Winter 2009 | Online Exclusives

Approaching Emotional Pain—As a Journalist

‘Routinely we witness the awful things that people do to each other and the most enduring awfulness of all, the aftermath.’

Panel members: Pete Hamill, Elana Newman, Jonathan Shay
In a panel discussion entitled “The Narrative of Emotional Injury,” author and journalist Pete Hamill, psychologist Elana Newman, and psychiatrist Jonathan Shay spoke about various dimensions of trauma—journalistic, clinical and political. What follows are edited excerpts:

Hamill: All of us who have practiced this craft and those who’ve raised it to art and literature have dealt with what human beings are capable of doing to other human beings, either one at a time or in great fields of battle. We have For journalists, the question is how you tell stories about something so disorganizing. And how do you use language about trauma’s victims and survivors? to tell what we see. It’s not easy, people running some of these events don’t want us to see, and so photographers are banned from certain events. Francisco de Goya in “The Disasters of War” could go back to his studio and show what he saw about war. Too many photographers who present the evidence know that what’s chosen to be shown are often the most banal versions of the events they’ve seen.

Many of us are permanent citizens of what I call “the republic of trauma.” Routinely we witness the awful things that people do to each other and the most enduring awfulness of all, the aftermath. We’re sent to make sure that this latest murder, caused by an ancient human flaw, is specific and concrete. We do that most effectively by using all the senses to tell us what it looked like, what it smelled like, and whether there was a dog barking when the police arrived and whether the dead guy in the alley had socks that didn’t match. And if he had socks that didn’t match, you’d ask a lieutenant, “Why does the guy have two different color socks on?” and he’d tell you, “Because they dressed him in the dark.” So you understand the details that make this particular murder something unusual and unique. It’s always the details.

One of the best of Ernest Hemingway’s stories is called “Big Two-Hearted River.” It’s about a guy back from the war. The war is never mentioned; it’s about a man trying through the simple act of going fishing again in his hometown river to start to feel normal again. It’s one of the most brilliant of Hemingway’s stories. Its details construct a concrete sense of the world, of putting your hand in a swift moving river, and remembering that that’s the river you put your hand in when you were a boy. Those kinds of things are what we have to do. Those details are meant to remind people who didn’t go to war what is being done in their name in places throughout the world, whether it’s Iraq and Afghanistan or other places we’ve been part of during the last 50 years.

Newman: A traumatic event is something that disorganizes someone. We expect to be able to walk out right now and know that we will have ground beneath us. A trauma event takes away that ground; it takes away our way of understanding our experience. For journalists, the question is how you tell stories about something so disorganizing. And how do you use language about trauma’s victims and survivors? How do you represent their vulnerability and their strength? As journalists, how do you handle that tension? Coming out of the feminist perspectives toward sexual violence, do you call someone a victim or do you call someone a survivor?

In interviewing survivors and victims, there’s a lot of variety in their responses, which also means there are a lot of stories to tell. Which ones do you tell? And the issue of approach and avoidance is found in your sources, your topics and your audience; people want to hear these stories and they don’t want to hear them. How do you think about that? You want to hear these stories and you don’t want to hear them, so how much do you absorb?

When you listen to survivors’ stories, the more upset they are and the more they have psychological difficulties, their words will be less organized. They can’t articulate. Their words are not in order. Things are fragmentary and there’s repetition, and there are memory lapses. That is common in people who have PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) and also in acute reactions to trauma. And meaning is disrupted; people aren’t sure how to make sense of it. Yet, here you are trying to make sense of their experience for other people when those telling you the story aren’t sure what their own meaning is.

Shay: Fearless speech is the literal translation of the phrase that the Athenians used to describe their aspiration politically and socially about EDITOR'S NOTE:
Shay acknowledged that he owes his account of the communalization of trauma to Judith Herman, who wrote about it in her book, “Trauma and Recovery.’’
communicating with each other—it was to be fearless. Today I want to reflect on the significance of this phrase as it relates to the cycle of the narrative communalization of trauma. As part of this cycle, first fearless speech has to empower the trauma survivor to speak—to tell the story. The second step is that it has to be safe to hear, believe, remember and record. Journalists and literary artists throughout history have been the trustworthy listeners, the people who could hear, believe and remember, and it has to be safe for them to do it. The circle is closed when a third party can retell the story with enough authenticity that the trauma survivor can say, “Somebody was listening. Somebody cared.” Every step of this cycle requires safety, that it be possible to speak fearlessly, to listen, remember, record fearlessly, to retell fearlessly. Fearless speech.

This is also true in the microcosm of the newsroom when someone comes back from a horrific assignment. Whether it’s the cub reporter at a local newspaper sent out to cover bloody, gruesome auto smashes week after week or a veteran correspondent sent into a dangerous war zone, it has to be safe for a journalist to speak about their own distress, about their experience, about the turmoil they may carry with them from what they have witnessed and heard. So the ecology of power in the newsroom has to make it safe for the journalists to tell the truth about the impact of covering these events. This is very much a work in progress in the profession of journalism. It’s not a done deal.



Questions followed their presentations.

Stefanie Friedhoff: Elana, you pointed out the challenges that journalists have between their own avoidance and going into issues. Do you have ideas or tips on how we can deal with the process?

Newman: One of the things that we train clinicians to do is to deal with their feelings so that they can be more objective for their clients. The approach in journalism is to avoid feelings so you can be more objective. There are ways for newsrooms to change, but I think a lot of it comes from destigmatizing the fact that you are people and that your responses to this, in fact, will make you a better reporter. So that’s my simple answer to a much more complicated question.

Shay: It is essential that you allow your feelings to play inside you as a critical source of interpreting information. Understanding it is not always easy. But if you just cut it off and engage in this kind of stoicism that says emotion is at one end of a spectrum and reason and truth is at the other end—that more emotion leads to less reason and truth and less emotion to more reason and truth—well, this is a prestigious notion and it’s crap.

Newman: I don’t think there’s anything wrong with showing some emotion and showing tears, but I think there is this whole issue of what you do with it. Do you write about your reaction? Is there a ritual that you can engage in a way to process it before you get home?

Hamill: One way to deal with it is to keep a journal; put your subjective reactions into the journal. Get them out of your head and onto paper. If you have complicated emotions as a journalist and they don’t belong in the story—and if it’s a hard news story, nobody gives a damn what you think or feel and they shouldn’t—keep a journal.

1 Comment on Approaching Emotional Pain—As a Journalist
JMills says:
June 4, 2010 at 11:27pm
Almost without exception, discussions about journalist occupational stress omit examples of when journalists are targeted by the subjects of stories or government or private entities that resist the attempts of journalists to work.
Those of us who have reached sometimes debilitating levels of stress dealing with these sorts of situations feel marginalized, left out of these discussions.

We want in to this discussion. We want it acknowledged.

The fact is there are two main sources of very serious stress in journalists' lives, witnessing and reporting on the trauma out there and dealing with targeting of us for our work.

Please, start acknowledging that and including it.
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