Denting Journalism's Macho Image  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   June 1995

Denting Journalism's Macho Image   

By Kelly Heyboer
Kelly Heyboer is a reporter at the Star-Ledger in Newark, New Jersey.      


New York Times reporter Rick Bragg arrived on the scene within hours of the Oklahoma City blast, watched as bodies were being dug out of the ravaged federal building, and interviewed still bloody survivors. Then, after three harrowing days in Oklahoma, he moved on to report on a multiple murder in New Orleans with hardly any time to recover.

This might sound like what is expected of a big-time reporter, but if the New York Times has its way, Bragg and reporters like him who cover natural disasters, riots and murders may make a pit-stop in a counselor's chair between tragedies.

The Times put a dent in its "macho" image with the introduction of one of the industry's most extensive counseling programs for journalists covering traumatic events. Editors now have authority to advise that their reporters receive in-house counseling after reporting on combat and other catastrophies.

"This is new ground for newsrooms," Associate Managing Editor Dennis Stern told the staff in a memo announcing the program. He went on to explain, somewhat apologetically, that the Times' "macho value system has [until now] prevented us from inquiring too deeply into the psychological stress" reporters suffer.

To initiate the program, approximately 30 editors participated in a three-hour training session with social workers, who taught them how to spot signs of stress in reporters.

"We were really challenging the culture of the newsroom," says Patricia Drew, a counselor who heads the paper's Employee Assistance Program. "There were [editors] who had been here 20 years. We said to them, 'This is part of your responsibility to help your reporters.' "

The new policy requires an editor who believes a reporter has been deeply affected by a story to advise the reporter about the counseling service. Then the editor, after getting the reporter's permission, calls the in-house employee assistance program to turn over the employee's name. One of the paper's three counselors then calls the reporter to set up a confidential session.

Bragg, who covers tragedies regularly, says he is glad the paper is offering the service. But he adds that he and many of his colleagues have reservations about using it. Some reporters already have expressed concern that editors will regularly turn them over to counseling when there are follow-up stories to write and new leads to pursue.

Despite reporters' doubts, Drew stresses that editors will not be "judging their sanity" after every story. "This is not psychotherapy," she says, "it's education."

Unlike the counseling services that are becoming increasingly common at many larger papers, the Times' program eliminates the need for the reporter to acknowledge that he or she has a problem and ask for help. Editors now initiate the process, though counseling is not mandatory.

The idea for the counseling service came from Executive Editor Joseph Lelyveld, who told Drew he believed the Times was "losing good talent to traumatic events."

"We've always been great about protecting our people from physical danger," Lelyveld says, "but we didn't consider the emotional side of reporting."

The logistics of covering catastrophies often are at odds with the concerns a reporter might have about psychological consequences. Trying to "debrief" reporters within a few days of a traumatic event has proven difficult in cases such as the Oklahoma City bombing, since reporters are often in the midst of reporting the event's aftermath.

Similar logistical problems often make it difficult to get help to correspondents abroad, such as those who covered the Rwandan massacres or the Japanese earthquake, even though many times that is where counseling is needed most.

So far, response to the policy in the Times newsroom has been lukewarm, according to Drew. Though more than a dozen reporters have received counseling through the new program, turnout "has been less than expected, though we didn't really know what to expect," says Drew, who believes part of the problem may lie in editors' reluctance to advise reporters about the program.

According to Drew, stubborn myths about journalists must be shattered if more staff members are to participate. There is still an attitude within the industry that true journalists should distance themselves from their emotions and simply move on to the next story, she says.

The Washington Post, like most larger papers, has a policy to refer reporters to in-house employee assistance programs, though it is not specifically designed for those who have covered tragedies.

The Philadelphia Inquirer and the Philadelphia Daily News have yet to offer any kind of outreach program, though they do offer referral services. Both papers rely on reporters to ask for counseling, says Joseph Curran, the sole counselor for the 3,500 employees of the two papers.

"Reporters are in a job where a lot of times they don't personalize information," Curran says. "They don't even know [when an event] has affected them."

Curran points out that while police officers and firefighters who deal with tragedies such as the Oklahoma City bombing get mandatory counseling, it is assumed that reporters need no recovery time.

The Times' Bragg draws another comparison between himself and the rescue workers he often interviews. "We are like rescue workers in that you can't let yourself get down about it. You have to get the story done," he says. "If you're sitting sobbing on a curb, your readers aren't getting what they need from you."

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