The issues journalists confront in covering traumatic events — whether they are epic events like 9/11 and the recent rash of mass shootings, or the “slow drip” that crime reporters experience —are a growing problem. The increase is due to both changes in the news business and because there are simply so many more of them. In response, organizations like Columbia University's Dart Center for Journalism & Trauma have programs to help.
Covering Tragedy Taking A Toll On Journalists
For months after witnessing the plane crash into the Pentagon on 9/11 — and immediately springing into action to cover the story — Mike Walter was plagued by repeated nightmares. Some involved the airplane chasing him. In others, Walter was a passenger on the doomed aircraft.
Walter, a former WUSA Washington anchor who, at that time, was working as a USA Today video reporter, grew increasingly depressed, becoming distant at home. His boss took note of the change, and offered counseling.
“This is something you can’t medicate,” Walter says. It took him nearly a year to recognize his problems as symptoms of PTSD, at which point he says he realized “I was kind of messed up.”
Once Walter recognized his condition, he started confronting it head on, despite a certain reticence in the industry to acknowledge the problems journalists experience after covering horrific events. He served as a fellow at Columbia University’s Dart Center for Journalism & Trauma, which is dedicated to helping journalists cover traumatic situations — and maintain their resiliency for doing so.
Walter also wrote and directed a documentary on the subject, Breaking News, Breaking Down, which has been shown at international film festivals and press clubs around the United States.
Bruce Shapiro, the Dart Center’s executive director, sees the issues journalists confront in covering traumatic events — whether they are epic events like 9/11 and the recent rash of mass shootings or the “slow drip” that crime reporters experience — increasing due to changes in the news business, and because there are simply so many more of them.
“There are two very, very important sets of challenges,” Shapiro says. “One is covering the aftermath of horror.” That task is becoming increasingly more complex due to issues from the rapid-fire news cycle and a growing number of ethical issues (vetting sources under pressure or, say, interviewing children) as well as the increasing frequency of them, he says.
Broadcast journalists, with whom the Dart Center works regularly, are being hit particularly hard, as the immediacy of providing wall-to-wall coverage, multiplatform reporting and stiff competition that now comes with covering traumatic events makes thoughtful, accurate reporting more difficult than ever.
“America is lucky to have a highly trained professional news industry,” he says. “But these stories are of such scale and of such horror that they challenge our ethics, our toolbox and our capacity.” That doesn’t end with the immediate aftermath of those stories, either, Shapiro says, as journalists then tackle how to use those events as platforms that influence their larger mission as public informers.
The Dart Center offers training and workshops to help TV newspeople get a better grasp on such issues and how to deal with them. The organization works with professional organizations like RTDNA.
At the request of the New England SAG-AFTRA chapter, the Dart Center later this year will conduct a weekend workshop for Boston TV journalists that, Shapiro says, “are suffering from a serious professional overload” after covering the Marathon bombings, Newtown shooting and Hurricane Sandy in less than a year.
“The other half of the equation, which in some ways is laden with stigma, is the impact of covering trauma on journalists,” which until fairly recently “was not on the radar at all,” Shapiro says.
That very real problem — 28% of combat journalists suffer from PTSD, for example — came to light soon after the Dart Center’s formation in 1999, when newspeople, from crime reporters to local TV crews who covered events like 9/11 or the Oklahoma City bombing several years earlier, starting speaking up, he says.
Elana Newman, a University of Tulsa psychology professor who serves as the Dart Center’s research director, says some of the problem stems from broadcast journalists simply not having the time it takes to make sound decisions, let alone get training in, or even share with co-workers, the challenges that come with covering difficult stories.
“The pressures are so high there is not a lot of time for reflection right now,” Newman says. “There is a skill set for covering traumatic, unfolding news that many people don’t have. It’s just a hard task.”
Covering stories involving harm to children or interviewing grief-stricken families are particularly difficult for journalists, she says. So is the concept of benefitting — i.e. getting a big story — off of someone else’s grief.
“So many journalists are in war zones every day but don’t conceptualize it that way,” Newman says. Shapiro says both sides of the “journalism & trauma” equation are intertwined, as reporters suffer from the impact of ethical decisions or mistakes they make while covering traumatic events — or simply witnessing them, he says.
In turn, the Dart Center’s mission has morphed to include helping journalists confront the harmful ramifications of covering trauma and find ways to combat it while retaining the resilience needed to keep working.
That is something broadcasters need to do, too, to keep their staffs productive and healthy, Shapiro says. “As an industry, TV news can’t afford to stick its head in the sand on this issue,” he says. “Trauma awareness is part of the essential toolkit for TV news teams, whether local stations or large networks. We wouldn’t send an intern to cover a high school football game who didn’t know the rules of the game — similarly, reporters covering disaster, conflict, tragedy and their aftermath need a basic understanding of how the people we report on are changed and challenged by violence.”
“And at the same time,” he adds, “TV news executives need to understand and embrace their duty of care to news teams who risk psychological injury as part of the job. There’s solid evidence, from journalism and other first responders, that basic trauma awareness, peer support and management training in the newsroom make a difference.”
Walter — who previously worked in Somalia and covered “earthquakes, fires and murders” — was blindsided by the effect covering 9/11 had on him, as he was well experienced in covering difficult events before that one. “You fight through it and you have to cover the story and you don’t even think about it,” he says.
On top of that, journalists, at least traditionally, have a reputation as harder, more resilient types who could weather hardships. When he discussed the problems of covering traumatic events with Vietnam-era reporters, they wrote it off as “sissy talk,” he says.
“We are the last domain that people don’t want to acknowledge that you can be affected by the stories you cover,” he says.
At the same time, though, the nature of covering trauma has changed — primarily because there is so much more of it here at home.
“If you get your stuff packed, and get on a plane and go to a war zone, you are prepared for it,” he says. “When it’s in your own backyard, and your own community is in pain, it’s even harder to deal with.”