July 26, 2002

By Gregory Favre

On Monday, we talked about the meaning of what we do as journalists and how our often overriding image of callousness affects the way people think of us.

Can we show our human side, even gentle side, if we have one, and not be seen as wimps? Or as biased? Or as any less of a journalist?

I can still remember the ache I felt in my heart when, as a teen-ager working for what had been my family’s weekly, I rushed with a deputy sheriff to a crime scene and saw a friend shot dead on his living room floor, his blood soaked into the rug. I wasn’t ashamed to show the pain I felt, but it didn’t stop me from getting the story. Almost 50 years later, I hope I would react the same way.

Three days after President Kennedy was assassinated, and Lee Harvey Oswald was killed, after three days of grueling work with little sleep, I cried about the world’s loss. Thirty-eight years later, I hope I would react the same way.

A few days after our leader at McClatchy newspapers, C.K. McClatchy, died unexpectedly and much too young, and after I had fought back tears when delivering a eulogy, I cried. Twelve years later, I hope I would react the same way.

And there have been other times. Does that make me any less objective? Any less professional? Any less of a journalist? I think not.

I have been talking to a friend, Marjie Lundstrom, of The Sacramento Bee and a Poynter Ethics Fellow, about these issues for a long time, and she recently prepared a brown-bag discussion built around journalists and the kind of trauma we are experiencing.

Here is what she wrote:

“The horror of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks brought home, more than any other story, how much journalists’ jobs often parallel that of other ‘first-responders:’ firefighters, police, EMTs. In this story, photographers and reporters were among the earliest at the scene, witnessing excruciating human suffering and tragedy, falling bodies, burned remains, suffering relatives, dangerous physical surroundings.

“Yet, unlike other first-responders, newsrooms historically do little to help journalists cope with trauma–in their own lives, and that of those they cover.

“The unwritten rules of the business are basic and fairly universal: Good reporters and photographers get there first. Good journalists witness it all. Good journalists don’t mind blood and bodies. Good journalists show no emotion, make jokes, never cry–and certainly don’t throw up. They get the story. And good journalists write that story and produce those images quickly, then move on to the next assignment.

“Good journalists are, as Anna Quindlen so aptly put it, ’emotional hit-and-run drivers.’

“Yet, some believe the tough culture of newsrooms can actually re-victimize victims and directly hurt journalists. Others say the industry’s inattention to trauma training has broader implications, as the public perceives journalists as insensitive, single-minded, and uncaring, thus damaging the industry’s overall credibility.

“So is this an ethical issue for newsrooms? Are we ethically and morally bound to address this? If so, how? What picture does the public have of us? 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 do this thing we love called journalism and show that we are just as fragile as everyone else?

I hope you will gather some folks in your newsroom and use Marjie Lundstrom’s framework, or your own, and discuss these issues. Now is the time to do it, when the nightmarish images are still vivid in our memories. And when our readers and viewers are depending on us more than ever.

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Started in daily newspaper business 57 years ago. Former editor and managing editor at a number of papers, former president of ASNE, retired VP/News for…
Gregory Favre

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