The Digital Journalist
Journalism's Hidden Malady

by Ron Steinman

I am thinking of trauma, and, after that, post-traumatic stress disorder - PTSD - and how it relates to journalists. I am thinking about Hurricanes Katrina and Rita because they are dominating the news and will do so in their way for many months. As much as anyone in the business of news tries, no one is immune to the effects of tragedy on our psyches. We thrive on it. It sells papers. It brings in audience. It provides an increase in hits on Internet Web sites. War and devastation, whether natural or created by men, have a way of getting our hearts pumping and then changing us forever. Yet, there is a downside.

With Katrina, and to a lesser degree with Rita, there is no doubt that many reporters who covered the story were shocked and stunned by what they saw, as well as by what they heard from other reporters. Reporters on big stories rarely work alone. They interact. They feed off each other. There is often a cascading effect on one's mind - especially covering major events - in this or any disaster that helps to create in newspeople a weariness that can eventually lead to the malady, disease, that ultimate illness we now call PTSD: post-traumatic stress disorder.

Reporters are not immune. In my book "Inside Television's First War," published in 1999, I wrote how television journalists suffered the trauma of the war in Vietnam in the 1960s. In the years I covered Vietnam and The Troubles in Northern Ireland, dropping in on occasion to other small wars, revolutions, riots and assorted dustups, I saw breakdowns, near breakdowns, and suffering by the men and women who covered these events for periods lasting just a few weeks to many years. The results were often striking. They took over a person's mind, soul and emotions. One story not in my book that stands out is about a cameraman who after several trips through the Viet Cong tunnels at Cu Chi, refused to return there or to all other assignments in the field. He offered to quit. I did not send him back to the tunnels. He stayed with us for another six months, covering combat when he had to, with reluctance. Now after these many years I realize the toll it had taken on him.

In Northern Ireland, a correspondent on my team could not do a standup without stuttering. We dropped those parts of his reports and used him only for narrations done in the safety of a hotel room. In Belfast and other cities in Northern Ireland, I sent him to a convenient and safe café where he could sit out a demonstration or riot between Catholic and Protestants and the British Army, or the aftermath of a terrorist attack and not have to face the reality of the story. Clearly, he was a man under stress. When I could, I and my field producers, did not have him along when we covered the story.

There are many other instances that I know of or that I have heard about from others - how war, violence and natural disaster change the people covering these stories. First, come back in time for a moment, because it is important that we understand trauma induced by stressful situations.

Starting in the late 19th century and into the 20th century, medicine and the military called "stress-induced trauma" shell shock. The military and medical world usually shunted the malady aside as some sort of excuse for not going into combat. Officials in every country termed men who lacked the desire to continue fighting and killing "malingers." Never considered a clinical problem by the military or doctors, shell shock made its way silently into every part of society, rattling around in the minds of lost men for years. From anecdotal evidence, we now recognize that severe floods, fires and storms have had the same effect on men as did war.

Then there was a breakthrough in 1917 during World War I, when British doctors started to seriously study the psychological effect of the war on soldiers. A psychiatrist, Dr. William Rivers at the Craiglockhart War Hospital, worked with men returning from the front whom their superiors classified as "mentally unsound." Under orders, he tried to restore these men to normalcy, and get them back to the trenches. One of his most famous patients was Siegfried Sasson, a distinguished poet and decorated war hero who eventually decided he would no longer serve as an officer in the British Army. Rivers' conclusions, though important, almost fell between the cracks. In time, disillusioned with the acceptance of his research, he pursued other endeavors that took him far from his studies.

The findings of Dr. Rivers, mostly ignored when he was interacting with returning British soldiers, spread slowly through the medical community. For years, he was truly a lone voice that spoke clearly to war neurosis induced by the trauma of combat. But, as with many pioneers, his ideas had little effect on those in power. The attitude of the military was simple: Soldiers fight. They do not run from the enemy. They cannot have problems if the nation is to be victorious. Orders were to return these men to the front as soon as possible to face the horror of the terrible war in the trenches - a concept foreign to the way we now fight war where front lines hardly exist.

Rivers' return to prominence came toward the end of the last century in a remarkable trilogy of award-winning novels by the English writer Pat Barker written in the 1990s but set in World War I. Reading these books can give us a deeper understanding of stress-related trauma, and one that is easier to comprehend than anything found in scientific journals. In each of her three books, "Regeneration," "Eye in the Door," and "Ghost Road," Pat Barker delves deeply into the theories of Dr. Rivers and into the minds of Siegfried Sasson and the young poet Wilfred Owens. Sasson lived a long life, producing many volumes of poetry and novels, but Owens was killed in action one week before the armistice that ended the war. Barker's style is sparse, her writing clear and spare, her ideas powerful. Her understanding of shell shock is remarkable. W.R. Rivers, now long dead, is her muse as well as her source. These books will help lead us on our search for answers not only to what causes stress in war, but also to why and how, more often than not, many in positions of power ignore its truth.

After the Vietnam War, the Department of Defense accepted that PTSD was genuine, but they did not really understand it or do much about it. The American military found it reprehensible that men can suffer from combat. At least 25 percent of Vietnam veterans suffer from PTSD and many still have trouble getting treatment from the government. I personally know many soldiers who still suffer from PTSD and will continue to do so all their lives.

According to anecdotal evidence regarding the war in Iraq, the military still looks on PTSD as something not real. Treatment protocols, including drugs and counseling, do exist today but they are difficult to come by. Some treatments are effective. Others are not. As war without end rages in Iraq, I am certain PTSD will continue to take its toll on our men and women in uniform.

We take it for granted that among first responders - police, fire, rescue workers, medical personnel, the military - there will always be those who are more emotionally affected than others by the tragedy they are witnessing, and the people they are trying to help.

We rarely consider another set of first responders — journalists, who are often on the scene before anyone else.

It is a serious mistake to think journalists are impervious to feelings. Some journalists grow up with the notion that they are observers first, human beings, second. We learn that objectivity, especially covering breaking news, is the only way to report. We cannot show our emotions for fear of not getting our facts straight. Facts make the news. People want accuracy in their reporting. When they want opinion, they read editorials and columns on the Op-ed pages of their newspaper, write letters to the editor, or turn to the talk shows on TV and radio.

With Hurricane Katrina, more than in the Iraq war, we saw something unusual from reporters, especially those on television. We saw frustration. We saw tears. We saw anger. We witnessed the loss of words. We saw reporters acting like attack dogs as they cloaked themselves in self-righteous indignation, all in their search for answers to the questions they had, and the ones they believe the audience also sought. Early on, these were questions about the failure of getting help to displaced people by almost everyone. Later the questions were about how to bring relief to the people and places where they once lived.

With the horror of Hurricane Katrina I believe we witnessed - mainly from TV reporters, because they were more visible than print journalists - a pre-condition of the trauma that normally comes well after an event of such magnitude, if it does develop. These men and women are at work in the present. They bleed emotionally before our eyes. I am not sure if that is good or bad for the audience. I prefer my information to be cool, not overcooked. And I feel too much personal involvement in the story is not good for any reporter.

Broadcast journalism has always been an emotionally charged medium. Many, I am sure, do not recall that Edward R. Murrow's radio pieces from London during the Battle of Britain in World War II were powerful and filled with emotion, surprisingly so because they were unpretentious. Murrow described events and how the British people reacted to them in a calm, low-key but mellifluous delivery that put the seriousness of the daily, deadly bombings into human perspective. Even today, if we listen carefully to what he said, and how he said it, and how the other reporters for CBS News broadcast events, we become part of the whirlwind of those dangerous days.

Today it is different. Television reporting dominates news coverage when disaster strikes. We not only hear the correspondent's voice, we see him or her in action. Words and how reporters express them on the air, coupled with visible facial movements, and what we think we know is behind the eyes of the correspondent, as well as their body language, often tell us more about how the reporter is experiencing the event than the event itself.

Without my naming names - because I am as subjective as the next person is, and what I may think of a reporter may not be the same as what you think - here are some impressions of mine from viewing the coverage of Hurricane Katrina sporadically over the first three weeks. Each action represents a different reporter either on the ground or in the studio: Some were calm and extra serious. Others were openly hyperactive or verged on being excitable because of their apparent frustration. Others were, well, unmentionable because they became the story, rather than acting as reporters. A few assumed the mantle of gravitas that they believed came with their position. Gravitas is inside a person, usually earned, never assumed, and when a reporter dresses himself or herself in its cloak it always comes out false. A few correspondents were professional, steady, dull, and ultimately boring, done in the spirit, I guess, of being good journalists in the midst of a powerful story. A number came across as smug, all-knowing, especially those in safe and warm anchor chairs, with the attitude that said "listen to me for your own good."

It was obvious that everyone covering the story, no matter the medium, felt disappointment and sorrow that the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina, usually associated with the Third World, happened here. America, Americans, and the press had great difficulty understanding why we had this failure at home. It is impossible to gauge how witnessing the hurricane, the flooding, and displacement of so many people will ultimately affect journalists who covered this event in months or years ahead.

When I first witnessed the breakdown of members of my bureau in Saigon almost 40 years ago, management at NBC News had no policy in place to deal with the trauma of war. Trauma was an anomaly better discussed in whispers, late at night, in closed cables, over beer or shots, well after covering the story. Then emotions could flow freely without guilt or a feeling of failure about the story covered. Management in those days ran from the truth of mental breakdowns. There is growing anecdotal evidence that media bosses now know, or think they do, when to pull someone from a powerful ongoing story. Numbers of news organizations are taking into consideration the potential trauma related to covering a story as extreme and terrible as Hurricane Katrina, stories that in some ways seem to be endless. This should now be standard operating procedure for every news organization. It can mean, for journalists affected in unexpected ways, that they might have brighter futures professionally and privately. Every news organization should make trauma control part of the way it treats its staff. We in the media and the public will be the better for it.

Recently The Poynter Institute laid out signposts to watch for when assessing the possibility of stress-induced trauma. Poynter advises that reporters in the field eat right, exercise, listen to music, and write, talk, even cry about the story they are covering. Poynter advises that editors/producers thank their people for the job they are doing and, if I can interpolate, in recognizing the job they are doing, be constantly aware of workloads and personal pressures. There is one problem, though. Few of us are mental health experts. We make judgments about our staff and colleagues on what we see, or think we do, and how those on the street, and in the field, are reacting to the turmoil around them. Mostly we are too busy to reflect carefully on the psychologic dangers our people might be experiencing.

News managers are usually overburdened themselves as they try to understand the story they are pursuing. Editors, like reporters, do not have the time to assess the stability of their troops as they try to get a good and accurate story, and, sometimes, to be first with it. Despite these roadmaps created to open our eyes to stress, PTSD also operates as well on the people who are the observers sitting behind desks in the newsroom and in the executive suites. It is too much to ask that they possess a gift that enables them to see inside the minds of the journalists working for them.

AFTRA, the union that represents many of the TV reporters covering Hurricane Katrina, has its own similar list of warning signs and suggestions in hopes of spotting problems with people in the field. All these suggestions are valuable, but there are problems we must confront. Do journalists take heed? Do they listen? Many do not. Some are ego-driven, and often self-centered, seeking a moment in the sun. For some, this is where trauma raises its head. Reporters in the field are unlikely to admit, as well as unlikely to recognize, that they are under stress. They will say the adrenalin is flowing. They will admit the excitement of the story is pushing them to greater heights in their effort to report more truth or facts or emotion than the next person will. It is a part of the job.

It is worth repeating that editors at home are equally absorbed in the same pursuits as their people in the field, and thus are usually too busy to notice stress-related failures other than when they see bad news judgment or moan over a missed story. Occasionally sharp eyes and clear minds will notice when a reporter is under too much stress. Editors and producers might pull that person from the field before he or she becomes an unintended part of the story. So long as the reporter is producing, his or her related stress will go unnoticed by most everyone, including headquarters. Think, too, in the minds of colleagues when a journalist willingly pulls himself or herself from a story, it will seem a sign of weakness. The courage to save oneself may actually come from leaving the scene of the disaster when on the verge of collapse or in anticipation of it. After a short rest, the goal, if possible, will be to have the newsperson rejoin the fray. Little has changed since World War I and Dr. William Rivers.

None of this may ever happen. As small as the number of journalists is in proportion to other professions, in the future there may be a disproportionate number with PTSD. We face a crisis unless those in our profession admit the legitimacy of this hidden malady.

© Ron Steinman

Ron Steinman, a regular contributor to The Digital Journalist, is an award-winning producer of television news and documentaries. He was NBC's bureau chief in Saigon during the Vietnam War. He is also an author and freelance documentarian through his company, Douglas/Steinman Productions. Buy Ron Steinman's book: Inside Television's First War.