Journalists caught in the aftershock
Catastrophes often scar and stress those who cover news
Palm Beach Post photographer Lannis Waters saw a father weeping at the college the man’s daughter once attended. The girl had perished just hours earlier beneath its walls during the massive Jan. 12 earthquake in Haiti.
The grieving became too much for Waters. He had to get out. He had seen so much suffering in just a few hours in Port-au-Prince, where tons of rubble had replaced buildings.
“Certainly something you don’t forget,” said Waters, whose paper also sent reporter John Lantigua and others to cover the tragedy.
“I had never seen anything like that in my life and I hope to never see it again,” Lantigua said.
Other journalists felt the same visceral emotions while covering one of the most devastating natural disasters in decades. They knew it was crucial to report on the tragedy. But the experience was so traumatic that most could only stay in the destroyed country for a few days.
“It was the worst thing I had ever seen, not only to me but to many others,” Lantigua said.
Journalists who covered the earthquake were emotionally affected, whether they were in Haiti or in the United States.
Ansel Herz, a freelance journalist who was in Haiti during the earthquake, admits to being traumatized to a certain level.
“Any time a big truck passes loudly through our neighborhood, I become startled,” Herz said. “On several nights, I’ve jolted awake and ran like a madman towards my building’s exit, thinking it was another quake, before realizing that it’s just another truck.”
Despite the trauma, Herz plans to remain in Haiti until the end of the year to report on the nation’s recovery.
“Whether you are reporting from the ground in Haiti or editing the footage in New York, you still have a chance of becoming traumatized,” said Mark Massé, a Ball State University professor who is currently writing a book about journalistic trauma.
At least 86 percent of journalists have endured work-related trauma while covering devastating news such as the Haiti earthquake, according to the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma at Columbia University in New York.
CNN and many other broadcasters decided to step up their post-intervention sessions so employees could discuss feelings about their experience while reporting in Haiti.
Journalistic trauma is a relatively new topic. Journalists for years weren’t trained before being sent to hostile environments. Nor did they have the chance to talk afterward about what they encountered.
Now, Massé said, journalistic trauma is an international issue.
“When exposed to seeing others suffering, a large number of people end up developing symptoms,” said Dr. Charles Nemeroff, the Leonard M. Miller Professor and chairman of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the University of Miami’s Miller School of Medicine.
Those symptoms can include anxiety, sleeplessness, not being able to concentrate, depression or post-traumatic stress. For journalists, one major risk factor is being exposed to several traumatic assignments.
“Folks with pre-existing exposure to tragedies are more likely to catapult and go through another episode,” Nemeroff said.
In Haiti, journalists also have been exposed to horrible conditions and death – without any realistic expectation of helping.
“Witnessing the death of others begins to make people feel helpless,” Nemeroff said.
Kemy Joseph, a student at the University of Miami School of Communication, was shooting film of the devastation. He said he was hesitant even to stay inside buildings in Haiti.
“It gave me nightmares,” Joseph said, repeating a theme among journalists.
“It was the first time I ever had a nightmare,” said Lantigua, who wrote 16 stories in his first 13 days in Haiti.
Lantigua wanted to write so readers would understand the scope of the trauma. He also wanted to help out, but within days he felt he had seen so much he had to leave.
Still, he and others have returned – and will continue to report on the tragedy. Haiti will take years to rebuild and the journalists said they are willing to go back – and should be better prepared emotionally to report.
Visiting Haiti two months after the earthquake was not as difficult as Joseph had expected. After collecting 15 hours of footage and about 13,000 photos, he is working on a documentary titled “In Their Voices,” an artistic vehicle for Haitians to tell their stories.
“Even though trauma may not be the right word, it was an overwhelming dispense of despair,” Joseph said.
Lantigua remembers a conversation between a reporter who had just landed in Haiti and the reporter’s photographer.
“I wonder if I will ever see anything worse than this again in my life,” the reporter said. The photographer responded: