Nick Schifrin took to the podium Friday at the end of the two-day Inaugural National Trauma Journalism Symposium, and with a somber tone, recalled the time his mother texted him after seeing him live on the air in Gaza, as bombs exploded behind him, drowning out the sound of his voice. His mother’s text read, “You can’t go before I do.”
Schifrin, a foreign affairs and defense correspondent for PBS Newshour, said that at times he’s wondered whether the reporting was worth the risk, but ultimately he always returns to the idea that the same empathy that makes him vulnerable steels him and provides him with the motivation to continue.
The symposium was the first of its kind, hosted by Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism and the Trust for Trauma Journalism for students, professionals and psychiatric experts across the country to spark a conversation about the challenges of covering traumatic events and the implications of that trauma long-term.
Dr. Frank Ochberg, a psychiatrist and pioneer in the treatment of traumatic stress who helped develop the Trust for Trauma Journalism, said it’s important for people to gather and have discussions about this topic.
“We need each other. We shrinks, we cops, and scribes, we teachers and students may have a lot to learn from one another and with one another,” Ochberg said.
The collaboration between criminal justice, law, education, and mental health professionals. Ochberg said, is amazing to see and brings different perspectives to the table. He hopes that it will continue long into the future.
“…I do have a dream and that dream is that we who have gathered together at this time, at this point, we will form a new and enduring collaboration. We will return annually, we will understand the impact of human cruelty. We will share personal and collective experience. We will pass the leadership of our professions to a new generation,” Ochberg said during the symposium.
Ochberg is not the only one who feels this way, Pulliam School of Journalism Director John Krull said the collaboration is good for the college and the profession.
“It’s a somber reason for bringing these folks together but when I look at the collection of talent, truly talented people, who are coming to this campus—the campus of not just the place where I work, but the campus of my alma mater—to deal with an important subject like this, that’s a source of great pride and satisfaction for me,” Krull said. “So the fact that some of our best and brightest students are going to be part of it I think it’s even more of a reason [to be proud]. We train you guys to be leaders and I think that’s what will help you go out and do that.”
Krull, publisher of TheStatehouseFile.com, said being part of the planning committee for the symposium reminded him of a time when he could have used some of this information in the beginning of his career.
One summer he was reporting week after week about a wave of drive-by shootings involving kids in downtown Indianapolis. Krull said the go-to advice was to ‘rub a little dirt on it and get back out there because, during the time, no one would talk about covering traumatic events like this.
“You can’t talk and you can’t encounter that much misery and not be affected. If you’re a sensitive human being—much less if you’re doing what we do—which is trying to understand what these people are going through so you can tell their stories fairly and accurately,” Krull said. “There are some things I think probably would have benefited me a great deal. This symposium came along about 32 years too late for me, but I’m glad that we’re getting around to doing it now.”
Krull said that while he’s past the stage in his career where he’s covering tragedies, he’s teaching students who might be after they leave his classroom.
“I would like to know how to tell them and teach them how to take care of themselves better. I think it’s always important for us—because, sadly, the world is not short of horrors—to know how to tell those stories in ways that are ethical and sensitive to the damage that has already been done to the people who are at the center of those stories,” he said.
Dave Cullen, bestselling author of “Columbine” and “Parkland, the Birth of a Movement,” spoke at the symposium about his writing, interviewing, and ‘recovery’ process, saying that “when you report on trauma, obviously you take a lot of their trauma inside yourself.”
Cullen admitted that over the years of reporting on the mass shootings at high schools in Columbine, Colorado, and Parkland, Florida, he’s experienced a couple of ‘breakdowns’, because when he interviews a source he tries to experience what that person is feeling so when he writes about it, he simulates “ghostwriting their memoir.”
In a panel about the challenges of covering traumatic events, Matthew Watkins, managing editor for news and politics for The Texas Tribune, said coverage of the mass shooting at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, changed the way their reporters and organization saw themselves, and pushed them to be more human-focused.
Watkins said other tragedies he’s covered made him reflect on the importance of what he’s doing as a journalist.
During the panel, he told the story of a time when he was reporting on a fertilizer plant explosion that killed several firefighters. He needed to buy a suit jacket to attend the funeral when an employee at a local thrift store gave him a blazer. He said the employee told him that it was because he was part of the media, and she told him that their coverage was important, which reinstilled in him the importance of the job.
“There are a lot of things we can do better, a lot of things we can do better, we need to be thinking about the impact of our methods and strategies but I don’t think the answer is to not be there and to not give people the opportunity to tell their stories,” Watkins said.
In another panel, Rafael Sánchez, an anchor and investigative reporter for WRTV Indianapolis, said that he wishes there would have been a class like “How to Cover Death 101,” because for many people it’s become training on the job.
To combat some of his work-related stress, Sánchez said he works out and does Zumba because he’s seen other people who go down the wrong path of substance abuse.
“The news cycle continues so we don’t have time to take a breath, so I think to have these moments to just talk, like what we’re doing today is amazing,” Sánchez said.
Scot Thomasson, the founder and CEO of Thomasson Global Consultants and retired Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives chief of firearms operations, said that over the years he’s only noticed a couple of differences between journalists and law enforcement.
“The difference between a journalist and a cop is I try in the court of law and journalists try in the court of public opinion. It’s all interviewing and presenting what the facts are,” Thomasson said. “But the other difference is that journalists haven’t had the training, been behind the curve, and are literally decades behind first responders in addressing these issues.”
Linsey Davis, of ABC World News and News Live Prime, joined Krull for a question and answer session Thursday evening where she talked about coming from a psychology background, saying she didn’t realize until later in her career that the saying ‘trauma is at the heart of news’ rings true.
“I didn’t realize that at the heart of it, often that is based on some really awful misfortune in many scenarios,” she said. “ I think that’s why people often say they don’t like to watch the news because it’s so depressing.”
Davis recounted a couple of times in her career when she remembers having to stop and think about what she was doing—one instance being when she covered the magnitude 3.5 Haitian earthquake of 2010 and saw all of the death and destruction the natural disaster had caused.
“This was the first time in my career at that point, and I was about 10 years in at that time, where I remember getting back home and just sitting there in my car for a while like ‘wow, what was that?’”
Opening up in a panel about journalists’ emotional wounds, Juan Figueroa, a staff photographer from the Dallas Morning News, talked about his feelings during and after his coverage of the school shooting in Uvalde earlier this year.
Figueroa said it was particularly tough for him having grown up in a small Texas town with a large Latino population, and seeing victims’ names be similar to his former classmates. He said while their four-day coverage was mentally and emotionally exhausting, the adrenaline and the reason for being there helped him pull through.
“We just get up and go. That’s our purpose. That’s what drives us… I feel like I’ve grown more emotionally mature… It sucks that it’s something that’s happening a lot more often but we have to inform our community and be there to provide that service to them and everyone else,” he said.
In the same panel Schifrin of PBS, who has covered countless wars around the world, said journalists are adapting to notice when their friends and colleagues are struggling.
“I think we’ve gotten better over the years at identifying people who need help because we ourselves are more cognizant of our vulnerabilities. We are more cognizant that even though we are not the soldier, we have combat exposure. We may not be the mother who lost a son, but we have to ask her how she is… so what I think we’ve developed over the years as an industry is just an awareness of how vulnerable we are to post-traumatic injury,” he said.
Schifrin just recently returned from covering the sustained Russian attack on Ukraine and concluded the symposium by telling stories of his time as a war correspondent and how he copes with the stresses of the job.
“We must believe in the catharsis of storytelling and that our own empathy, which allows us to tell their story and makes us so vulnerable can also become our shield,” Schifrin said. “…We invite [our sources] to communicate their fears, their memories, their hopes. We invite them to share the very attributes that make them and us human, that gives us dignity.”
Despite all the stress and hardships of the job, journalists at the symposium said they still love what they do and will continue to do it, simply because they’re “wired differently” as Rafael Sánchez said.
Krull said the college’s commitment to hosting events like this one shows a desire to be a forward-thinking institution that will anticipate students’ needs and move forward to meet them in a way other colleges and universities may not.
“[For journalism] I think it’s going to become a vehicle for what should be an ongoing series of very healthy conversations about our profession, and about how we should take care of ourselves and also show the proper sensitivity to people who’ve been put in awful circumstances,” he said.
After two days full of storytelling and healing, Krull made closing remarks to the attendees of the symposium and reiterated his hopes for the future of the event and the next generation as more people join the discussion.
“This is not the end. It is the start or a continuation,” Krull said. “This conversation doesn’t end and the healing doesn’t end here.”
Sydney Byerly is a reporter at TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.