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Journalists who cover victims risk hitting "The Wall" (Spring 1999)

by Joe Hight, managing editor for the Daily Oklahoman


Most journalists face an inevitability in their careers: They must cover a tragedy and interview people who are pinned against a wall of grief. The wall blocks the victims from seeing that their lives may improve tomorrow. They only see who is in front of them and feel the pain of that moment.

Then comes the phone call or the knock on the door from the journalist. Then the questions. The victim's reaction can vary, but any journalist knows that a good interview involves an outpouring of emotion.

What can happen is what I call "The Wall Effect." Like a tennis ball thrown against a wall, the victim's emotion, all that grief, can bounce back and strike the person facing the victims -- the journalist.

The effect causes the journalist, especially the ones who are more sensitive to emotions, to feel the victim's pain and loss. The isolation. The guilt feelings. The separation from family members or friends who have died in the past or the anxiety that family members may be lost in the future. Then comes the loss of sleep and the increased feelings of stress.

Journalists usually encounter the wall of grief first at the beginning of their careers. With little or no training, they are assigned the police beat. They learn and gain experience by covering one tragedy. Then another. Then another. Victims' coverage becomes a repetitive part of journalists' careers that builds into more than just memories.

"The way I look at it is you sort of gather this human obligation,'' journalist Julian Borger, who covered the Bosnian war, told The Washington Post. "You accumulate it. You take this human obligation on your shoulders and do nothing with it except to write out your story. It may be a wonderful story, but that doesn't account for the personal notion of the cumulative obligation on your shoulders. You're left with all this accumulated guilt. It's like a crust you carry about."

That crust can grow by covering mass tragedies in Bosnia or crimes at a local or statewide paper. A person who has been a journalist for more than 20 years may have covered or been involved in the coverage of hundreds of victims. In Oklahoma, that would include the Oklahoma City bombing, the Edmond Post Office massacre, the Sirloin Stockade and Girl Scout murders, other multiple killings and many other crimes. All tragic. All with victims.

Thirteen years ago, I covered a triple murder at Wynn's IGA in Edmond. Three Wynn's employees were herded into a stockroom early July 3, 1985, and shot at close range. Several hours after I had started covering the killings for The Oklahoman, I learned the victims' names. One was night manager Rick Cast. I hadn't realized until then that Rick, who was a fellow journalism student at Central State University, had taken the job six months earlier to save money so he could open a photography business.

One sidebar that I wrote about the killings included quotes from a friend who said Rick had talked about dying the day before his death. He had said that several of his relatives had died when they were 34. Rick was only five days from his 34th birthday.

Whether it is a mass tragedy or a friend's death, any journalist can suffer from the "Wall Effect." Cratis Hippocrates, former head of journalism at Queensland University of Technology in Australia, and Dr. Gary Embelton, Queensland's head of psychology programs, have studied what happened to journalists who covered a tsunami that hit Papua New Guinea on July 17, 1998. The tidal wave killed about 3,000 people. In a 1998 speech at Michigan State University, Hippocrates said, "Trauma in the newsroom exists. It's a real thing." He believes journalists, especially news managers, have difficulty in dealing with that trauma.

"Journalists have a history of denial. There is a perception that you are unprofessional if 'you can't handle it,' '' Hippocrates said. "Journalists claim they are unaffected to their colleagues. But this false bravado takes its toll."

That's probably what happened to war correspondent Ernie Pyle. In his story, Washington Post staff writer Paul Hendrickson explained what biographer James Tobin meant in naming his book "Ernie Pyle's War."

The title refers to two wars: the one he chronicled for millions of American readers stateside, and the one that steel-wooled his insides. The amount of death Pyle saw added up to his own genocide and Holocaust. So much that Pyle predicted to friends that he would die after he arrived in the Pacific in early 1945. Before he was killed by a Japanese machine gunner on April 18, 1945, Pyle wrote: "I've been immersed in it too long. My spirit is wobbly and my mind is confused. The hurt has become too great."

Pyle's example shows what "The Wall Effect" can do to journalists, whether they cover war victims or victims of a disaster in Oklahoma City.

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