California Forum

The effect of covering tragic events

After Hurricane Katrina, journalists at the Biloxi SunHerald ignored their own sorrows to tell the stories. A recent series by the Huffington Post emphasized that journalists are ordinary people who often report on extraordinary or horrific events but rarely receive trauma training or psychological care when it’s needed.
After Hurricane Katrina, journalists at the Biloxi SunHerald ignored their own sorrows to tell the stories. A recent series by the Huffington Post emphasized that journalists are ordinary people who often report on extraordinary or horrific events but rarely receive trauma training or psychological care when it’s needed. Associated Press file

The question posed by the Huffington Post probably sounded to the cynics as if it belonged in a late-night monologue: Are newsrooms breeding grounds for mental health problems?

No, it wasn’t a joke. It was the basis for a serious five-part series examining how journalists are affected when they find themselves reporting on such events as wars or natural disasters or multiple killings in schools or assassinations or riots, especially when these things happen close to home.

The images really never disappear. The burned and broken bodies in the ruins of 9/11; the empty lots where there had been homes in the wake of Katrina; children lying dead on a classroom floor in Newtown or teenagers in Columbine; a dead baby being carried from a bombed building in Oklahoma City; sickening scenes from wars around the world; earthquakes in Northern California and Nepal and Haiti; riots that leave cities scarred with the remnants of fires.

How can you erase these images from the human mind?

Noted author and former New York Times journalist Anna Quindlen may have said it best: “Good journalists are emotional hit-and-run drivers.”

The problem is that few journalists receive trauma training or psychological care when it’s needed. And, to top it off, we are generally viewed as insensitive and indifferent by the public, ranked just slightly above lawyers in the bottom rungs of the annual popularity polls. It’s understandable: The messenger is rarely appreciated.

The truth is, we are ordinary people who sometimes find ourselves in extraordinary circumstances, not unsympathetic inhabitants living in an artificial intelligence colony.

Sure, the script in the movies and on television may be different. Journalists get there first and witness it all, show no emotion, tell jokes, never cry, get the story and move on to the next assignment. And too often we try to live in that preordained text.

After Katrina left the Mississippi Gulf Coast a shell of its former self, I sat with a group of journalists at the Biloxi SunHerald, men and women who had ignored their own sorrows and losses to tell the stories.

The story of the 13-year-old who had saved his family; the story of the 102-year-old woman who would not leave her home because she said no one else is 102 and therefore no one else could understand why she wouldn’t leave; the stories of those who died; or the story written by my cousin, Ryan LaFontaine, about our shared hometown, Bay St. Louis.

“No one’s story is unique,” Ryan wrote. “All of us have been left with shattered hearts. My hometown is mangled and my neighbors are in pain. My house can be rebuilt, but my home will never be the same.”

I remember being told about a number of journalists at the Rocky Mountain News being ready to leave the business after covering the Columbine tragedy. An enlightened leadership made sure they received professional help.

I remember a long-ago article in the American Journalism Review in which the sister of Kevin Carter, who won the Pulitzer Prize for his pictures of starvation in Sudan and later was found dead of carbon monoxide poisoning, said: “The pain of his mission, to open the eyes of the world to so many issues and injustices that tore at his soul, eventually got to him.”

I remember the agony I felt as a teenage reporter rushing blindly with a deputy sheriff to a crime scene only to find a man I had known essentially all my life, a gentle and kind man, dead on his living room floor, his blood soaked into the rug; he had been shot by an intruder.

Yes, it is a journalist’s job to assist in healing the wounds and leading people across the abyss of profound despair; to help calm fears and promote a dialogue of tolerance; to recount the bravery of those who risk or forfeit their own lives to save others; to provide a common place for a community to restore itself.

But as former colleague Marjie Lundstrom, who works for The Sacramento Bee, once asked about the trauma often attached to the job: “Is this an ethical issue for newsrooms? Are we ethically and morally bound to address this? If so, how? And how much of our feelings should we share with the public? And if we share any, does it hurt our effectiveness?”

And, I would add: “Can we show we are as fragile as everyone else?”

Of course, we can and we are.

Gregory Favre is the former executive editor of The Sacramento Bee and retired vice president of news for the McClatchy Co. He currently is editor of CALmatters.

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