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For Reporters, Boston Tragedy Poses Special Challenges

For Reporters, Boston Tragedy Poses Special Challenges

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While the horrific toll from Monday’s Boston Marathon bombings is still being measured, scores of reporters are on the front lines interviewing witnesses and survivors as the nation collectively tries to come to terms with Monday’s tragedy.

For even the most seasoned journalists, covering such a traumatic event can be both professionally trying and personally heartbreaking, even if the full emotional impact doesn’t emerge until much later.

In these moments, it’s worth considering the experiences and lessons of those who’ve been in the reportorial trenches of past disasters and attacks.

 Jeff Kelly Lowenstein, an investigative editor at Hoy in Chicago, past president of the Dart Society (now the Ochberg Society), and a National Health Journalism Fellow blogged today about the Boston tragedy, from the perspective of a Bostonian who grew up loving the sense of unity symbolized by the marathon.

The Marathon has always meant so much to me because it’s been a shared event. Crowds three, four and five deep line the course from the very first step in Hopkin on to the final stride in Copley Square, cheering, celebrating and enjoying the festive atmosphere, he said. I know that we are now experiencing what has already come to so many other communities.”

Speaking on the topic of trauma to the Chicago Headline Club last year, he offered advice to journalists reporting such events, encouraging them to maintain a sense of gratitude and humility:

We have a job to do but I think it’s really important to recognize that folks are really giving us a gift by giving us their time and their presence in really some of the most heartbreaking moments that they’re ever going to experience.

But while Lowenstein encourages journalists to be empathetic with those impacted by the event, he cautions reporters not to falsely claim a deeper personal understanding of their grief. “So if you’ve not had that direct experience, I think it’s important not to say, ‘I know what you’re going through,’ if you don’t.”

Instead, he counsels, simply express appreciation for the fact that they’re willing and able to share what they can with a journalist at this incredibly difficult moment.

Columbia University’s Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma has usefully compiled a roundup of tips from reporters covering disasters, attacks and tragedies in the wake of the 2012 Tuscon shootings.

Freelance journalist Scott Wallace’s comments echo Lowenstein’s emphasis on keeping touch with one’s deeper sense of humanity:

Despite the fact that we are all on deadline, you must take the time to breathe, empathize and feel the pain of survivors and loved ones whom you interview and come in contact with. You need to process that pain yourself. Take time to consider the significance of this event for you as a person, as well as a journalist. Do not rush interviews. Be careful about cutting your subjects off. Be respectful of their need for privacy.

Empathy for your sources and for yourself, Wallace suggests. The latter is easier to forget, however, and sometimes the psychological repercussions of covering trauma won’t emerge for days, weeks, months afterward. But as any psychologist will tell you, having someone to talk to, whether in the newsroom, at home or on the couch is an essential part of processing one’s own grief.

Indeed taking care of your self is often the easiest thing to overlook for reporters working huge stories on deadline. But sometimes stepping away for a few beats can make your work better.

Philip Williams of the Australian Broadcasting Corp. had this to say after covering the Madrid bombings in 2004:

My mistake was I didn't want to admit I needed a break. No doubt in the coming days editors will be demanding continuous coverage, but it is in both the organization’s and your own interest to rest. If you don't, something will give. Don't stay out late, don't overwork ... get to bed. You'll be a better reporter for a good nights sleep.

David Leon Moore, meanwhile, a sports writer with USA Today, writes about the surreal experience of running the marathon and then turning around to report on the unfolding tragedy. Switching from participant to observer wasn't easy.

Approaching fellow runners for comment was painful. I know the pride and elation that a marathon finish elicits. Yet many finishers on this day, even with the iconic blue-and-yellow Boston finisher medallions around their necks, wore blank expressions, tears welling, shoulders slumped.

He continued:

As I looked for other runners, my cell phone was blowing up. Texts, emails and voice messages pored in at record pace. Are you OK? Where are you? We are all thinking of you?

I belatedly put a post on Facebook that I was safe and sound. Responses flowed in. Thank God. We are so happy. We love you.

I felt grateful, yet heartbroken, knowing there were going to be so many other messages without happy endings.

But it's not just those on the scene who are struggling. For additional advice on how to comfort and talk to children, youth and survivors about disasters and attacks, visit this resource page from the National Child Traumatic Stress Network. The Network offers advice, not just for those on the scene, but for parents and children thousands of miles away, whose sense of calm and security has been shattered by the day's events:

The bombings in Boston evoke many emotions—shock, fear, anger, helplessness, anxiety, grief, and sadness. Children struggling with their thoughts and feelings about the stories and images of the bombings will turn to adults for comfort and answers. Children need to hear that their parents/caregivers will keep them safe.

Wishing we could offer those reassurances with the same confidence we had before.

Elisa Hough contributed to this post.

Photo courtesy of hahatango

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