How sensitive can a journalist be?

Why don’t the newscasters cry when they read about people who die?
At least they could be decent enough to put just a tear in their eyes.

– lyrics from “The News” by Jack Johnson

Photo by TimOve on Flickr

Journalists are often celebrated for being thick-skinned, tenacious, clever, intrepid — but, sensitive? When did you last hear praise bestowed upon a sensitive journalist?

The quotation above, charming though it may be, would probably startle viewers if it were to actually happen. Can you imagine your news anchor tearing up at every sad story? How would you react to a reporter delivering news with quivering lips?

For better or worse, reporters are generally expected to keep a professional distance from their subjects, to perform under pressure, and to keep it together despite their emotions. They may be at the scene of a devastating car crash, or they may be interviewing the victims of a natural disaster, or they may be covering a gruesome murder trial, but they have to maintain a certain level of composure in order to do their job.

I appreciate this, and I understand how quickly we would burn out if we allowed ourselves to feel the full emotional impact of every difficult situation. We remind ourselves that our first responsibility is to the public, and that they need us to stomach it and tell the story.

But all that being said, reporters are people too — and, to be honest, I feel relieved when they speak of their emotions.

I remember asking Adrian Morrow, a young reporter I met at the Toronto Star, how he got used to calling the grieving families of the deceased. It was one of the things I dreaded about the job – being “that damn reporter” on the other end of the phone as people suffered through the worst day of their life.

Adrian didn’t tell me how he got used to it, because he didn’t.

“It doesn’t get easier,” he said, his voice slow and steady. I later found a blog post he’d written on the subject – The Toughest Call a Reporter Has to Make.

Oddly enough, this made me feel better. It’s okay to have our hearts pounding in our chests. It’s possible to remain calm and focus on the other person. The Globe’s Stephanie Nolen has said of covering tragedy: “I have no right to feel shitty.”

Although I admire Nolen’s bravery, I try to imagine her crying. Maybe it’s so I’ll feel better as she brings me to tears with her work.

And a few seasoned reporters have chronicled their dark nights of the soul.

A while back, I blogged about CBC reporter Dave Seglins, who said he was left a “blubbering mess” after covering the Russell Williams trial.

“To my own surprise, and terror, I melted down, incapacitated by several bouts of anxiety, panic and uncontrollable dread that I’ve never felt before — and hope never to again,” confessed Seglins in a J-source article. His reporting showed no traces of his struggle, as he “pushed away all the horrors, and instead focused on the next deadline.”

Seglins broke down in the privacy of his home, and needed counseling in the aftermath of the assignment. He now cautions others not to “succumb to newsroom bravado” when they need help processing traumatic events.

And then there’s Liam Casey, another former colleague of mine at the Toronto Star. His latest piece, Suicide Notes, begins with this short explanation:

I contemplated killing myself five years ago. Now, to help others, I call on all journalists to break the silence on our final taboo.

Not only does Casey let us see him at his worst, he calls on our entire profession to brave the depths of human suffering and cover suicide — something we “just don’t do” under normal circumstances. I realize that this is about more than sensitivity, but Casey’s story is a testament to how much we can move people when we step out from behind the curtain.

I’ve only mentioned my emotions a few times, but to be honest the newsroom moves so quickly that sometimes I just work through it and come out the other side. I don’t allow myself to process it as often as I should, and I’m often startled when I do get choked up.  That’s why it’s useful to remember the following:

Reporters are people. They are not disembodied eyes. They  struggle with complex inner lives. And when they share this struggle, despite professional norms, it’s not necessarily a weakness.

If these reporters are any indication, it takes a lot of strength to be sensitive.

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10 thoughts on “How sensitive can a journalist be?

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention How sensitive can a journalist be? « The Fab Files -- Topsy.com

  2. Fab,

    In 2003, I covered what remains the hardest story I have ever done thus far in my career — the inquest of a 13-year-old that had drowned the summer before in the small town where I was living. Until that first day, I didn’t know the family, or the little girl that had died. Until that day, I thought I was a tough reporter.

    The first day of the inquest was filled with the details of her death — how she was found tangled in the pool ladder. How, despite being an award-winning, swimmer, she was found vital signs absent even though she was left alone just minutes. How her father was hundreds of kilometres away in London undergoing heart bypass surgery the day his daughter died.

    Throughout the proceedings, I thought I was OK. I thought it was going to be easy. (OK, I admit, I likely smoked more that day than I had ever before, but you do what gets you through.)

    I got home that day from the inquest, sat down to write my story and before I could, I cried.

    Then I wrote. I wrote like I never had before. The next day, my story was on the front page of the Owen Sound Sun Times. I was ecstatic, but also felt guilty for being happy when another family was in so much pain. That day at the inquest, the girl’s father congratulated me on making the front page.

    Since then, I’ve interviewed a grandmother whose granddaughter was shot to death, and chased other stories. In the heat of the moment, high on adrenaline, it’s easy for me to not realize this bad stuff happened to real people. But eventually it hits me. And I’m not ashamed to admit, I cry.

    However, what I’ve taken going forward is this: People in these situations sometimes want to talk to you. You may not believe it as you pick up the phone, or knock on a loved one’s door; but many times a family member wants to talk about their loved one who’s just died (look at the father in Newmarket, Ont., who’s wife was killed on Christmas Eve — he made the media rounds on Dec. 27 — two days after she died). They want to make sure the story that’s told about their dead loved one is right.

    It’s not easy, but it has to be done. And you will get through it.

    • Thanks for sharing all that, Sarah.
      I wonder about the people in the biz who seriously seem unaffected. I wonder if that’s just an especially good veneer after years of doing the job, or if they are just more private when it comes to their personal reactions.

      Either way, it’s good to hear testaments like yours. It’s so important to know that the story behind the story is also a human one.

  3. This is a very interesting insight into an inner world of supposed “objective observers.” I mean, theoretically, you’re supposed to not let it all get in the way and cloud the real story, but I strongly believe that that clouding really humanizes people’s writing. I can relate to writers more when they talk about human things – maybe that’s why I enjoy reading blogs so much, because I don’t have to wonder whether this is a biased opinion or a certain angle. It’s whatever is felt.

    That’s just me, and I’m quite the hippy – lovey dovey and optimistic, all that.

    I can’t imagine interviewing relatives of deceased people.. that’s something that I haven’t come up against yet, and I don’t hope for.

  4. This is a very interesting insight into a profession that relies on being ‘objective’. I’m from India and unfortunately, most of the reporters from this part of the world are as emotional as any member of the general public can be, and that shows in the way happenings are covered, and that has telling impact on the general public’s opinion. Emotion tends to hamper reason, and hence judgment. But reporters/journalists are human beings as well and it really is a great service that reporters render to the society and to really understand the emotional stress they undergo is very touching. Thank you.

    • Thanks for your comment, Gana. I haven’t spent much time looking at Indian news media, but I’m interested in this distinction you’re making. Can you recommend a few media outlets?

  5. Pingback: I don’t, and I will never, know enough | The Fab Files

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