Mark Massé: "Crisis coverage can have significant, enduring effects"
For centuries, journalists worldwide have risked their health, safety and lives while confronting conflict, tragedy and trauma. They have borne witness to violence, destruction and loss so that their audiences may be informed and, possibly, inspired. When disaster strikes, journalists are often the first responders, sometimes arriving on the scene before law enforcement, firefighters, emergency medical technicians or military personnel.
While trauma journalists typically cover the frontline realities of war, genocide, terrorism, crime and catastrophes, their reporting may also center on seemingly less dramatic events and issues, such as chronicling the courageous fight of a child stricken with cancer, the rehabilitation of a disabled war veteran or the recollections of family members whose loved ones have perished.
A central focus of my 2011 book, "Trauma Journalism: On Deadline in Harm's Way," was to examine how journalists cope after covering such difficult assignments. Although those drawn to reporting on intense stories may be stereotyped as adrenaline junkies, adventure seekers or a “different breed,” most journalists are not detached from scenes of death, grief or loss despite their outward appearances or how efficiently they meet their deadlines. People have varying emotional thresholds when it comes to confronting trauma. While most reporters are resilient to the stresses and dangers they face, crisis coverage can have significant, enduring effects. As trauma psychiatrist Anthony Feinstein states: “Resilience in the face of adversity is not, however, synonymous with immunity.”
As a literary journalist, I specialize in immersive, in-depth narratives on compelling societal issues. I have studied the trauma journalism reform movement since 2005. While researching my book, I interviewed reporters, mental health experts and officials involved in tragedies such as the Oklahoma City bombing, Columbine (Colo.) school shootings, September 11, 2001, the Iraq War, Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, the Amish school murders in Lancaster, Pa., the Virginia Tech University tragedy, and the Haitian earthquake. In reading numerous books and research studies, including oral histories of journalists covering war and terrorism, natural disasters, crime and other tragic events, I learned that news media workers may suffer from stress, burnout and emotional anguish, in percentages comparable to military personnel and other first responders.
Steve Bell, former ABC News correspondent/anchor, Vietnam War reporter and professor emeritus at Ball State University (where I have been a faculty member since 1996), notes: “Imagine, journalists are human, too! But until recent years, few thought about the psychological perils of experiencing and reporting on traumatic events.”
Thanks to efforts of organizations such as the Committee to Protect Journalists, the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, the International News Safety Institute and now the Trust for Trauma Journalism, there is greater recognition of how news media coverage of tragedy and trauma can affect victims, families and loved ones, even entire communities, as well as the journalists whose job it is to report these stories. For example: an outdated newsroom view is that if reporters show emotion when covering a story, their professionalism may be compromised. The reality is that greater awareness of and empathy for people enhances the journalistic process. With information and advocacy comes enlightenment.
MARK H. MASSÉ (www.markmasse.com) is author of three books of literary journalism: Vietnam Warrior Voices (2017), Trauma Journalism: On Deadline in Harm's Way (2011) and Inspired to Serve: Today’s Faith Activists (2004). He has also written three novels (Honor House, Whatever Comes and Delamore’s Dreams) A longtime freelancer, he has written for national and international periodicals. Massé is a professor of literary journalism at Ball State University. He has degrees from the University of Oregon and Miami University (Ohio).