After the Adrenaline  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Features
From AJR,   November 2001

After the Adrenaline   

Once the excitement of chasing the big story subsides, journalists struggle to cope with the horror of the tragic events they’ve witnessed.

By Sherry Ricchiardi
Sherry Ricchiardi (sricchia@iupui.edu) is an AJR senior contributing writer.     


On September 11, journalists rushed to cover the greatest mass murder in American history. With adrenaline pumping, they began chronicling the biggest story of their lives.

Many who reported from Ground Zero describe a soul-shaking experience that, in one way or another, changed them forever. Some talk of near-death experiences, of agonizing over whether to put away notebooks to help hunt for survivors, of the jolting realities of the grisly bloodbath.

The details they recorded were horrifying. A quivering red blob landing with a sickening thud in the middle of the street. A couple holding hands as they leapt from the 90th floor of the World Trade Center to escape blistering flames. The stark image of a dismembered hand lying next to a garbage can.

Getting close to the heart-rending stories and graphic images jarred the psyches of those who provided historic on-the-spot accounts. For them, the roar of collapsing steel girders, the layers of ghostly soot and ash, the smell of flames consuming fellow humans were played out without the luxury of a remote control to switch off the carnage. In interviews, veterans of World Trade Center coverage described feeling outraged, depressed, stressed out and tormented by haunting images that make repeat performances in the dead of night. These professional messengers--many of them more accustomed to covering the financial markets or the New York Yankees--suddenly found themselves struggling to cope with powerful psychological fallout.

Many journalists will remember September 11 as the day that trauma slammed into their lives, knocking the emotional wind out of a profession that prides itself on a stiff upper lip. For many, like CBS anchor Dan Rather, it was a time for tears.

Two weeks later, a trip to the Wall Street Journal's makeshift news operation in South Brunswick, New Jersey, provided insight into journalists' mental pain. The staffers talked easily about where they were the moment jetliners, loaded with passengers, became guided missiles. Descriptions of the pandemonium they witnessed from their newsroom near the World Trade Center were painfully graphic, evidence that professional instincts clicked in.

Then came a pivotal question: How are you coping with the horror of that day? Long, awkward pauses, eyes diverted, a shrug of the shoulders, a tear quickly brushed away. Answers did not come easily. Some turned to quiet humor. Kris Tennent, vice president of technology for print publication services, arrived home around midnight on September 12. She described tossing together an instant vanilla-flavored breakfast mix, a sprinkle of nutmeg and a slug of vodka to toast her birthday. "It was pathetic. I was asleep in five minutes."

Then, Tennent recited an explanation that has almost become a mantra. Working at a feverish pitch to cover the worst terrorist attack on American soil has been the elixir that has kept the staff from folding under the emotional strain.

Few had closer brushes with the cataclysmic events than John Bussey, the Journal's foreign editor, and David Handschuh, a veteran photographer for New York's Daily News. Sharing details of their narrow escape from the urban war zone has proven cathartic over the past weeks. So has commiserating with friends.

Bussey filed a highly personal account for Wednesday's paper. He didn't realize until later that burying himself in work was a way of coping with the horror.

Handschuh had made his way to within 100 yards of the south tower when the second jetliner hit. Instinctively, he lifted a camera to photograph plumes of smoke. Moments later, a powerful explosion pinned him under debris.

"I was sure I was going to die facedown in a gutter in the streets of New York," Handschuh recalls. Firefighters rescued him moments before an avalanche of rubble would have buried him alive.

Two weeks later, he offered this somber reflection: "The folks who were not there will never understand what we went through. The sound of bodies hitting the pavement was haunting.... The thought takes my breath away." Handschuh escaped with a broken leg. Dozens of phone calls, e-mails and visits from colleagues have formed "a lifeline," the photojournalist says.

Reporter Ana Alaya of Newark's Star-Ledger agrees that those who were not at the scene can't possibly comprehend the stark conflagration. On September 11, she ran more than 20 blocks from Greenwich Village toward the flaming towers. When she arrived at Ground Zero, she was overwhelmed by the chaos.

Later that week, Alaya made an agonizing decision: She put away her notebook and joined a rescue team, passing buckets of rubble in the desperate search for survivors and helping in the triage zone. She stayed for seven days, sleeping on stacks of boxes, on floors covered with soot and ash, on a tugboat on the Hudson River. The greatest challenge, she said, was balancing reporting with her humanitarian efforts.

She went back to the newsroom "a completely changed person--emotionally, psychically, spiritually," she says.

Alaya found herself questioning her professionalism. "This whole experience has made me wonder: Am I a good journalist? I know some editors feel I didn't do my job, even though they may not disagree with my moral decision to cross the line. I'm struggling to deal with that on top of everything else," she said a week after the attack, her voice cracking with emotion. Like hundreds of other journalists covering this disaster from near and afar, Alaya was struggling to conquer her mental anguish.

Events surrounding September 11 have pushed many media professionals into probing a shadowy area--the delicate balance that pits humanness and emotional vulnerability against professional instincts to get the story. Perhaps more than at any other time, talk about emotional fatigue, post-traumatic stress syndrome and critical incident response has become part of newsroom vocabulary. The message from mental health advocates is clear: Those who seek counseling should not be exiled as wimps.

Chris Cramer, CNN's president of international networks, has taken a leading role in the movement to sensitize newsroom bosses about the care of staffers who chronicle horrific events (see "Confronting the Horror," January/February 1999). Cramer believes it has taken the media far too long to realize that it is natural for journalists, like law enforcement officers, firefighters and members of the armed forces, to feel the effects of the trauma. It doesn't surprise him that several of CNN's correspondents broke down in tears as they reported on the terrorist attacks.

"Some journalists have been wandering through body parts," Cramer told London's Press Gazette. "It would be extraordinary if they were not affected by that."

David McCumber, managing editor of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, sent a similar message on September 15, explaining to readers that journalists tend to consult the dictionary and AP stylebook more often than the catalog of their own emotions. "The stereotype has us impervious to all that, anyway--hardened, cynical chroniclers of that which befalls other people," wrote McCumber. "This week's events have rudely reminded us how ridiculous that is." The editor posed the question: "Just when were we supposed to take the time to cry?"

For veteran anchor Dan Rather, the time came during an appearance on September 17 on "The Late Show with David Letterman" as he talked about interviews with heroic rescue workers. After crying, he apologized to millions of viewers. "I get paid not to let it show," Rather explained.

Later, as he recited the words to "America the Beautiful," he again became weepy. Letterman consoled Rather and reached for his hand, saying, "Yeah, you're a professional, but good Christ, you're a human being."

Emotional comfort has come in many forms throughout America's newsrooms. Erin Schulte, working the story for the Wall Street Journal Online, found solace in a homemade apple pie, lovingly baked by her mother in South Dakota and delivered to New York City by an acquaintance who was driving to the East Coast on business. "The pie brings a tear to my eye, truly," Schulte told colleagues in an in-house memo.

News anchor Gail Sierens of WFLA-TV in Tampa lost it when she heard a rendition of "Let There Be Peace on Earth." How did she cope with the grueling hours, on-the-run junk food and lack of downtime during the week of September 11 as she brought updates of the horror and local angles to her viewers?

"I'm making a rug," she told an interviewer for Poynter.org. "I went into the makeup room [at the station] yesterday before the broadcast and worked on hooking the rug. I have to do it for me and my sanity."

Some journalists spoke of a heightened closeness to colleagues who covered the unthinkable tragedy with them. "We clearly formed a special bond," says Steve Sweitzer, who supervised a team of four who traveled to New York City from WISH-TV in Indianapolis. "We have exchanged more than a few hugs since we've been back." Upon his return, Sweitzer sent a message to friends describing poignant moments near Ground Zero for "therapeutic purposes. It helped me accept the reality of this unreal experience," he says.

After signing on to a message board at b-roll.net, a site for television news photography, Sweitzer found himself in the role of amateur counselor. To colleagues agonizing over the horror, he wrote: "Big boys do cry.... I'm just back from NYC and, in 20 years of journalism, I've never been confronted with so much grief." He described a "decompression" process for his crew after returning home--everything from long bike rides to gardening and prayer to help salve bruised emotions.

With lightning swiftness, some newsrooms moved mental health safeguards into place as the September 11 catastrophe unfolded. Almost immediately, CNN had grief counselors on standby in New York, Washington and at its headquarters in Atlanta.

The New York Times quickly circulated an e-mail titled "Emotional First-Aid Following Tuesday's Events" that told staffers: "We have no pattern of behavior to draw upon that serves as an internal set of guidelines to follow, no emotional folder marked terrorist attacks.... Here are some ideas about how we can help each other and ourselves get through it."

The Wall Street Journal posted sign-up sheets for employees who wanted to vent feelings in informal group sessions and invited them to share personal accounts via e-mail about where they were when the disaster struck. The idea was proposed by the Journal's Assistant Managing Editor Cathy Panagoulias, who wrote in a memo, "Perhaps the shrinks will even tell us this is cathartic. We can't move on until we know what happened to everybody but right now, we really don't have time to ask."

USA Today sent internal reminders that counselors were available and offered space via in-house e-mail for journalists assigned the grim duty of pulling together victim coverage to ventilate.

One USA Today reporter sent this response: "The most heart-wrenching experience: hearing victims' voices on answering machines. I'm known as a pretty tough cookie around here. But I'll admit it: I cried many evenings and was an emotional wreck on Saturday, the first break I had after three straight days of writing about the dead."

Like hundreds of other journalists, the author of that note was in a stage of grieving, a normal state when the nation is mourning the greatest loss of life ever during an attack on its soil. Since September 11, therapists have attempted to offer insight and advice to help journalists cope with the emotional impact of the story.

Frank Ochberg, a psychiatrist and pioneer in the field of media and trauma, says journalists, like firefighters, police officers and other first responders, enter a "heroic phase" when disaster strikes.

At first, there is a tendency to work intensely, adrenaline flowing, with a sense of purpose that is crystal clear. This phase kicks in quickly and, depending upon the scope of the crisis, can last for days, weeks, even a month or two. Then comes a period of mental exhaustion and burnout, of physical fatigue and a tendency to feel confused and depressed.

"You reach the point where there isn't the same pulling together, the same national attention, the same celebration of heroic deeds. As we return to mundane tasks, we lose the feeling of sudden connectedness, sudden spirit," explains Ochberg, a former associate director of the National Institute of Mental Health.

The doctor warns that in this phase, there can be tension at home and in the workplace. Sometimes flare-ups erupt between "talkers" and "nontalkers"--those who continue to dwell or reflect on the crisis and those who want to move on.

"As a psychiatrist, when someone has an emotion, we usually don't say that it is good or bad," he says. "What is bad is to be oblivious to emotions, to deny them or to condemn yourself because you have these human feelings."

Ochberg notes that in their role as professional observers, reporters and photographers process information at a highly intimate level, in order to convey it effectively to their audiences. In the case of the World Trade Center attack, it meant getting up close and personal with the rawest forms of human misery in order to do the job.

Martin Cohen, a clinical psychologist in Tampa, believes that journalists can become "secondary victims" by the very nature of their work. The first thing to remember: The mere exposure to someone else's trauma can, in and of itself, be traumatic and ignite symptoms.

Cohen says that when covering horrific events, journalists are injected with a kind of "poison," which can take its toll without an antidote--talking about their experiences and feelings.

Joe Hight, managing editor of the Daily Oklahoman, cautions journalists about confronting the "wall effect." "Those of us who are sensitive enough to cover victims of tragedy and violence, and get those gut-wrenching interviews, often face a wall of grief during the process," says Hight, who covered the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 and later became an advocate of helping journalists cope with the fallout of covering tragic events.

Journalists absorb the victims' pain, sense of loss, isolation and guilt. Hight's advice: Know your limits; take breaks and get away from the newsroom; find someone who is an effective listener; force yourself to take a day off.

For Jim Pensiero, an assistant managing editor at the Wall Street Journal, the day off from the constant cycle of deadlines came on September 14, when he and his wife gathered friends for a dinner party.

"I felt as if I had lived a nightmare in real time," he says. "I was desperate to do something normal." He was also dealing with a strong sense of rage. "People showed up to do a day's work and were murdered. How can you not be angry about that?"

Three days earlier, Pensiero was frantically making calls after the first strike when he heard a "kaboom" that rocked his newsroom as the second jetliner hit. He looked out the window and realized that he was witnessing a mass murder. The Journal was adjacent to the World Trade Center.

When orders were issued to evacuate, Pensiero fired off e-mails to colleagues about regrouping to get the paper out. Finally, at 9:26 a.m., a security guard pulled him away. He remembers being "dumbfounded, flabbergasted, in a state of shock" as he ran toward the Hudson River. "Oh, God, it was so bad. I felt lucky to get out alive," he says.

Pensiero headed to the Dow Jones South Brunwick campus, where the company, which owns the Journal, has a printing plant and administrative staff. It also is the place designated as a "disaster recovery site" for the paper. What he helped accomplish in the makeshift news operation that day has coworkers calling him "General MacArthur."

By Thursday, Pensiero started to feel shell-shocked and blue. "It was like I had a hangover without drinking," he recalls. Until then, helping to keep the newspaper going had been his buffer. He found himself reliving the image of a man leaping out of the flames to his death at the World Trade Center. "I said a little prayer when I saw him jump, then I realized that I couldn't help anyone. I had an assignment. We had to get a paper out. I turned and ran toward the river."

On Friday, September 14, Pensiero played chef--cooking is his hobby--and threw a dinner party. He rubbed the chickens with garlic and added a generous sprinkling of rosemary before popping them in the oven. "That was part of my therapy. It was the first meal I cooked in days," he recalled. "We sat around, talked and got a little drunk."

For his colleague John Bussey, the unrelenting demands of the story provided an emotional cushion. That weekend, he returned to his home in New York City to deal privately with his grief. Accompanied by a friend, he toured firehouses with their shrines to the dead and missing. He saw an entire wall at St. Vincent's Hospital, near Ground Zero, covered by messages and photos. It was, says Bussey, "the saddest thing in the world."

His personal pilgrimage drew him to a walk along Wall Street to Ground Zero, where he stood in silence and absorbed the massive graveyard. He stood in silence and listened. The booming voice of a fireman shouting, "It's coming down! Run!" echoed through his psyche, followed by the sickening rumble of bending steel.

Senior writer Sherry Ricchiardi chronicled how the Chicago Tribune covered the events of September 11 in AJR's October issue. She first wrote about the impact on journalists of covering horrific events in AJR's January/February 1999 issue.

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