GUEST COMMENTARY: When war journalists come home

2011-12-17T00:00:00Z GUEST COMMENTARY: When war journalists come homeMark Massé nwitimes.com
December 17, 2011 12:00 am  • 

With U.S. military involvement in Iraq ending and troops coming home, news coverage rightfully focuses on the lives of these men and women and their adjustment to noncombat roles. Notable stories document the challenges facing veterans who cope with physical and mental health injuries, including depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.

However, what is typically missing in the analysis of postwar issues are accounts of the print and broadcast journalists who have spent extended time embedded with troops and borne witness to death and destruction while working in harm's way. Several recent research studies have documented that news media workers might suffer from stress, burnout and mental anguish, in percentages comparable to military personnel and other first responders, as a result of being brutally close to the action.

Steve Bell, former ABC News correspondent/anchor and Vietnam War reporter who recently taught at Ball State, notes: "Imagine, journalists are human, too! But until recent years, few thought about the psychological perils of experiencing and reporting on traumatic events."

How do journalists cope after covering war, conflict, disaster and other frontline tragedies? Although 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."

Former Washington Post reporter Jackie Spinner's 2006 memoir, "Tell Them I Didn't Cry: A Young Journalist's Story of Joy, Loss, and Survival in Iraq," describes her nine months in 2004-05 as a war correspondent, having no prior experience in a combat zone.

Spinner returned to the U.S. with postwar trauma: "I did not want to talk about this with my colleagues who had been in Iraq because I feared their judgment of me as weak ..."

Spinner was "angry at everything" and felt guilty about the Iraqi staff she had left behind with no promises for the future. She shunned her friends in favor of family "because they asked no questions and surrounded me in unconditional love."

In his compelling memoir, "The Cat from Hué," former CBS TV correspondent John Laurence described the personal cost of covering the Vietnam War. For years, he was embedded with U.S. soldiers and Marines in major battles. He wrote of the "narrow separation between life and death in this place." As he noted in his book, "Reporters and photographers were killed and wounded in the same proportion as the frontline troops they accompanied."

According to Laurence, being a war correspondent was a "great adventure: fascinating, frightening, fulfilling -- more high drama than I expected for a lifetime." He wrote that at 28 he thought he was tough-minded enough to handle what he experienced as a journalist. But he was naïve. "I had no idea that my involvement was far from over, that I would be going back again and again, repeatedly, indefinitely."

Decades after he left Vietnam, Laurence endured nightmares, anxiety and other emotional problems associated with his years of war reporting. He admitted counseling helped him cope. However, in 2003, he returned to Iraq as a freelance correspondent, and the familiar demons of depression scuttled back. "I have never felt cured," he noted in an interview with journalist Judith Matloff in the November/December 2004 issue of Columbia Journalism Review.

Photojournalist and documentary filmmaker Molly Bingham has covered conflict, violence and tragedy across Africa, Afghanistan, Iraq and the Middle East for nearly two decades. She joined a "rarefied group of people" who risk their lives to tell dangerous stories that otherwise wouldn't be told. In the process, she had been detained, imprisoned and threatened ("shot at is more accurate") by both enemy and "friendly" armed forces. She says a journalist's resilience in covering difficult stories is more about the person's physical and emotional states than about professional craft attitudes or newsroom credos. Bingham also believes it is a positive development that today more journalists are willing to discuss the psychological impact of reporting on tragedy and trauma.

Major news organizations such as CNN, the Associated Press and the BBC are using the knowledge, experience and resources of advocacy groups such as the Committee to Protect Journalists, the International News Safety Institute and the Dart Center for Journalism & Trauma in addressing journalist safety/welfare issues, including proactive training and post-event debriefing and counseling programs. An integral part of this international reform effort is an enhanced awareness of the emotional impact of conflict and crisis coverage on the victims, their families and loved ones, their communities, as well as on the journalists whose job it is to tell these stories.

Mark Massé, a professor of literary journalism at Ball State University, is the author of the recently published book, "Trauma Journalism: On Deadline in Harm's Way" (Continuum International Publishing, 2011). The opinion expressed in this column is the writer's and not necessarily that of The Times.

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