Theyve seen Ground Zero, blood-splattered Columbine students, the
aftermath of Swiss Air 111. Theyre journalists, and when they go
home in the evening, its often with more on their minds than the
regular work-related stresses.
Some people would tell me that if reporters couldnt handle
[what they saw on the job], they mustnt be cut out for the news
business, said Robert Frank, a New York Times contributor
based in Montreal. Not true. Its normal human reaction to
One night last week, Frank and Meg Moritz, Associate Dean of Journalism
at the University of Colorado, addressed student and veteran journalists
at the Loyola campus.
Frank is a founder and the executive director of Newscoverage Unlimited,
a non-profit organization aimed at helping journalists recognize signs
of post-traumatic stress in themselves and their colleagues.
He believes its widely the case that journalists experiencing trauma
fear losing their jobs or being labeled as damaged goods and eased
out under a pretext, so they tend to keep their feelings to themselves.
After hearing from a number of reporters who broke down after covering
the Swiss Air tragedy, Frank realized something had to be done. There
was support in place for the families of the victims, the recovery workers
and local residents, but there was one exception, he said, and
that was for the newspeople who were there.
Symptoms of post-traumatic stress include disturbing recollections or
dreams of the event, irritability, hyper-vigilance, difficulty concentrating
and numbing of general responsiveness.
The symptoms may not turn up right away. Sometimes the problem does
not appear until six months or a year down the road, Frank explained.
Psychological support for journalists on emotion-laden assignments may
seem logical, but, as Frank suggested, reporters generally feel
they dont really deserve any help compared to the victims.
Also, a stigma is associated with seeking help, be it professional or
even just from colleagues.
Moritz pointed out that a story doesnt have to be of global significance
to produce post-traumatic stress. In fact, reporters rank car accidents
as the most traumatic assignments. Ironically, these same collisions often
appear as mere blips in the news.
She screened a portion of her documentary, Covering Columbine,
after which she explained that it was not just the school shooting itself
that got to journalists. A lot of it was pressure from the community.
Journalists were pelted with rocks and snowballs. Someones
car was turned over.
Then there were the newsroom editors, encouraging field reporters to press
on. We [asked] ourselves: When do you stop covering the story? Where
do you draw the line? she said.
Moritz wants to see journalism schools teaching students to recognize
and cope with trauma, and many in the audience agreed.
Freelance photojournalist Wendy Longlade described a gruesome accident
in which a man was thrown from his motorcycle, his helmet useless against
the force of impact.
I had two or three other assignments after that. I spent the day
shaking, she said. Nobody [in the newsroom] even thinks to
ask how youre doing after youve seen something like that.
Moritz and Frank urged those present to seek listeners in friends, family
and especially in co-workers.
Whether its the World Trade Center bombing or a local apartment
fire, Frank believes that whatever produces [post-traumatic stress]
is valid. But the good news is, if theres some kind of acceptance
that this is a normal thing, people do get better.
Their presentation was sponsored by the Canadian Association of Journalists
and Concordias Journalism Department. For more information about
Newscoverage Unlimited, visit www.newscoverage.org.