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.

TWITTER FEEDBACK