For the third time now, I have watched a TV anchor choke up and weep on camera during a live, stressful interview with a Covid-19 victim or family survivor. That tells me that reporters, editors and anchors are beginning to show symptoms of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder).
I know what’s going on there. I was a reporter for 30 years. Half that time in newspapers. Half on TV. In this culture, we expect those in certain professions to be super-human in times like this. To be cold, calm, unemotional machines as they work, up close, with death and dying and disaster. We put cops and soldiers, doctors and nurses, editors and reporters in that career container that requires them to be “tough.”
Without that ability, they can’t do their jobs. But we also give them time to recover after they have dealt with especially bloody or tragic events. And sometimes we arrange for them to get help from a mental health professional. It is routine now to provide counseling to disaster survivors.
It is time now for those who control the news media to be more cautious and caring about THEIR people who are on the front lines of this coronavirus war. There is just so much we humans can stand. The breaking point varies from one warrior to another.
I remember vividly the decision I made one night 65 years ago. I was a young reporter – about 20 years old, working full-time as a correspondent for the Jacksonville, Florida morning newspaper. I was also a full-time student, using that job to pay for my journalism degree at the University of Florida. A state trooper called me one night from a funeral home. An entire family had been killed in a major accident. My deadline was near. I hurried to the funeral home to get the details.
When I arrived, the bodies of the father, mother, and three children were laid out in the mortuary. I talked to the trooper, took notes, then phoned the story to the city desk 70 miles away. The process was extremely difficult. I had not seen dead children before, and it shook me.
If you’re going to be a reporter, I told myself that night, you’ll have to toughen up. And so I did. And it served me well. During my years of reporting, I covered just about everything but combat. Twice in my career, I just happened to be nearby when two major accidents took place, and that emotional shield enabled me to do my job.
The first was in Jacksonville, Florida. I was the newspaper’s police reporter, which meant I began work each day at 4 p.m. My daily rounds started at juvenile court. A block away, a new county courthouse was being built. It was the end of the construction workers’ day.
At the fifth floor, the weary men filled a construction elevator. As they started down, the elevator cable broke. They hit the ground so hard leg bones splintered and pierced the soles of work boots. I heard the sirens, grabbed the camera in my car, and ran to the accident. I was able to walk among the dead and dying, taking notes and photographs. Doing my job.
The second, similar accident I covered was in Miami, working for a TV station. The federal Drug Enforcement Agency had leased an old high-rise building. Partly because parking for the building was on the roof, where DEA agents could park their cars and hide their tag numbers. A photographer and I were driving on an expressway two blocks away the morning the building collapsed.
Our news director asked on our two-way radio where we were. “There’s something happening at the DEA building,” he told us. “The radio calls are confusing. Go by and let me know what’s going on.” We arrived with the dust from the building implosion still in the air. First responders had not arrived yet. Passersby were digging survivors out of the rubble. Again, I became an information-gathering machine, free of emotions that could have interfered with my work.
When I left reporting to write full-time, I gave myself permission to be human again. To let myself feel the pain and sorrow of others. It has been an interesting emotional journey. And like the anchors I have recently seen weep on camera, I have cried, too, as I’ve watched the stories about this coronavirus unfold.
It makes me want to say to those anchors, It’s okay. It’s okay to weep and not be able to ask questions while you try to regain control. A story this catastrophic deserves all the humanity we can muster. Despite our expecting you to be tough, this story continues to grow. And at some point, it will get to you.
So take care of yourself. Take a day off. Thanks for being there.