International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies

Mediawatch

Posted 1 January 2000 in StressPoints by Frank M Ochberg, MD, Contributing Editor, Media

ISTSS has an ambitious media agenda, and that agenda was obvious and intense in November at the ISTSS 15th Annual Meeting in Miami.

Two complementary themes weave through all the society's media innovations. One is the journalism of trauma and the other is the trauma of journalists. The journalism of trauma refers to how reporters approach and interview victims of violence, how the stories are told and the pictures are displayed, how viewers react and how cycles of violence are intensified or diminished.

For the first time, and probably the last time, the ISTSS annual conference was the venue for the presentation of the Dart Award for Excellence in Reporting on Victims of Violence. Future award ceremonies will be before journalists, beginning with the American Society of Newspaper Editors in April in Washington, D.C.

Barbara Walsh received a $10,000 check at the awards banquet. She wrote a remarkable account of a Korean-American woman whose only son was shot and killed in Baltimore. The Portland, Maine reporter described her approach to the 27-installment story, her affection for her subject and her management of professional objectivity and intense identification.

"I wasn't sure which would come first, the birth of my child, or the trial of her son's killer," Walsh explained before a large evening audience.
We could experience the reporter's thoughtful navigation of professional intimacy: a journey that touched life and death issues, probed painful memory, and created strong attachment, but that maintained necessary distance. Every trauma therapist understands this. Or should.

For the first time, but not the last time, six Dart Fellows attended the conference as planned by the ISTSS Media Special Interest Group. The SIG organized a national competition for journalists, with at least five years of experience, who covered trauma and wanted an intense seminar on trauma science in conjunction with the society's annual meeting.

The group raised close to $20,000 to support this plan, reasoning that outstanding mid-career reporters and photographers would benefit from well-orchestrated exposure to our field, and would use this knowledge to improve their coverage of trauma stories.

We were not disappointed.

The six, consisting of Chris Bull, a Washington, D.C. author and magazine freelance writer; Gabrielle Crist, criminal courts reporter for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram; David Handschuh, New York Daily News photographer; Arlene Levinson, New York-based national writer for the Associated Press; Frank Smyth, a Washington, D.C. freelance journalist; and Deirdre Stoelzle, reporter and assistant city editor for the Casper (WY) Star-Tribune; were a vibrant, intelligent, inquisitive and diverse lot. They challenged the ISTSS pre-meeting presenters: Sandy Bloom, Heidi Resnick, Dean Kilpatrick, Matthew Friedman, Laurie Pearlman, Jack Saul and Steve Weine. And they agreed to help refine and to institutionalize this process in years to come.

Both the Dart Award and the Dart Fellows program advance our interest in trauma journalism. But what about the traumatized journalist?

In public and private discussions, it became clear that our colleagues in the media suffer direct and vicarious traumatic stress. Moreover, they come from a legacy that is stoic, self-denying and loath to admit emotional vulnerability.

Rick Bragg, veteran war correspondent and Pulitzer winner from The New York Times said, "How can I ask for clinical help when I'm just watching and reporting the war? My wounds are nothing compared to the soldiers'. And I can leave the battlefield. They can't." Chris Cramer, president of CNN, expressed similar sentiments at the journalism panel during the conference.

But both of these media leaders made it clear that they respected our field, and our genuine desire to help a new generation of journalists benefit from proven therapies for trauma workers. Journalists are trauma workers.

To increase our understanding of their working conditions, a program of ride-alongs will be launched. Credit Handschuh, vice president of the National Press Photographers Association, with this idea.

Handschuh will arrange opportunities for ISTSS leaders to accompany his colleagues on assignment, much as they benefit from ride-alongs with police. We hope to videotape parts of these joint ventures and present them at the meeting in San Antonio.

Bessel van der Kolk, Matt Friedman, John Fairbank and Laurie Pearlman have expressed interest. Let me know if you are interested, too. A ride-along with a journalist, particularly a photojournalist, will place the trauma therapist in an entirely new context. We will learn what it is like to witness without the opportunity to intervene. And we will appreciate the difficult burden borne by our media friends.

For more information, contact Roger Simpson, the chair of the ISTSS Media Group and the director of the new Dart Center in Seattle at newsboy@u.washington.edu. Roger now works closely with Elana Newman, editor of Stresspoints and research advisor to the Dart Foundation.