Honoring brave journalists with the annual Dart Center Awards

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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.

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 worse than AIDS': Interview with 'Superbug' author Maryn McKenna

Rob looks like a doctor...
Make sure he's washed his hands!Image by juhansonin via Flickr

It’s extremely rare that I start a book, certainly non-fiction, never about science, and can’t put it down because it reads like a thriller. Maryn’s book, “Superbug”, published today, is an astonishing read — I gulped it down in one sitting.

It’s not an easy read but it’s essential: terrifying, sad, powerful, persuasive.

She’ll be interviewed today by Terry Gross on her NPR program, “Fresh Air”, every writer’s dream. I spoke to Maryn, a friend and colleague and fellow member of the American Society of Journalists and Authors, about it:

Tell us a little about yourself. Why journalism? Why science and/or medical journalism?

I was born in Brooklyn, NY; raised in England where my father was working on an engineering project; high school in Texas, college in Washington, DC. At Georgetown I took an English honors degree in 16th-c theatre and 20th-c poetry, which meant I was very well educated and completely unfit for the job market.

I looked around for a graduate program that would be quick but give me a credential to make me marketable, and went to Northwestern to study journalism. After I got my degree I started the painstaking climb up the ladder of newspaper circulation. My first job was in finance journalism, but after the market crash of 1987 I was a bit burned out, and my paper offered me an open job covering science and medicine and the environment, and it was a good fit.

A bit of career history: where you worked and why you chose those places.

I had internships at the American Banker and as Washington correspondent for the Oak Ridger of Oak Ridge (TN), home of the Manhattan Project. Full-time jobs at the Rockford (IL) Register-Star (3 years), Cincinnati Enquirer (2 years), Boston Herald (5 years) and Atlanta Journal-Constitution (10 years). For the first half of my newspaper years, I was mostly an investigative reporter focusing on public health, and for the second half, I was the only U.S. reporter assigned to full-time coverage of the CDC (the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.)

I left my last newspaper job in mid-2006 when it became clear opportunities were contracting — I kept hearing, “We don’t see you doing any projects for us” — and went freelance.

When and where did this idea for a book come to you?

About a month before I left my last job, I had the incredible good fortune to meet Sara Austin, news and health features director of Self magazine, at a conference. My first story for her, published in Feb 2007, was the genesis for “Superbug”. I’ve since done two other major features for her and am lined up to do several more. I’ve also written for Health, More, Heart-Healthy Living, and am a regular contributor to the Annals of Emergency Medicine. My first stories as a freelancer were for Susan Percy at Georgia Trend, for which I will always be grateful.

That first story for Self was on the unappreciated threat that community-strain MRSA posed to women and children — because, even in 2007, people were still talking about MRSA in the context of prisoners and athletes, groups that were mostly male. The story was published; it was picked up by the TODAY show and by Montel, which suggested it had broad demographic appeal; and my in-box exploded with notes from dozens of women and some men wanting to tell me how MRSA had changed their lives. It was clear there was a larger story there.

Where and how did you find your agent?

I’ve heard other authors describe how difficult it can be to find an agent, and every time it makes me realize how fortunate I’ve been. In the summer of 1998, I was taking a year off from my newspaper job to do a year-long fellowship at the University of Michigan, in the Knight-Wallace program (which is amazing and refreshing; I can’t recommend it enough).

A colleague, Gary Pomerantz, had been to the same program shortly before, and had come out with a book. I wanted to do a book too, and he introduced me to his agent, David Black of the David Black Literary Agency, who pointed me toward Susan Raihofer there. The book I had in mind didn’t come together, and so for the first three years of our acquaintance I didn’t have anything for her to agent.

But during the 2001 anthrax-letter attacks, I embedded with a CDC investigative team working on Capitol Hill, and that gave me the idea for my first book, BEATING BACK THE DEVIL, a narrative and history of the CDC’s “disease detectives,” the Epidemic Intelligence Service. We sold that in 2002 and it came out in 2004.

Describe selling the book.

It went very quickly. I did a 20-page proposal in about a week, and then reworked it with Susan’s guidance over a very long weekend. She sent it out to a selected group. There were some expressions of interest and then couple of bids, but the high bidder was Free Press, [an imprint of Simon and Schuster] who had published my first book. From start to sale, it was very quick, probably less than a month.

How long did it take you, start to finish?

It depends on when you start counting! Three years from the time the contract was signed; 3.5 from when I started work on that Self story, a tiny portion of which appears in the book. But I first got interested in MRSA during research for my first book in 2003, when I shadowed CDC disease detectives in Los Angeles through an investigation of MRSA infections monitoring gay men who visited sex clubs.

So it may have been gestating for twice as long as I thought.

You name so many people in your acknowledgments — tell us about building so wide a set of sources and why that mattered to you — and to other ambitious writers tackling complicated topics.

The horror of doing a book like this is that, to make the problem real to an average reader, you have to find victims who are like average readers themselves. The benefit of doing a project like this now is that, thanks to social media, you can tap networks much more reliably and reach further than I think you ever could before. I was offered a lot of contacts thanks to that Self story, and to one I did for Health magazine a year later — but still, I worked my networks relentlessly. For every victim in the book, I probably have 10 others whose stories were moving, but not exactly what I wanted.

Overall, between victims and scientists, I did about 200 interviews.

Tell us about the Dart and Kaiser fellowships and how they helped you.

I’m a big believer in fellowships, which I think are the best way — maybe the only way, in the current environment — for journalists to study up on any particular topic. I got a Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation fellowship for “bridge funding” when I left newspapers; the idea was to spend a year of overnight shifts in ERs to see what the overcrowding was like. I thought I would do a book on ERs but saw so much MRSA that it fueled “Superbug” instead.

Then in 2009, I went after a fellowship with the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, at Columbia, because I had collected so many stories of awful things happening to people as a result of MRSA that I realized I needed some help in processing them. I wanted to find a way to tell them that preserved the victim’s dignity and autonomy and wasn’t just disease-porn.

The Dart fellowships are a week-long immersion in both learning about the effects of trauma, and being helped through whatever processing you need to do for any traumatic events you have witnessed as a journalist. After 20 years as Scary Disease Girl, I had seen a lot of trauma, and the fellowship helped me get some distance on those events.

What did you enjoy most about writing the book?

I think people whose work has been newspaper or long-form magazine stories, but who haven’t written a book, tend to think, “Ooooh, a book, that will give me all the space I ever wanted to tell a story.” Well, no. You are still, always, making decisions about what to leave out. This book is about 85,000 words, but it could have been twice as long, and deciding what to cut was very painful — because I’m extremely detail-oriented and like to describe the smallest granular aspects of events. At the same time, I loved having that length in which to tell a braided, complex narrative.

The thing that was most challenging, though, was how time-consuming it was. I worked, without exaggeration, 12 hours most days, 6 days most weeks, for 3 years. I felt that this was a story that needed to be out soon, and that I couldn’t take the time to explore it over 5 years or more — someone else would beat me to some part of it. And to tell it with credibility, I needed to be immersed in the subject. But I made a lot of personal sacrifices to do it.

Are you now scared of doctors or hospitals? How — seriously — do you think most of us will ever challenge a doctor (if we are scared of MRSA) when we are scared or in pain or facing surgery? How scared should we be?

It is not my intention to make people paranoid, really. I don’t want to frighten people away from hospitals. But I do hold hospitals responsible for not doing better, and because they do not, I do think we have to defend ourselves.

What that means is doing due diligence before going into the hospital — if you are in a state where there is a mandatory-reporting law for hospital infections or MRSA, look up the institution’s metrics. And when you are in the hospital, try to find the courage to ask health care workers if they have washed their hands. It’s an easy thing to recommend, a very difficult thing to do, because it challenges the power differential in the relationship between health care worker and patient. But I think it’s necessary.

Next book? current projects?

One of my favorite parts of the book is tracing the detective story of the “third epidemic” of MRSA in food animals, It got me thinking about how complex and multi-national our food system is now. So I think my next project will turn in that direction, probably toward the difficulty of making food safe.