January 10, 2005

CNN correspondent Stan Grant told viewers about the moment when he stopped feeling like a reporter and felt more like a father.

It happened when he saw the bodies of three small children, arms interlocked, among a group of bodies collected in the aftermath of the tsunami in Sri Lanka. 

“Their bodies had been tossed in the torrent … as it came through. Somehow these three little kids had hung together and died together,” Grant said, noting the children seemed to be between the ages of one and three. “In those moments, you stop being a reporter… Being a reporter just doesn’t cut it anymore.”

Coverage of disaster tests the physical and emotional strength of reporters on the scene. BBC correspondent Jonathan Charles e-mailed Mark Brayne, the European director for the Dart Centre, which specializes in journalism and trauma, about the long, grueling days involved in covering people affected by the tsunami. After spending a day following a 28-year-old mother in search of her children, he wonders what he should say to her.

“…(S)he was clinging to the belief her children would be fine. It’s clear from what I’ve seen that her optimism is unlikely to be realistic,” he writes. “… It’s that knowledge which makes it hard to cover this story.”

Charles, who was responding to Brayne’s e-mail about how journalists are coping as they cover areas hit hard by the tsunami, noted how weary journalists could become.

“The days are very, very long,” he wrote. “As we all know, tiredness is the friend of PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder).”

As journalists cover the visible devastation caused by the recent tsunami, a less visible story may go unnoticed and unreported. It involves trauma. Not just the trauma faced by survivors. But the trauma experienced by journalists who witness and work on the coverage itself.

Disasters draw upon all the skill and stamina journalists can muster. Those on the ground, and those back in the newsroom, can find themselves over-exposed to unrelenting scenes of destruction and despair. Often, they work without a break for long stretches of time.

After awhile, this emotionally charged and draining experience can affect both journalists and their coverage. In response to an email I sent to Brayne, he noted that “the most important support comes from peers who know what traumatic distress looks like and does.” He said that journalists need to check in on those who have experienced traumatic events after a month or so.

“Most will be fine,” Brayne wrote. “–and by then, if some are going to find things more difficult, the first warning signs might be evident.”

Brayne’s counterpart in the United States, Roger Simpson, who is the executive director of the Dart Center based in Seattle, Washington mentioned several signs of emotional distress that might arise after covering disasters: nightmares, imagining images they haven’t seen, headaches, anxiety, more and quicker signs of temper than usual. 

“Editors need to stay in touch with their correspondent,” Simpson said during a phone interview. “Listen carefully to what their correspondent is saying.

“If an editor suspects that the reporter may be experiencing emotional overload, the editor should structure time for the individual to get away,” Simpson said. Don’t leave that to the reporter to do, he added.

And recognize that a day off, or some days off, is not the answer. Respectful communication is important to the process, Simpson noted, “listen when they want to talk,” consider suggesting that the journalist visit a mental health professional.

Another possibility is plugging the reporter’s family member into the newsroom, he noted. That may involve calling the family to let them know how the correspondent is faring and encouraging the family members to let the correspondent’s editor know if there is something he or she can do.

Reporters covering traumatic events can take some steps of their own. Talking about how they’re feeling helps, said Simpson. He made other suggestions as well: Break away for a while from the story, find a calmer scene; reflect on the value of what they’re doing, rather than just the harsh, graphic nature of the situation.

“It’s self-care,” Simpson stressed. “It’s a way of separating from what is causing the pain.”

Aly Colón is on the Dart Center Advisory Board.

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Aly Colón is the John S. and James L. Knight Chair in Journalism Ethics at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia. Previously, Colón led…
Aly Colón

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