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.

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?