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October 11, 2001 Journalists grapple with post-traumatic stress



by Natasha Mekhail

They’ve seen Ground Zero, blood-splattered Columbine students, the aftermath of Swiss Air 111. They’re journalists, and when they go home in the evening, it’s often with more on their minds than the regular work-related stresses.

“Some people would tell me that if reporters couldn’t handle [what they saw on the job], they mustn’t be cut out for the news business,” said Robert Frank, a New York Times contributor based in Montreal. “Not true. It’s normal human reaction to extraordinary circumstances.”

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 it’s 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 don’t 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 doesn’t 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. Someone’s 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 you’re doing after you’ve seen something like that.”

Moritz and Frank urged those present to seek listeners in friends, family and especially in co-workers.

Whether it’s 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 there’s 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 Concordia’s Journalism Department. For more information about Newscoverage Unlimited, visit www.newscoverage.org.