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American Journalism Review
A New Center  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   June 2000

A New Center   

Coping with the Stress of Covering Horror

By Sherry Ricchiardi
Sherry Ricchiardi ( is an AJR senior contributing writer.     

AFTER HE RETURNED from covering the Persian Gulf War in 1991, Frank Smyth began hearing from friends that he reminded them of strung-out Vietnam veterans they had known back in the ╣60s. Indeed, the freelance reporter had survived 18 days as a POW, accused by the Iraqis of being a CIA spy. And he bore the guilt that comes with being a survivor.
After their capture, a photographer and translator who had been traveling with him were executed. Smyth was blindfolded and taken to a military base.
At first, he thought writing about his experiences for the Village Voice would quell the demons in his psyche. "I was delving into the toughest part of it and putting it down on paper," he recalls. Now Smyth, the Washington, D.C., representative for the Committee to Protect Journalists, admits matter-of-factly, "I didn╣t know it at the time, but I was suffering from PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder]."
Over the past year, Smyth has found relief through a national movement aimed at helping media professionals deal with trauma. Part of the goal is to break down the traditionally stoic newsroom culture, where journalists tend to shy away from admitting to psychological stress or emotional fallout from doing their jobs (see "Confronting the Horror,").
Now, more than ever, editors are paying attention to staffers who experience on-the-job trauma, offering services to help them cope.
One place they can turn to is the University of Washington School of Communications. In February, the school opened the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, the first of its kind in the country dedicated to providing resources for journalists and news organizations on victim and trauma issues. The center╣s overall goal, according to Director Roger Simpson, is to focus attention on the effects of violence on news subjects and on media professionals who witness it.
Journalists, says Simpson, suffer the same kinds of trauma that police officers, fire fighters and emergency workers experience. "But no one has gathered systematic evidence about this. We need to begin networking with educational and journalism associations around the country--people who are willing to be part of an alliance with the center," adds the University of Washington journalism professor. "We need to get people in the industry on board for moral, financial and professional support."
The center, funded by the nonprofit, Michigan-based Dart Foundation, is governed and administered by media professionals like Smyth who have covered war, crime and disaster. The objectives include educating journalists about methods of interviewing victims and creating models for telling trauma stories.
Pioneering efforts to help journalists grapple with the psychological effects from covering horrific events began in 1991 at Michigan State University. Frank Ochberg, a psychiatrist who has served as a consultant to the FBI, the Secret Service and the National Security Council, helped to create a Victims and Media Program on the campus with close ties to the Michigan State Press Association. Today, four universities around the country receive some Dart funding to conduct programs on these issues.
"There is now a constituency for 'journalism and trauma,' when before there was none," says Ochberg, a founding board member of the International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies and an adjunct journalism professor at Michigan State. "This constituency is helping each other with professional projects and with newsroom reform."
The Dart Center Web site,, will offer a chat room for journalists when violent events like the Columbine High School shooting send shock waves through the industry. Its annual writing contest, won this year by Virginia's Roanoke Times, recognizes outstanding newspaper coverage of victims and their experiences and carries a $10,000 cash prize. The Times had published a five-part series on the death of an 18-year-old man, who had been under the care of a Virginia state mental institution.
In 1999, Smyth applied for a Dart Fellowship, awarded as part of a pilot project that brought together six mid-career journalists. The reporters and a photographer had covered shootings in a Fort Worth church; the murder of a gay college student in Wyoming; and the Columbine High School killing spree. They gathered at a conference for traumatic stress experts--psychiatrists, psychologists and other mental health workers--in Miami last November to discuss issues of trauma, focusing on their personal experiences. Fellowships to attend similar events are now offered annually.
Smyth, whose work has appeared in the Washington Post, New York Times and Wall Street Journal, cites two reasons for participating in the fellowship and serving as a consultant for the new Dart Center. "I have interviewed a lot of victims of violence in a lot of countries, and I always felt uncomfortable and inadequate. I felt I was exploiting them or not being as sensitive as I could be, especially when children were involved," he says. "The bottom line, I really believe that dealing with these issues can help us become better journalists."



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