September 13, 2021

A local Marine died this summer while serving overseas. When I went to interview the family, I didn’t need to look up directions. It was a street I knew well. When I reached the second-story entrance, I realized I’d been to that exact apartment before.

For years, I’d come there to drop off my daughter for playdates. Now, a black ribbon hung on the door. The young man who was killed was the older brother of my daughter’s friend.

Rather than a stranger, the grieving mother I met with inside was a woman I’d known since our daughters were in kindergarten. We’d raised our youngest children together. And now, as we sat surrounded by wilting funeral flowers and religious candles, we cried together.

I work as one of two reporters for a weekly newspaper in Thousand Oaks, California, a town of about 126,000 people. While large by some standards, it’s considered a quaint, upscale suburb compared to neighboring Los Angeles County, the most populous county in the nation. I grew up in the area, went to college here and stayed to raise my three children. My father worked as fire chief.

Journalists are supposed to be objective — and oftentimes cynical — but writing about this place means that every story, every loss and every trauma literally hits close to home.

The Bible calls us to mourn with those who mourn. I’ve found local journalism calls us to do the same.

So as the Marine’s mother shared gut-wrenching details of her 22-year-old son’s untimely death, I sobbed as I took notes. I sobbed on the way home. And I sobbed as I wrote the article.

Increased attention has been paid to the trauma of journalism in recent years, more so since the pandemic hit. Journalists have been referred to as “vicarious first responders” in articles by the American Psychological Association. Studies published in Stress and Health report that upwards of 80% of journalists have been exposed to traumatic events through work, with over 90% experiencing multiple exposures.

While trauma doesn’t immediately translate into psychological issues like post-traumatic stress disorder or acute stress disorder, Columbia Journalism School’s DART Center for Journalism and Trauma reported that experiencing traumatic events in one’s own community and having a personal connection to the event are risk factors for journalists to develop ongoing consequences, like PTSD.

There’s the rub for community reporters.

When you’re working in local journalism, the line between one’s personal and professional life is far more blurred than for national or foreign correspondents, who often parachute into a community to cover an event and leave. Even if a local reporter doesn’t know the person whom they’re interviewing, they know the place. Whether it’s a fatal car crash or a body found in a park, reporting on these events paints layers of pain over everyday places. There’s simply nowhere to hide.

In November 2018, a gunman entered a country music bar in Thousand Oaks and murdered 12 people. Major news outlets from across the nation descended on our suburban town for weeks, some knocking on the doors of grieving families just hours after they learned of their loved one’s death. Then the outlets left as abruptly as they appeared. Only our small-town paper was around to cover the posthumous birthday parties, the honorary baseball field dedications, the fundraisers for survivors, the grinding, monotonous months of unsensational mourning and the hard-won work of recovery.

I wrote profiles of the victims and asked the mother of each what their child was like as a baby. One of the victims happened to be the nephew of my friend from high school. I was connected to others through church and mutual friends. The social web of grief was tightly spun.

For a year, my beat became the story of the community healing from a horrific collective trauma. I met with dozens of survivors who recounted how the country music bar, where I had sung at a charity event just weeks before the shooting, had turned into a killing field on college night. After a year of carrying those stories, I was buckling under the weight of secondary grief. I couldn’t sleep, sobbed without provocation and was short-tempered with those around me. In short, I wasn’t OK.

Apart from being kind to each other, there are no mental health resources in the newsroom of a free weekly newspaper, but I was fortunate enough to have a local therapist offer me treatment pro bono. I spent nine months undergoing brain spotting, a form of therapy that pinpoints areas in the visual field to relieve unprocessed trauma. In layman’s terms, I learned where emotional pain was located in my brain and I cried each spot out until it lost its power, sort of how a massage locates and releases knots in muscle tissue.

It wound back the clock on a year of untreated grief. But the trauma never stops in local reporting because the professional wall between subject and source is permeable. You can be fair and impartial, but you can’t be removed.

This May, a local school board trustee died. She was my mom’s best friend. The mother of three had battled ovarian cancer for 18 months and kept her illness secret, determined to survive. She resigned from her official duties only when it became apparent her cancer would prove fatal and she entered hospice care. She died two weeks later.

I was out of town when my mom called to tell me her friend had died. I knew I had to be the one to write the article of her death. It was a chance to be of service to her grieving family and to do justice to her memory. Sitting in the passenger seat of the car during a seven-hour drive south from the Bay Area, I balanced my computer on my lap as I called sources, many of them also family friends, to talk about the late trustee’s life of service, worried that my flow of tears falling on the keyboard would cause my laptop to short circuit.

There’s trauma in being a local reporter, but it’s tempered by the sheer honor of the position. What I love about my job is that I write stories that The New York Times would never think are important enough, stories of science fairs and school board meetings and church ministries. But they are important all the same in this little corner of the world that is so dear to me. I have the privilege of celebrating what is sacred in everyday life, the quotidian joys and the daily heartbreaks.

All pain is local. It has a face and a name and it is our job to personalize and humanize the events we cover, whether it’s a car crash or a school board vacancy, the death of a hiker or a mass shooting. When you’re a hometown reporter, the pain tends to fall on the names and faces you know well.

While hometown reporting comes with trauma, it can also provide an avenue to combat it. I am constantly grateful that during times of trouble, I do not feel helpless or useless because I know I have a story — our story — to tell.

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Dawn Megli is a reporter for the Thousand Oaks Acorn. She is an avid hiker, a deacon at her Presbyterian church and a mother of…
Dawn Megli

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