CHICAGO—Cheryl Corley watched Americans chant “Hands up! Don’t shoot!” as they marched down the streets of Ferguson, Mo.
Looters stole from local businesses. Residents assembled on sidewalks to demand answers from the police and gathered mostly along a street on the southeast corner of town. Some carried guns. Others carried children or crucifixes.
There was a curfew of midnight and a media “pen,” where Corley was told to stand.
By the time Corley arrived in Missouri several days after the shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown, Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon had imposed a state of emergency.
As a correspondent for National Public Radio, Corley was in Ferguson with one thing in mind: Get in, get the story and get out.
“You can’t go in to traumatic situations with fear,” she said. “You need respect.”
Organizers of this year’s National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association convention invited Corley to speak during a panel Friday on the perils of journalism. It was a conversation prompted by the recent unrest in Ferguson, as well as the killing of journalist James Foley.
Foley was a freelance reporter working in Syria before an Islamic militant group known as ISIS captured him in November 2012. On Aug. 19, a video was released depicting the beheading of the 40-year-old journalist.
Geoff Dankert, a writer and editor for CBS Radio News in Chicago who moderated the panel, said a conversation about journalists reporting in traumatic environments needed to happen this year. The panel wasn’t a part of the original program, but Dankert and organizers decided to it was important enough to make room in the schedule.
“This is what every newsroom is talking about,” he said. “What we’re doing, how we’re reacting — all the issues that come up while reporting in these environments.”
Trauma is part of the job
Corley is a seasoned reporter for NPR. While covering the Midwest, she works alone.
She trekked through flooded streets of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and spoke to Americans who lost their homes and families during other natural disasters and violence throughout the Midwest.
Already this year, Corley has reported on Chicago’s effort to combat its crime epidemic and brutal tornadoes that flattened Illinois communities where residents and local governments lacked financial support from FEMA.
Corley said she feels privileged to share stories from events such as the protests in Ferguson, where she observes conditions and trauma that many citizens will never experience.
“We have extreme poverty and violence in America,” she said. “To think otherwise is foolish.”
The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina is something Corley said she’d never forget. More than a million people lost power in 2005 after the storm hit parts of Louisiana and Mississippi.
Wearing rain boots from a military surplus store and carrying food and water, she made her way through New Orleans, where entire neighborhoods were submerged in saltwater.
“As a person, you feel grateful you’re not living through that situation,” she said. “As a reporter, you feel lucky to witness something that is very historic, something most ordinary citizens will never see.”
Resources for journalists reporting in violent or stressful environments are available through networks that include the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma. Since the early 1990s, the Dart Center has provided workshops and strategies to aid journalists’ coverage of large-scale disasters including hurricanes, earthquakes and war zones.
Bruce Shapiro, director of the Dart Center, said he considers journalists to be first responders to scenes of tragedy, along with police and firefighters. Studies find almost all reporters cover traumatic events at some point during their careers, he said.
“It’s just part of our job,” he said. “It’s all woven into the fabric of what we do—the stories we tell.”
A 2011 study by psychologists Marla Buchanan of the University of British Columbia and Patrice Keats of Simon Fraser University observed strategies journalists used to recover from stress and trauma.
Through in-depth interviews with 31 journalists and six newsroom observations, Buchanan and Keats concluded that journalists coped with stress through multiple practices: exercise, focusing on technical aspects of work and using drugs or alcohol.
Shapiro said that if the emotional and psychological effects of post-traumatic stress hinder journalists’ ability to do their jobs, they effectively become censored, unable to conduct their journalism.
“There is a very big constituency of journalists who benefit from these resources,” he said. “We owe it to ourselves, our audiences and our colleagues to talk about it.”
About the Author
Matt Bloom is a student at Indiana University. Click here to learn more about him.