Here are the winners of the Dart Center Award for 2010.
The Dart Center is a unique and important resource, helping reporters, editors, photographers — anyone who chooses to cover dark, powerful, draining stories and who needs help, as many of us do afterward, in processing the secondary trauma we experience as a result.
My friend Maryn McKenna, whose new book, “Superbug”, I’ve blogged about here, on the flesh-eating bacteria MRSA, was a Dart fellow, and Sheri Fink, one of this year’s two Dart winners — who also picked up a Pulitzer Prize for her 13,o0o-word New York Times Magazine story about a New Orleans hospital and the decisions it made in the aftermath of Katrina — appeared on an American Society of Journalists and Authors panel I held on writing about tough subjects. Her award-winning first book, War Hospital, recreated the daily life of a hospital in Bosnia.
Secondary trauma is often inevitable, as those who record others’ experiences of pain, fear and violence absorb it into our own psyches, like indelible ink seeping into cloth. It becomes a part of us, forever, no matter how much we wish it did not. Caring carries a price.
For my 2004 book on women and guns, I read and heard about, and interviewed women who had shot and killed, who had been shot point-blank, whose husbands and sons had died by gunfire, at their own hands or those of others. As a result of thinking and reading and talking about violence for months, meeting women face to face who had suffered truly terrible experiences, I had nightmares and insomnia, classic symptoms of secondary trauma, which I never knew existed or had a name until a friend who works with prisoners told me about it.
Hard stories demand a blend of skills — a mental toughness allowing us to listen and watch, and tell the story, somewhat at odds with the empathy and emotional sensitivity that attracts us to these stories. You have to learn to calibrate your compassion, as I wrote in an essay for the Center.
The aftereffects, let alone what we hear and see while reporting and editing them, can scare good, brave, ambitious journalists away from tackling some of the work that most needs to be done, the stories that scare the hell out of most of us and need to be brought into the light.
I applaud Sheri and her colleagues, and am grateful the Center exists.