What makes a good reporter?

March 18, 2009

– I mean, a reporter working in a traumatic situation? Are there psychological predispositions or skills to be developed – that would make a journalist more effective in working with traumas?

This topic I started discussing with my students at the Moscow State University. And my smart kids gave me some interesting answers.

They said you need to be interested in people (some said – just professionally, some – generally, as a human being). Good if you’re stress-resistant. One girl said an important thing – one needs to be able to enter a grief domain of another person, not being scared of it. Another one suggested you ought to be quite cynical.

Another interesting answer (from another girl – yes, I have mostly girls in my class) was that maybe you don’t have to be of a specific psychological type – and every type could adjust him/herself to working with traumas. But since such work would often question, shake and shatter your feelings of sense and meaningfulness of the world – you have to maintain a rather strong basis of values, to be somewhat prepared to have it tested. Some people find help in faith, others in total agnosticism.

When I worked in Seattle with the Dart Centre for Journalism and Trauma as a Fulbright scholar, I asked a similar question among our network of specialists. There were many beautiful and deep answers, and I would like to share some quotes here.

Jon Alpert, a seasoned (war) reporter and documentary filmmaker, shared his view:

jonalpert-website.JPGThis is a very interesting but difficult topic — there are reporters who are considered "good reporters" – who are aggressive – and not empathetic and not caring — in fact all they care about is getting their story –  their single-minded detirmination  makes them “good reporters “ because they “get their story” but I don’t think they are good reporters and would not want them on my team.

 

They are sort of like great surgeons who have great operating skill – but no "bedside manner". I hate those type of Doctors – and don’t want to be their patient.

 

I think a good reporter has to combine sympathy and empathy – with the single-minded selfishness that powers one through traumatic situations.

 

This creates a  bit of tension because these traits are somewhat in opposition – and the "great" trauma reporter is comfortable with fulfilling his/her duty as a human being – and the duty as the eyes and ears of a society that needs to know.

Frank Ochberg, a prominent psychiatrist, the Dart Center’s chairman emeritus, and the founder of Gift From Within wrote me a long thoughtful answer. Here is just one paragraph where he also talks about a necessary balance:

ochberg-website.JPGThe psychology of a good reporter includes optimal empathy. Too little resonance with the feelings of others means that much of value is missed, and that the subject soon realizes that the interviewer lacks palpable humanity – so why reveal intimate detail? Too much empathy is wonderful in a friend or loved-one, but a curse for a professional who has to get on with life and job and simply cannot afford to accumulate  burden after burden of pain. We therapists learn how to manage empathy without "compassion fatigue", vicarious trauma or burnout. The reporter and photographer and editor must also find that happy medium between too little and too much sensitivity.

(Actually it was Frank Ochberg’s article "PTSD 101 for Journalists" that I started my journey to Journalism and Trauma from!).

Peg Achterman, a TV reporter and photographer, and then a research assistant to the Dart Center, said about a reporter who is good to work with trauma:

peg_achterman.jpgSomeone who doesn’t forget they are human – have feelings, can cry – maybe not right then, but at some point they can cry.
And sometimes – maybe there at the time of trauma. You have to care or you’re useless. Your job is to tell people what happened – one can do this sensitively and with care. It’s hard not to be too much "on task" – but it can be done.

On the question "What have you had or developed yourself that made you more effective in this sense", Peg answered:

I think my faith has helped me the most – there are people I trust who I can go to when I feel overwhelmed by tragedy – and they seem to come in waves. So, prayer is a great thing – it is the ability to "do" something when there doesn’t seem anything to do. I also think just letting people tell their stories is huge – it is a privilege to get to hear those stories really.

Brian Kelly, a Canadian cameraman that worked in many conflict countries, used an example:

BrianKelly-websitesize.JPGIf a journalist is totally cold and detached they will miss great human stories. We had a crash at Heathrow airport a few weeks ago and because there were no deaths it was decided there was no big story. WRONG. There was an amazing story of death narrowly averted; it was huge.

I was told when I was a young cameraman, "You can’t focus with tears in your eyes". If you don’t feel the tears coming though I think you can miss the great shot because you walk by not seeing the suffering.

And Joe Hight, managing editor of The Oklahoman, and president of the Dart Center for Journalism & Trauma’s Executive Committee, wrote a good conclusion to all these:

Whenever I talk to journalists and students about covering trauma, I always emphasize the need for them to become "modern journalists," a term that Ed Chen coined several years ago. Since then, I have developed traits of what I believe is important for today’s journalist. A modern journalist: hight_joe-noframe.jpg

Understands that you can be aggressive, tough and sensitive at the same time.
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Knows how to treat victims of violence and tragedy.
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Knows how to be ethical during tragedies.
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Learns how to take care of themselves.
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Knows that every newsroom role, from reporter to assignment editor to copy editor to designer to photographer to artist, is important in the coverage of tragedy.
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Understands the effect of their coverage.
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Realizes that mistakes in the short term can cause detrimental effects in the long term. 
– 
Holds themselves to the highest standards during disasters, rather than lower them for the sake of being first.

I believe that a journalist needs to develop these traits to be a good reporter of trauma and that a journalist’s resiliency over the long term can be tied to these factors. It’s important for journalists to know that their coverage of trauma, if done correctly, serves the highest ideals of journalism and can be a public service to the victims and community. They can be just as important as the responders to the tragedy in that they provide accurate stories and information that can quell fears, expose fraud and spur their readers, users and viewers to positive action to help the victims and their own community during the recovery period. 

I will greatly appreciate it if you share your own thoughts and experiences on this!

Thank you.