Too much front line for reporters?

Journalists are often on the front line of violence. But today some are insisting help is needed for those required to bear witness to the atrocities of war.

In an endless cycle of write-and-repeat, journalist Tom Lansner typed up stories about missing persons, shocking atrocities, and mass graves while serving as a war correspondent in Uganda in the early 1990s. After observing scenes of carnage, he feared - or perhaps hoped - that his eyes were failing him.

"Sometimes, I questioned myself," recalls Mr. Lansner, now a professor of international relations at Columbia University. "Did I really see these things? Could I really have seen something so terrible, so bad? Sometimes I would wonder, 'Wow, could this be real?' "

Lansner's experience is hardly unique among the generations of reporters who have offered firsthand accounts of armed conflict since at least the time of the Civil War. Many have questioned their grip on reality and struggled with despair. "I've been immersed in it too long. My spirit is wobbly and my mind is confused," wrote famed World War II correspondent Ernie Pyle. "The hurt has become too great."

During the halfcentury between the war- reporting stints of Lansner and Mr. Pyle, there were few, if any, places for correspondents to turn for support. Over the past decade, however, journalists across the world have begun to acknowledge their own susceptibility to emotional trauma - on the battlefield, amid the destruction of 9/11, or in the living room of a mother grieving for a dead son. Special training for war correspondents, once nonexistent, has become more common, and some journalism schools are teaching students how to cover tragedy sensitively and cope with their own emotions.

"It's something that has been discussed throughout the industry," says former war correspondent Andy Alexander, Washington DC bureau chief for the Cox newspapers chain. "There's a growing realization that it's something we have to deal with, and not simply the reporters who cover wars but reporters in all sorts of traumatic experiences."

Awareness of the impact of violence on journalists has been growing in fits and starts for several decades. In the Vietnam era, correspondents added a new level of personal observations to their coverage, particularly in books published after the war; female reporters explored their own experiences, and some wrote of the horrors they faced when captured.

The recent practice of embedding journalists with US troops in Iraq has also heightened awareness, as these reporters have stayed close to combat and been regular witnesses to disturbing scenes.

Before Iraq, the most recent impetus for change was the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995. The explosion shook the building of The Daily Oklahoman newspaper, killed relatives of staff members, and tested the way reporters looked at themselves.

"We think we can withstand anything as journalists," says managing editor Joe Hight. "We're supposed to be observers, reporting on the scene, and we're not supposed to be affected by it as the victims are."

Mr. Hight and others regularly describe their experiences to other journalists with the assistance of the Dart Center for Journalism & Trauma, based at the University of Washington. The center provides online resources, compiles studies on trauma, and sends speakers to newsrooms and journalism conferences.

Few researchers have studied how journalists handle the emotional effects of covering violence, says Roger Simpson, executive director of the center. One study of 140 war correspondents found that many showed symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder, which frequently affects war veterans and survivors of violence. "There were high levels of broken relationships, alienation from others, drug and alcohol abuse," Mr. Simpson says.

But some journalists, perhaps influenced by a combination of machismo and denial, fail to heed warning signs or simply don't watch for them. "We never acknowledge the impact that operating in these combat zones has on us," said Newsweek chief of correspondents Marcus Mabry, who covered the Bosnian conflict in the 1990s. "Usually when you realize it is when you don't expect it: I was back in my home in Johannesburg, sitting in my living room with a 360-degree view, relaxing in a beautiful South African evening, and I'm looking down the hill, thinking this would be a great place to have a sniper's nest. It was a war flashback."

Some media organizations offer counseling to journalists after they cover violence or warfare; at The Christian Science Monitor, employees can seek assistance through their health insurance coverage. Across the news industry, however, it's almost always up to individual journalists to decide whether to seek help. Many reporters don't bother.

Men, especially, seem uncomfortable asking for help, says Oklahoma's Hight. The perceived stigma is "something that we all have to overcome," he says. "We're not weak because we seek counseling."

Some journalists are calling for mandatory counseling - something The Daily Oklahoman considered but ultimately rejected after the bombing there.

Required sessions with therapists will help "remove the stigma," argues (New York) Daily News photographer David Handschuh, who covered the Columbine High School massacre and nearly died when one of the World Trade Center towers fell.

Newsweek's Mabry isn't sure about the wisdom of requiring counseling, but he makes a point of encouraging returning correspondents to meet counselors. "I've recommended to all my people in Iraq and Afghanistan to go see a professional when you come out, and we'll pay for it," Mr. Mabry says. "But most people as far as I know haven't taken advantage of this. They say it's no big deal, I don't have time. Once they've been through this stuff, they want to leave it behind."

That, he says, is a mistake. "I don't think they're dealing with it. And I think we have a problem."

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