L.A. recently, to the shock and dismay of the journalism community.

But this long L.A. Weekly story suggests he was fighting plenty of his own demons:

Interviews with friends as well as the coroner’s report suggest that Hastings’ mental health was deteriorating. As a young man, he’d abused drugs and alcohol and received a possible diagnosis of manic depression. Now, after a long period of sobriety, he had recently begun smoking pot to treat his post-traumatic stress disorder — the product of years of covering combat.

My husband covered the worst prison riot in U.S. history, photographing the dead while he was still a college student.

Another friend wrote a terrific book about MRSA, the flesh-eating bacteria. She, too, was traumatized by what she heard and saw.

Those covering the mayhem in Egypt and Syria are staring into the abyss every day.

Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus 10048

Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus 10048 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

To write my first book, about American women and guns, I spoke to 104 men, women and teens about firearms in their lives, including women who had been shot, who had shot and killed, whose children and husbands had been killed or committed suicide.

I had a few weeks of insomnia and nightmares, and only a friend working in the prison system recognized it as secondary trauma.

I knew things were getting a little nuts when one of my sources, who had been shot point-blank in her home then pursued and shot her assailant, sent me a photo of his body lying in her front yard, and I asked Jose to preview it for me to see if I could handle it.

“It’s fine,” he said. “It’s just a dead guy in the mud.”

This is not a healthy reaction.

Last week, at a journalism conference, I met a tall, thin, beautiful television anchor who is hungry to do something different. “I’ve seen too much,” she told me. “Bodies without heads…all the things we see, but viewers do not.”

journalists_guide_to_firearms_ak47_glock1

journalists_guide_to_firearms_ak47_glock1 (Photo credit: gnotalex)

This is what consumers of media rarely know or remember — that before you hear it on the radio or see it on the television news or read about it on-line or in print, people have first listened to and watched visions of pure hell.

The final product is, no matter how horrific to you, sanitized and scrutinized, argued over ferociously in news meetings as to whether it’s legal, ethical or moral to show you all of it. If so, how much?

Here’s help, in the Dart Center, whose mission it is to help us process the detritus of covering some of the toughest — and most important — stories. Here’s a blog post I wrote for them, back in 2004, about women and violence.

Do you encounter physical or emotional violence in the course of your paid or volunteer work?

How do you process it or recover from it?

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
journalists_guide_to_firearms_ak47_glock1

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.

9/11, Mine and His; Two Journalists, Two Cities

In Media on September 11, 2009 at 8:01 am
Twin Towers, New York

Image by Guillaume Cattiaux via Flickr

I was in Maryland, attending a journalism fellowship, excited to be a in room filled with smart, talented peers. Within minutes of the attacks, three of them left immediately, heading to New York to cover the biggest story imaginable. A Canadian newspaper I was stringing for regularly had already called my home in New York: “Get down there!” I stayed in Maryland; others would do it better, faster. I didn’t want to do that story.  I know my limits

That was the day my sweetie, a photo editor for a newspaper, was to move into my apartment, 25 miles north of his home in Brooklyn. Everything he owned was packed, ready to go. The movers pulled up at 9:00. “We can’t go. All the bridges and tunnels are closed.” He packed a shirt, a bottle of water, fruit and ran to the Brooklyn Bridge, ready to start walking to work in Manhattan. Overhead, he saw and heard a lone F-15 Eagle, a fighter jet, its roar so loud that the ground shook beneath his feet. “We’re at war,” he thought. He’d traveled with the military. This was a sound he knew. Afterburners are loud, frighteningly so.

Lots of traffic noise. At the bridge, a sea of vehicles awaited, every radio tuned to the same station. A wave of people staggered across the bridge, some running, some walking, every single one covered in gray dust, the pulverized concrete of the towers’ collapse. He backed up, bumped into someone, apologized — and recognized a shooter’s vest, the sort with a dozen pockets, and three camera bodies. One of his female colleagues. He took off her glasses and cleaned them with his bottle of water. “How much film have you shot? How much digital? Give me your film.”

He ran to the nearest mom-and-pop photo store — he didn’t know where it was, had never used them, just recalled there was one nearby. “I work for (a NYC daily). I have three or four rolls of film. I need them processed right away.” An hour later, he had the negatives, and back at his apartment unpacked everything he would need: film scanner, computer, telephone and a television — a newsroom recreated in his otherwise empty Brooklyn apartment. Prior moves had taught him not to cut off the power until he’d moved into the next space. The coffee table became his desk, the floor his chair. He called his editor in midtown: I have (the shooter’s) photos. I have her film. I’ll be transmitting as soon as possible. If anyone else is in the area, tell them they can come to my apartment.” The editor was calm. “Thanks.”

He had a light table, and might have used it to read the negatives, or maybe the window. He doesn’t remember. Within three hours, he had transmitted about a dozen images to his editors in midtown. The shooter headed out from his basement apartment, took more pictures, came back with digital images he transmitted. By the end of the day, at sunset, the two of them returned to the bridge together — the sunset, with all the smoke and city lights — would make a good picture. “We joined a cast of thousands.” In silence. “People were whispering, so quietly you could hear helicopters overhead, landing in Manhattan on the docks.” A few had hand-held radios.

The two of them walked home to their individual apartments. Stores and restaurants were closed. Pieces of singed paper — “like a snowstorm” — floated through the air, office memos carried across the East River from the towers. They blanketed the grass of his backyard, their company letterheads still legible.

I called him many times that day. I didn’t have a cellphone and he had no number to reach me. But the phones didn’t work and I could not reach him. I knew he was supposed to be near the Towers at 9:00 that morning and had no idea if he was alive, injured or dead. Fellow journalists, with me in Maryland, were kind: “Your boyfriend is missing? Are you OK?” I wasn’t, but had to be. By 4:00 p.m. I finally got through.

I drove north three days after 9/11, knowing the exact spot on I-95 where I would be able to see the city’s southern tip, terrified. At 65 mph on a crowded expressway, I cried so hard I could barely see. It was like seeing someone you love punched black and blue.

A Paris agency wanted a story, right away, on DNA testing of bodies and body parts. The country, the city, was still focused on finding survivors, when they were none — editors in London, Paris and New Zealand, who bought three versions of my story — were ahead of the game. They knew, and wanted details. I knew no one in authority near New York or D.C. would make the time to speak to me. What was the most analogous story to this one, a story none of us could even grasp emotionally, even as we were living it? A San Francisco earthquake and the Oklahoma bombing. I interviewed scientists and crime scene experts in San Francisco (using the three-hour lag between CA and NY to my advantage) and in Toronto, my hometown, where I had great sources and a decent reputation even 20 years after leaving.

I researched and wrote 2,500 words between 9:00 a.m. and midnight — 6:00 a.m. Paris time. My editors there needed the copy asap to offer to their clients. Versions of my piece ran in the London Sunday Telegraph, the French weekly VSD and the New Zealand Herald

I found and interviewed a corrections officer doing volunteer work at the site for Glamour asking what she’d seen. I still have those notes. I made the mistake of calling an acquaintance to tell her, needing to offload the horror. She is not a journalist and called me back, weeping, hysterical, raging. “Why did you tell me this?” We have barely spoken since.  I finished the interview and cried for 30 minutes, shaking with the intimate, hideous details of what had happened there, details I still have never read elsewhere. There are things that journalists hear and see and know — as photographers and their editors do as well — that are beyond nightmares. You, the reader/viewer, are spared. These are things that sear and stain your soul.

Today, if you pray for the victims and their families, please remember with gratitude the very real bravery of the men and women who covered this story. We, too, were witnesses.

Journalists, (Believe It Or Not), Have Feelings Too, says A New Documentary

In business, Media on July 31, 2009 at 12:41 pm
News Reporter

Image by besfort z via Flickr

Journalists have feelings too. That’s the message of a new 36-minute documentary discussed today in the Los Angeles Times.

The film, “Breaking News, Breaking Down” focuses on the toll that reporting dark or terrifying stories can take on the men and women who gather that material, who pride themselves on doing whatever it takes to get it, toughing it out, and crying, if and when they do, much later and alone.

I’ve lived through this, as have many writers, photographers and cameramen I know. War, 9/11, poverty, crime. Hard stories exact a price. The Dart Center is there to help.

I’ll be blogging about this in an upcoming J-Day.

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