By Aesha Duval
It has been 14 years since I worked as a full-time newspaper reporter. Yet, some of the events and people I’ve written about still haunt me. They didn’t teach it in journalism school, but reporters tend to separate their emotions from the subject and sources of their news stories. We “suck it up and move on.” It may be a defense mechanism which allows us to do our jobs.
Many journalists have reported facing on-the-job exposure to traumatic events at some point in their careers. According to an American Psychological Association (APA) article titled, “Journalists as vicarious first responders,” there is a growing awareness within newsrooms that journalists who are covering pandemic and other traumatic events such as terrorism, disasters or shootings can’t—and shouldn’t—just “suck it up and move on.”
Fortunately, journalists tend to be resilient, with relatively low rates of PTSD. “When we talk about journalism and trauma, we immediately think of the war correspondent or the reporter covering a mass disaster like 9/11,” said psychologist Elana Newman, PhD. “We forget about the community police reporter or the local journalist who is reporting about a neighbor who was in a car accident or sexual assault coverage—the daily grind of trauma.”
I know all too well about the toll that daily grind coverage of traumatic events can have on a reporter. Back in the early 2000s (gosh, was it that long ago?), I punched out three or four articles a day for the daily newspapers I worked for in North Carolina and the Virgin Islands. It is impossible to remember all the stories and events I covered. But there are the stories that have stuck with me. The ones you take home and think about at night. The stories that still haunt you many years later.
Coverage of tragic murders
In 2004, a well-known local firefighter on St. Croix, Jose Carrillo, was arrested after he shot and killed his brother, his girlfriend and their infant son, in his crib. Their bodies were found in the home on a Saturday and my assignment was to cover his first appearance in court that following Monday morning. Word of the horrific murders spread throughout the small island community of St. Croix.
The courtroom was packed that Monday morning, which was unusual for an advice of rights hearing. I quickly found a seat and I surveyed the room, noting that relatives of both the suspect and the victims were present. Keeping in mind that the suspect’s mother also lost a son, she sat on one side of the courtroom, while the girlfriend’s mother and other family members and friends filled the opposite side. There were quiet murmurings and sniffles around the courtroom and the devastation was palpable. The same questions were on everyone’s mind I imagined: How could something like this happen? Why did he do this?
The court marshals brought in Carrillo and soft cries spilled out at the sight of him. He was in handcuffs and looked lost. He could barely hold himself up with two marshals bracing him up on either side. Court was called into session and the judge took his seat at the bench and went through the list of charges and other formalities. At the mention of “first-degree murder,” the suspect made a whimpering sound and bowed his head. Standing next to his public defender, he swayed slightly, but remained standing. The hearing was quick, not lasting more than five minutes as the judge scheduled another hearing to set bail. As Carrillo was being led out, he collapsed. The courtroom erupted. His mother screamed, “My son fall!” Over and over, she screamed this as she tried to get to him but was held back. A collective grief was unleashed in the courtroom. Wailing, crying and uncontrollable sobbing filled the space as the judge pounded his gavel, calling for order. It was no use. He recessed the remaining hearings and left the bench as marshals tried to usher people out of the courtroom. I had never seen anything like that happen in open court. Sure, you get one or a few people reacting to a verdict or to something said in court, and they would be quickly told to be quiet or ushered from the room. But to have a packed courtroom with every single person in the room screaming and crying, it was too much. Both mothers were inconsolable, on the verge of fainting and had to be taken out in wheelchairs. Getting a comment out of either of them was not happening. Outside of the court, I pulled aside someone I knew in passing for a comment about the girlfriend who was killed. She happened to be her cousin. As I was taking notes, tears were spilling from my eyes. I apologized and asked her to repeat something she said because my vision was so blurry, I couldn’t see the notes on my notebook page.
Over the years, reminders of the case still bring me back to that courtroom. To the screams and complete devastation. There are others during my career that have not left me. Like a murder trial in North Carolina, where a five-year-old girl was killed after being repeatedly run over by her mother’s killer. She tried running away, but he caught up to her with his car. Her little body was left in the road as several other motorists traversing the dark and isolated highway struck her too, one of them thinking they hit a deer. Today, every time I see an abandoned trash bag or a bundle of cloth on the road, I think of her, and I drive around it.
I never sought therapy following the tragedies I’ve written about. Because I was not the reporter who was embedded with troops in Afghanistan or covering 9/11 and the aftermath. I didn’t think I would be affected by the day-to-day assignments. I would often process and debrief with my fellow reporter colleagues, who are my best friends to this day. And that kept me going for a while, but in 2008, I was burnt-out and ready for a new career. I had it with the deadlines, demanding editors and the long hours in court and covering legislative hearings. I transitioned to public relations and eventually, librarianship. Today, I’m back in a courthouse as a law librarian, using the same dogged reporting skills to conduct legal research. Like a reporter chasing a story, I don’t stop until I get the answer. Law clerks often compliment my quick responses to their research requests, all thanks to my years of working under deadlines. The tragic events I wrote about are not the only things that stuck with me.
Perhaps if I had gotten treatment and had been told that what I was feeling was normal and taught coping skills to handle the pressures of daily news reporting, I would have remained in the profession longer. Today, newsrooms are providing more psychological support for journalists, and I applaud this. Journalists can also practice more self-care, such as recognizing the signs of distress; take a break from the demanding stories; practice meditation or exercise to better process stress and trauma; maintain that peer support with colleagues and mentors who share in your experience; and most importantly, get help if you need it.
Clay, R. A. (2020, April 17) Journalists as vicarious first responders. American Psychological Association. https://www.apa.org/topics/covid-19/journalists-first-responders
Shapiro, B. (2021, April 6) How journalists can practice self-care when reporting on community trauma. Dart Center for Journalism & Trauma: A Project of Columbia Journalism School. https://dartcenter.org/resources/how-journalists-can-practice-self-care-when-reporting-community-trauma
Source Staff. (2004, May 18) Carrillo charged with 3 counts of 1st-degree murder. St. Croix Source. https://stcroixsource.com/2004/05/18/carrillo-charged-3-counts-1st-degree-murder-1-297/
Notes Between Us (NBU) is a blog about conversations and topics of interest to the writers. The writers are expressing their personal opinions solely. The essays represent their personal beliefs and not that of their workplaces or any organization they are associated with.