What years of reporting violence does to journalists

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.


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 (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?

42 thoughts on “What years of reporting violence does to journalists

  1. Great post, Caitlin. Yeah, we see it first. So much of what is on the news is sanitized. We don’t get that sanitized version. We get the mothers who are still grieving for murdered children years later and will never heal, the young soldiers who are barely out of their teens who are permanently traumatized with brain injuries, and on and on and on. Our job is to be a conduit and give voice to the voiceless and bear witness to human suffering. But yes, it can extract a heavy toll although you feel like a narcissistic twit feeling sorry for yourself when everyone around you is in much worse shape. Thanks for writing this and thanks for acknowledging what many do quietly behind the scenes at great personal sacrifice.

    1. Thanks, Linda. I’ve blogged this issue before — but really wanted to highlight Kelly’s doc on it.

      It’s very true we feel silly whining when the stories we cover are of people TRULY traumatized. But we do need to acknowledge and talk about it as well so those who need help will get it, as the next comment reminds us.

  2. As an ex-lawyer, yes. As a writer, no. Thank God.

    I honestly don’t think that everyone has the emotional makeup to do work like this and suicide is another result that comes from working cases or articles like that. I wish I remembered his name, the photographer who took the pictures of vultures stalking starving children. Our eyes and psyches are vulnerable to such sights.

    1. So true. I sometimes fear two reactions — a very real hardening of the heart (i.e. becoming desensitized) or a tipping into very real darkness, and possibly suicide.

      I recently spoke to a friend whose job involves (insane) almost DAILY dealings with the grisly aftermath of suicide…by people who step into the path of oncoming trains. It was shocking (but not surprising) to see the effect on this person’s psyche.

      The shooter you refer to was Kevin Carter, 33, and it was in 1994. This was part of his suicide note:

      “I am depressed … without phone … money for rent … money for child support … money for debts … money!!! … I am haunted by the vivid memories of killings and corpses and anger and pain … of starving or wounded children, of trigger-happy madmen, often police, of killer executioners .

      1. Shame on me for forgetting his name! His story is a very important one for us.

        I think you are completely right about the dangers, and I don’t know which is worse somehow. In one scenario, we can lose our lives and in the other one, we lose something integral to our humanity. I honestly think I would tip to the suicide part just because that seems more likely knowing how my mind is.

        Are you frightened for your friend who works with suicides? I hope they don’t succumb! We need people like that, but I fear for them. It’s a job I couldn’t handle!

      2. It’s a long time ago….and we can only handle so much!

        I think that people who are drawn to difficult stories (and I have done my share of them) need to balance them out with lighter fare as well. The problem of war reporting, certainly, is that once you’re there, that’s all you do. The insanity becomes routine.

        I think my friend needs help, frankly. Whether she will seek it, I don’t know. But suicide? No. She’s tough.

      3. I think you are more sober than most people and I’m glad that you strove for a balance. It sounds like journalists need someone, like the police have, to rotate them around when they are too long in dark places.

        I’m glad your friend is not the type to turn to suicide! We need people like her. I honestly think that the people who are able to desensitize themselves to a certain degree are better able to help others than those of us who succumb to the pain and horror.

        Thank you for your blog, btw. You always have a balance on here. Some days you talk about decorating and less serious things and other times you really get my mind churning on complex issues. The mix is pleasing and refreshing!

      4. Thanks for the compliment…

        I think we weary of heavy stuff, (yet, look at the fascinating convo’s we have as a result!)

        I have a fun light one for the weekend. My goal is to keep it light and cheerful on the weekends, when we ALL need a break. 🙂

  3. true. I can’t imagine what it’s like reporting from a war zone. I just listen to people’s stories and their anguish and grief. And THAT does a number on me. I can’t even begin to imagine reporting from the front lines. . . takes a very special kind of person. I remember seeing Sebastian Unger talk about it, and his decision to retire from that kind of reporting after the death of his friend, Tim Hetherington. He was devastated and shell shocked and he’ll be haunted by those memories for the rest of his life.

  4. I cannot believe the risks that reporters take in covering these things and truly see the necessity of in the field reporting but I know it must take its toll, at some point or another. I think if you do not become traumatized by it then you have effectively shut off all human empathy. And I would imagine there is no guarantee any reporter will “get over” what they have witnessed, even with therapy. Once seen, never forgotten. Things I saw or experienced when I was very young are still as clear as the day I saw them. It might be a protective mechanism but when a reporter feels guilty because all around are suffering even worse things negates the truly awful experiences they are having. Fear for one’s life is pretty traumatic and not to be minimized.

    1. I am in awe of (and fear for) anyone who does this sort of work.

      I was (and am) deeply affected by the stories I have heard over the years and it does stay with you. I think being a tribe member — i.e. knowing others have faced this and are facing it — is helpful, the way cops and lawyers and nurses and doctors have some sense of shared identity and camaraderie in the face of it. We know why we do this work and we can talk about its effects.

      But I lectured once at a conference about secondary trauma and a writer I didn’t know said she had had it (after writing a book about a burn unit) and had NO idea what she had been through…just that she felt like shit. So we need to name it and discuss it openly.

  5. i do not have these experiences and i feel fortunate for that. the brave people who cover such things are also victims – of the wars, the violence, the crimes, the inhumanity they report on. they should be offered all the support available. without them, many things would go unreported and the onus is on us, as a society to take care of them and restore them to health.

    1. If only! Some news organizations do offer counseling and support, before and after such stories, but no freelancer would have this option. I went to a therapist and to my minister while interviewing women who were violence victims. It helped somewhat…but simply knowing how evil the world can be can have a corrosive and numbing effect in the long term. You just know things that others do not, and it’s hard not to feel isolated by that.

  6. I certainly haven’t faced the reporter style of trauma which is good, because I wouldn’t have the right stuff to bear it. I’d be running from the story. I have seen some of the less-intense trauma working at a rehab hospital for traumatic brain injury and spinal cord injury. I remember seeing the Columbine shooting coverage on TV and then, a few weeks later, seeing the victims first hand in the hospital. I did well by taking people as they are or could be rather than as they were. They eventually turned into generic injuries, not people (true, but not fair) so I headed off to a research career where I didn’t have to face it first hand. It was good to have done that and good to have left.

    1. Thanks very much for sharing this…powerful stuff, and a firsthand taste of what this does to us.

      I think it’s a protective defense mechanism to begin to see death and injury as “generic” because caring (deeply) for so many people burns you out. So you’re burned out or you’re a cold-hearted shell…hopefully neither.

      Glad you found a workable solution.

  7. During my time with the police I’ve seen and been involved in both the aftermath and the occurrence of violence. Cops tend to self council we talk amongst ourselves about what happened, in more serious cases we’ll talk to professionals, ones with experience talking to cops (a few are every former police officers). When I feel the need to detox from a particularly traumatic evening I tend to escape to my creative side. I’ll grab my guitar, or sit and write, or play video games. I also find watching campy 50’s comedies takes the edge off. However, sometimes all that stuff just doesn’t cut it. Then you just have find it within yourself to let it go, which easier said than done. Sometimes it just with you and you compartmentalize it and hope that it doesn’t effect as much as you think it is or does. I’ve seen stress and trauma tear up cops. I’ve seen cops running in fear, crying after a shooting. I’ve been there when they’ve tosses in their badges and walked away. I’ve seen the toll violence takes on civilians… I think the greatest healing from the stresses of the job comes when you catch the bad guy, get the murder off the streets, re-unite the child with the parent or just have someone walk up to you out of the blue and say; “Thank you”

    1. Thanks, Marty. I knew you’d have a lot of insight into this.

      Being thanked for the work — knowing your effort has helped people (and I’ve gotten emails and letters for some of those stories saying that) — is really helpful indeed. One of my stories involved interviewing people who had had a terrible, life-changing drug side effect (Mirapex), and one reader wrote to say that I had saved her life because her mom read my story and argued long enough with the woman’s doctor to get her off the stuff. That was amazing.

  8. This is one of those posts where I always feel bad at putting ‘Like’.
    The first time a reporter or cameraman goes out on report in a war situation or even domestic shootings they are full of curiosity and bravado not knowing exactly what horrors face them.Thereafter I think they show the greatest courage to go and report again. To enter a warzone without the benefit of self defence not knowing whether the opposition will honour the fact you’re just a journalist must take a special kind of bravery knowing the kind of trauma you’ll face every day. I include the streets of big cities under the warzone title. If reporters and cameramen have the courage to go time after time to report horrors most of us could not face then it’s bound to take a toll on their health eventually be it physical or mental. For that service, the least employers who send them to these conflicts, and us, the public who demand this information can do is ensure the best therapy possible is available to them.
    As a member of that public Caitlin, may I thank you and your ilk for the magnificent job you do at such risk to yourselves. It doesn’t go unnoticed.
    xxx Huge Hugs xxx

    1. Thanks for the kind words.

      I think the “tribe” helps. It is a sad truth, though, that this reporting has to be done, and done firsthand. I cannot imagine what it must have been like to enter the Syrian hospitals to confirm that sarin gas was used. No horror film is worse…which is why I am no fan of horror films. The world has too much of this already.

  9. This is an amazing post. Thanks so much for writing about this tough topic.
    I think there is an incredible amount of trauma involved in being a teacher. We listen to kids and their problems, day in, day out. Sometimes it is a little thing. A kid talking matter of factly about a divorce, the lack of time she sees her dad. “Yeah he cares about me, we exchange texts once in awhile.” Or there is the extreme (this I experience in public school) the kid who gets a phone call from the prison that his mother was just put in. She had written another bad check and was arrested. The mom wanted the guard to call her son so he would know where the hide-a-key was when he got home.

    At some point you can no longer leave these children’s pain at school. It haunts you. I remember giving my daughter a bath at 6 months old. I started crying and just then my husband walked in on me in the bathroom. I looked up at him and said “I have so many children in my classes whose parents have never bathed them. They are working 3 jobs, are abusive, or complete ignore their children.” I had a particular student in mind. He kept getting passed between mom (when she was out of rehab) and grandma (when she would get sent back). The kid was already a terror on the streets and in the classroom, but no one seemed to know how to love him and care for him.

    Then came a moment on a beach, my husband’s crazy Republican friend made a comment that teachers are so lazy. They get the summers off and then they complain that they should get paid more. I got up and walked away, I didn’t want to punch him in the face. The husband took over and began to go through my work schedule, my long hours of prep/grading, the emotional baggage of dealing with troubled kids/parents…the guy apologized and seemed dumbfounded.

    It hard sometimes.

    1. Thanks for this.

      I’m not surprised to hear how painful your work can be — if (bless you) you listen, care and pay attention. Witnessing others’ pain and neglect and abuse is horrific.

      I think the best people in our fields choose them for many reasons, and one is to be helpful to others, to work in a way that does allow for emotional connection and intimacy — but it can come at a real cost as well when we feel impotent and angry and see the same shit on a different day. If that goes on, unabated, for weeks or months or years, burnout is surely inevitable.

      I am lucky in that I can calibrate this. I’ll do a light, fun story to balance out something heavier and darker. My current book proposal (now making the rounds of publishers) will plunge me back into a difficult subject, but one that needs addressing. So I dread doing it as much as I want to do it, if that makes any sense. 🙂

      Like you, I get VERY frustrated when people lump all of us together, loathing journalists on principle. We are not all vultures or writing about celebrities.

      1. Genau! Yes we love our job because of all of the laughter and joy, and all the hard stuff. If I ever become calloused to these things, I know it is time to get out of the teaching business.

      2. Had to look that word up!

        I still enjoy what I do, even after 30+ years. I love learning something new every day and getting to talk to (and write for) people all over the world.

  10. I used to work for the TX Department of Family and Protective Services, which is over Child Protective Services and Adult Protective Services. Some of the things I saw and heard were absolutely horrible. It makes you hug your kids tighter and call your parents regularly. Everything from infants being thrown across rooms to the elderly swindled out of their life savings by their kids who were supposed to be watching out for them. I had to leave because I just couldn’t deal with watching kids going through that nonsense time and time again. When my wife later graduated with a degree in psychology and wanted to be a caseworker; I told her I wouldn’t let her do it. She too soft regarding kids, and the job would have simply killed her. And I couldn’t watch her go through that, even if they did offer to pay for loans. Being in the military for 4 years was easier than working at CPS for two.

    1. Wow.

      Thanks for sharing this. There is such…horror…out there domestically — right around the corner from where we live — and only some of us see it and hear it firsthand. It deeply shocked me that day in court, when I was in my mid-20s, and I have had to really limit my exposure to it over the course of my career. No matter how drawn to those stories, I have to stay sane.

      I was a Big Sister here in 1998 for 18 months and it really altered (not for the better) my view of the world. It was deeply upsetting to see my Little Sister (then 13) live in a dirty, noisy, crazy household with little discipline, no role models and emotional chaos. I eventually (and am not proud of that) just gave up. Only then (!?), did the caseworker casually admit that this was one of their most challenging families. Nice. Multi-generational poverty and decades of crappy choices and welfare dependency left me leaning far more to the right than previously.

      Your wife is lucky you were so protective, I think.

      1. I think my time at CPS definitely left me a bit more centrist than liberal. Adults screwing their lives up is their business. It’s when the helpless get messed over that I tend to think society should step in to defend them.

  11. “….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”
    . . .

    GEn Maddaus’ profile portrays Hastings as a journalist who was “both brilliant and troubled,” who had relapsed into drug use and suffered from PTSD and paranoia. As a man struggling with his demons, with his mental health deteriorating in the weeks leading up to his death. For example, Maddaus wrote:

    “Interviews with friends as well as the coroner’s report suggest that Hastings’ mental health was deteriorating. … Hastings hung out with The Nation’s Jeremy Scahill when the reporter was in town promoting his documentary “Dirty Wars.” In May, Hastings was invited to a salon at director Oliver Stone’s house … “He seemed a little stressed …” A certain level of lighthearted paranoia would be unremarkable in such company [Cenk] Uygur says, “We joked that night that, if Scahill was there, we would have definitely had a drone strike on the house.”

    Maddaus’ piece is well-written, emotionally compelling and persuasive (and even had me convinced for about a day). However, after taking a closer look at the LAPD reports and his profile, I feel a bit suckered. I now think his portrait of Hastings as a “haunted soul” was too speculative, too thinly sourced, and “cherry-picked” quotes that supported his narrative (and omitted those that did not).

    I haven’t yet had time to analyze the piece in detail. But, today I found what appears to be an egregious example of his omitting Jeremy Scahills’ impressions of Hastings shortly before his death because they didn’t fit into his narrative.

    From the chronology of the above quote, a reader would assume that Hastings hung out with Jeremy Scahill sometime before the May salon at Oliver Stones’ house. However, they got together after the Oliver Stone salon, on JUNE 12, 2013 (just five days before Hastings’ death). Hasting spent that evening attending Scahills’ LA film premiere, the Q & A session, and then they hung out watching Scahill’s appearance on “The Tonight Show.“ It was probably his last public appearance (and was the last time he tweeted).

    So, did Scahill’s recollection of that evening suggest that “Hastings’ mental health was deteriorating”? No. In his June 19th Hastings’ eulogy, “Michael Hastings Popped The Press Bubble, From The Campaign Trail To The Front Lines,” Michael Caledrone wrote that Scahill described Hasting’s as “totally full of life” that night:

    “Nearly one week ago [June 12, 2013], Jeremy Scahill and several friends were hanging out in a Los Angeles hotel room to watch his taped appearance on the “The Tonight Show.” One of those friends was Michael Hastings … Scahill chatted with Jay Leno that night about “Dirty Wars,” his revealing new documentary … ‘He was so warm and effusive and excited, as if we’d just won the Super Bowl … was giddy that someone from our tribe had made it on one of those shows.’ … Scahill recalled Hastings talking excitedly last week about stories he was working on, including ones about the NSA. Hastings also spoke about the property he wanted to buy in Vermont. ‘Totally full of life,’ he said.”

    Just five nights later, Hasting’s died in a fiery car crash. Why did Maddaus merely mention and then quickly pass over Scahill’s night in LA? (and place his passing reference to it so the reader would get the impression it took place before May, long before his death). Was he unaware of Caledrones’ eulogy (although the use of the similar phrases “hung out” and “hanging out” suggests that he had read it)? Or, did he decide to omit Scahill’s “totally full of life” remarks since they didn’t fit into his narrative of a “haunted soul”?

    Either way, Scahill’s account calls into question Maddaus’ speculation that Hasting’s mental health was deteriorating in the weeks leading up to his death, and the accuracy of his profile. Ultimately, Maddaus’ “haunted” portrait might be found to be accurate, but I’ll need to read accounts by Hastings’ close family, friends, colleagues, and Elise Jordan before reaching conclusions about his mental state in the days preceding his death.
    . . .

    For more details, see my work-in-progress; “The Character Assassination of Michael Hastings,” in the post “More Lies Borne Out By Facts, If Not the Truth” at the Feral Firefighter blog.

    1. Thanks for weighing in.

      I am not still following this story in the detail you are, but it’s not surprising to me if the narrative and the facts (still emerging) may diverge now and in the future.

  12. I’ve been researching mental illness clusters (i.e. above-normal occurrences) in social groups. I turned up some very upsetting stories, from published documents to personal testimonial shared by people I’ve met. For most healthy people living in communities with high rates of mental illness, therapy becomes necessary if they are to cope (and many do not–thus, accompanying high rates of substance abuse and suicide). Despite the fact that murder and violent crime rates in such communities remain at comparable levels to healthier communities, the everyday antisocial behaviour is high enough to wear people down to a breaking point.

    I have been reflecting on this in the last few weeks, and I was wondering how journalists manage the stress of what they do. I know that statistically media covers violent crimes, war and disaster at a rate so high as to make such events seem almost common, that in fact heavy media consumers are more likely to be fearful or paranoid than those who watch the news less. This left me to wonder about journalists and the stress they must suffer.

    It is reasonable to admit that we cannot be witness to the worst of humanity’s behaviour or suffering and ourselves not be harmed. That in fact, to fail to do so would be akin to claiming one’s self devoid of empathy or compassion, which is inhumane.

    1. Thanks for this.

      It’s a topic probably most discussed within academic or therapeutic circles, but our constant over-exposure to brutality is something I think really problematic for journalists, (who ARE at choice about what to report, but their bosses argue this is what viewers wants and crave), and society at large. I am embarrassed and frustrated that, at a certain point, I just don’t care about the 1000000th car bombing in Syria/Israel/Afghanistan/Egypt. I don’t have the bandwidth.

      If I can’t change it in any useful or material way with my vote or dollars or opinions…what good is hearing the same dreary, hideous “news” week after week after month after year?

      It reminds me of the Joni Mitchell song, The Three Great Stimulants:

      I picked the morning paper off the floor
      It was full of other people’s little wars
      Wouldn’t they like their peace
      Don’t we get bored
      And we call for the three great stimulants
      Of the exhausted ones
      Artifice brutality and innocence
      Artifice and innocence

      1. The story trade is a difficult one. Whether the work is in journalism or fiction, the appetite for drama in stories is what drives the commercial process and demand for the work. There is a sad and damaging reality to writing, which is that to be good at telling stories a writer must have empathy. It is this mix of empathy and trauma that eventually takes its toll. It is normal and healthy, even if it is embarrassing and frustrating (I know exactly what you mean) to not care. The emotional numbness is self-protection.

        I think these Mitchell lyrics are so interesting. I thought these lines also unsettling, and so true for all the nights I spent sleepless and anxious, worrying about things I cannot change:

        Oh and deep in the night
        Our appetites find us
        Release us and bind us
        Deep in the night

        If it helps any, this TED talk reminded me that these emotions are part of a process that all of us must experience in our journey in life. http://www.ted.com/talks/swami_dayananda_saraswati.html

      2. It’s good to be able to talk about it.

        The people I know deny it or shrug it off or just keeping doing the, terrified of losing clients and income; 24,000 journalists lost their jobs in 2008. Those of us remaining are often running scared.

        Thanks for the link.

  13. Anthony Loyd’s “My War Gone By, I MIss It So” is a horrifying account of what it was like to cover the war in Yugoslavia and the costs of reporting in a war zone. The book changed the way I think about many things, journalism just being one of them. Great post: you write a great blog. —Jadi

    1. Thanks, Jadi!

      It’s so interesting to me that you know this book. It is one of Jose and my favorites…truly soul-searing writing and one of the few books I’ve read in my life that I still recall, (but wish I had not, in some ways.) It is incredibly dark, as you know, but I think conveys the devastation that witnessing violence will wreak upon the wisest or bravest among us.

      1. I believe I read the book because I wanted to understand the roots of the terrible conflict in the Balkans. But Loyd’s account convinced me that participating in – or witnessing – hatred at that level really does sear the soul. Keep writing your great blog! —Jadi

      2. Thanks. People who know war journo’s see and hear it…’civilians’ often have no idea that they are as affected (or worse) as soldiers can be.

        Will do. (snaps salute.) 🙂

  14. Pingback: Ex-Pat Living: How Do You Survive Life In A War Zone? | Life Lessons

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