My tribe — journalism

By Caitlin Kelly



One of the many reasons I still enjoy journalism  — after working in it for more than 30 years — is the people who choose to do it for a living: smart, sharp, a quick learner, down-to-earth and a team player.

I’ve worked as a staff reporter and feature writer for the Globe & Mail, Montreal Gazette and New York Daily News, each of which offered some wild adventures. At the Globe, I covered a Royal Tour across three provinces and met Queen Elizabeth aboard Brittania; at the Gazette I flew into an Arctic village of 500 people and came home through an iceberg and at the Daily News broke stories like the DHS — back in 2006 — holding onto migrant children.

If you’re not, always, insatiably curious — the kid who drove your parents and teachers and professors mad with questions and challenges — it’s not a great fit.


It is our job to challenge authority.


Right now in the United States, we’re massively and daily under attack, even to the point of murder — as five journalists, a mix of writers and editors, were murdered at a small local paper in Maryland, The Capital Gazette.

This is what I’m talking about:

One week after the shooting at the Capital Gazette newspaper in Annapolis, Maryland, President Donald Trump put an end to any speculation that the tragedy could lead to a truce in his unrelenting war on the news media.

“Fake news. Bad people,” Trump said, pointing at the news crews covering his rally Thursday in Great Falls, Montana, as the crowd went wild.

“I see the way they write. They’re so damn dishonest,” Trump said. “And I don’t mean all of them, because some of the finest people I know are journalists really. Hard to believe when I say that. I hate to say it, but I have to say it. But 75 percent of those people are downright dishonest. Downright dishonest. They’re fake. They’re fake.”

“They make the sources up. They don’t exist in many cases,” he continued. “These are really bad people.”

This, from the President whose latest Cabinet member just resigned mired in scandal, Scott Pruitt.

I’m appalled by Trump’s incessant lies and hostility toward us.

Watch his spokesman, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, actually insult reporters during White House press briefings and you wonder why anyone keeps showing up to give her the opportunity.

Watch the 2015 film “Spotlight” –– which won the Academy Award for Best Picture and is based on a true team working at the Boston Globe to uncover sexual abuse in the Catholic Church — for one of the best and most truthful depictions of our work.

People who know nothing of journalism or why most of us do it or why we believe it’s of essential value to any functional democracy — at its best, speaking truth to power — can easily spit on us and scream at us or, as several have, kill us.


According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 46 of us died on duty in 2017 — six of them freelancers like me.

One of them, Kim Wall, was a massively talented young woman who went out on a submarine in Denmark to profile its inventor. He murdered her, dismembered her and threw her into the water.

It stunned every one of us who — by definition  — have to be self-reliant and often go out alone on assignment to meet people whose character and motives we do not know.

It creates foxhole camaraderie.

So I wrote this story, which ran last week on Poynter, a website devoted to journalism, (named for its benefactor) about long-term newsroom friendships, quoting (among writers from the L.A. Times, New York Times and Wall Street Journal, a friend and highly accomplished science writer Maryn McKenna:


McKenna thinks that’s, in part, because of Foxhole camaraderie. Journalists work weekends and holidays and have to deal daily with sources who don’t want them there.

“That all tends to build a gestalt of: ‘The outside world doesn’t understand us, so it is up to us to appreciate each other.’ There’s definitely a journalistic personality — we’re simultaneously deeply cynical and utterly committed to old-fashioned virtues of truthfulness and accuracy and grinding hard work — and the stresses of journalistic practice make it clear pretty quickly who in the newsroom shares those values and who doesn’t. Once you find people who do share them, you cling to them.”

Honoring brave journalists with the annual Dart Center Awards

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.

At ASJA Today, Professional Development Day — See You Tomorrow

Today is the annual conference of the American Society of Journalists and Authors, whose board meeting was yesterday — I’m on its board, along with a dozen others from all over the country, from a New York Times’ best-selling author from Virginia to an environmental writer from Florida to our president, who’s leading our good, endless fight against Google scanning our books — with no pay to us.

I’ll meet three new-to-me editors today, in a sort of speed dating kind of way, hoping to win assignments from them: two are from big national magazines and one website. Our group has almost 1400 members and I look forward every year to seeing old friends, some of whom I’ve featured here, whether Greg Breining, who writes about the outdoors in Minnesota or Maryn McKenna, whose terrifying new book Superbug is about MRSA. This year Greg was in charge of our mentoring program — for $50 you get 30 minutes with an accomplished writer to ask them anything you want; one of my former mentees, Lisa Palmer, is now too busy with work to attend!

If you’re ever looking for a place to make new friends, meet smart colleagues and learn a ton, consider joining us in Manhattan tomorrow at the Roosevelt Hotel or find us on-line.

Katrina, Child Abuse, War — The Dart Center Honors The Best Journalism Covering Trauma

“Katrina is comparable in intensity to Hurrica...
Katrina. Image via Wikipedia

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.

It's J-Day: A NYT Photographer, A Foreign Correspondent and A Medical Writer On Trusting Your Instincts

Jules Verne Pocketwatch (compass)
Image by nullalux via Flickr

While we drown in a sea of information, smart, thoughtful new books like “Rapt” and “Distracted” carefully examine how little focused attention we have left. The pro’s have mastered the art of finding the good stuff, often by relying on their instincts, a skill developed over time. As this terrific New York Times story about soldiers reminds us, hunches save lives.

Three veterans, friends and colleagues of mine, share how and when they rely on their instincts:

Stephen Crowley, a staff photographer for The New York Times since 1993, (at the Washington Times, Miami Herald and Palm Beach Post before that), is a member of the White House Press Corps. His focus is national politics, including covering John McCain’s presidential campaign.

Patti McCracken, a former obituary writer at the St. Petersburg Times, production editor at U.S . News and World Report and assistant editor, foreign/national at the Chicago Tribune, has taught journalism in Eastern Europe and Vietnam. She writes freelance from Austria for Smithsonian, The Wall Street Journal Europe, The Guardian and others.

Maryn McKenna, a medical writer and author based in Minneapolis. Former reporter for the Cincinnati Enquirer, Boston Herald and a medical writer for 11 years at the Atlanta Constitution-Journal. For the past three, she’s been a magazine and Web freelancer and has written two nonfiction books: “Beating Back the Devil”, about the Centers for Disease Control, in 2004, and “Superbug”, about the international epidemic of methicillin-resistant staph, which comes out in early 2010. She also blogs at

Q:  What were your toughest stories and why?

SC: Political campaigns are my Olympics. There’s no better way to see this wonderful country than in a motorcade where you coast, above the speed limit and above the law, through some of our most beautiful cities and countryside. Every candidate I’ve covered has been unique. Bob Dole was always warm, funny and friendly on Capitol Hill, a man who knew that to lead you must compromise. Candidate George W. Bush was very accessible in 2000, but President Bush buttoned up the White House within a few months. John Edwards — whose plane had a faux putting green embedded in its carpet — usually disappeared into his private cabin and avoided any direct interaction with the press. With John Kerry, access was non-existent and reporters struck an X on the campaign’s plane calendar to track a six-week run where he went without speaking to the reporters following him.

PM: One of the toughest and most compelling stories was a school shooting that I covered from the newsroom. We were desperately trying to get the layout for the interior of the school and I ended up talking to a secretary who was still in the school as things were still going on. Time felt like it stood still.

Another was interviewing Zeljko Kopanja, a Bosnian newspaper editor who had been looking into some mass killings by Bosnian Serbs, tracking down war criminals. He was also a Bosnian Serb and doing that kind of investigation is taboo if you’re of the same ethnic background. He had several death threats, which were ignored. On the morning of his 45th birthday, he turned the ignition in his car, which set off the bomb which had been placed beneath it. It blew off both his legs. The interview took place about a year after the attack and after I’d gotten to know him well and consider him a dear friend. He talked at length and went deeply into the personal repercussions…I kept my composure and then went back to my hotel and just wept.

MM: Currently I’m finishing a book for which I interviewed dozens of victims of MRSA, methicillin-resistant staph, or their families if the victims did not survive. Some of the stories are horrific: children dead in 12 hours; women noticing a small pimple and several weeks later losing all their leg muscles; men going into the hospital for minor surgery and struggling with infections — and bankruptcy — for years afterward. Because I believe in deep face-to-face reporting, I’ve spent a lot of time with these people (as many as five interviews). They’ve had a profound effect on me; it’s difficult to enter into people’s trauma without experiencing some trauma yourself. This is the dark side of my recommendation to get out and engage with people: You may witness some very dark things, and they may stay with you for a long time.

The victims are struggling to make some meaning out of their experience, so that they don’t feel only like victims. In a parallel way, I am struggling with how to best convey their stories in a way that honors their disclosure and makes their stories something more than disease porn. In the end, I decided I needed professional help, a kind of journalism equivalent of traumatic-incident debriefing. I applied for a fall fellowship with the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma. It’s a project, now based at Columbia University, that teaches journalists how to report on and also to endure and make meaning out of trauma. Based on the description, I probably should have done it years ago.

Atlanta is the home of the CDC, and for most of the 11 years I was at that paper, that was what I covered. It was pretty much the epidemics and disasters beat; my colleagues called me “Scary Disease Girl.” I embedded in a CDC team during the investigation of the anthrax attacks in 2001, and in a World Health Organization polio-eradication team in India; I covered the arrival of West Nile virus and the Indian Ocean tsunami in Thailand and Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans.

Q: Where and how did you learn to trust your instincts? Continue reading “It's J-Day: A NYT Photographer, A Foreign Correspondent and A Medical Writer On Trusting Your Instincts”