By Gabriel Arana
May 18, 2015
When Hurricane Katrina swirled onto the Louisiana shore and residents of New Orleans clogged highways to flee, John McCusker stayed behind.
A photographer for The Times-Picayune for more than two decades, McCusker paddled through the city's muddy waters in a kayak, day after day, documenting the destruction. Like many of the city’s residents, he had lost his home and all of his possessions. His family had relocated to Birmingham, Alabama, five hours away.
On Aug. 8, 2006 -- after nearly a year of documenting the trauma surrounding him -- McCusker was seen driving erratically through the city. When police caught up with him at a traffic stop, he begged officers to end his life. “Just kill me, just kill me,” he repeated. “Get it over with.” McCusker backed up, pinning a cop between vehicles before speeding off, crashing into cars and signs along the way. When police caught up with him again, they subdued him with a stun gun and arrested him. McCusker says he only remembers waking up in four-point restraints.
“I had no idea how I got there,” he said.
As much as journalists may fancy themselves superhuman observers of history, the truth is that we are as susceptible to trauma as the victims whose stories we tell.
Those covering natural disasters or war are not the only ones who suffer. “It turns out that almost all journalists are exposed to traumatic-stress experiences,” said Elana Newman, a professor of psychology at the University of Tulsa who studies journalism and trauma. That includes reporters who show up along with the first responders when a car crashes, a train derails or someone is shot; the photo and video editors who must sift through footage from terrorist attacks, experiencing trauma secondhand; and freelancers who weather the hazards of the profession without traditional organizational supports.
Specific data about journalists and mental health is hard to come by. Research on the topic only began to pick up steam in the mid-1990s, and journalists are notoriously reluctant to divulge information about themselves. A 2001 study found that upwards of 85 percent experience work-related trauma. Other research shows that 4 to 28 percent suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder over the course of their careers, and up to 20 percent experience depression. Even when psychological symptoms like nightmares, flashbacks, insomnia and anxiety don’t rise to the level of a disorder, they still take a toll.
David Handschuh was snapping photos for the New York Daily News when the south tower of the World Trade Center collapsed on Sept. 11, trapping him beneath twisted metal and a dusting of powdered concrete. His leg was shattered; he was covered in burns.
But Handschuh, who now works as a photo editor at Yahoo, says the scale of the destruction made it, paradoxically, easier to handle. “If it wasn’t so completely unbelievable, it would have been more traumatic,” he says. “I’m not sure I’ve started to process it yet; it’s very easy to suspend reality when what you’re watching is so unreal.”
It is one of the more surprising findings in the literature: Journalists exposed to trauma for prolonged periods of time are able to develop more robust defense mechanisms than those who experience mental and emotional stress intermittently. As Handschuh said, “It’s not just the big scary thing that are going to play with your mind.” The point isn’t that journalists exposed to mass devastation are invincible, but that those suffering most are often tucked away where others don’t think to look.
“Journalists are soldiers,” Handschuh said. “We’re not getting shot at most of time. But we are witnessing things with our notepads that normal, rational human beings are running from. And we’re staying and recording and telling the truth.”
Handschuh recalls encountering a batch of young video editors who were tasked with sorting through raw battlefield footage. Twenty-something and at the start of their career, they’d put in long hours without complaining. Handschuh says that when he told the manager the kids were “wallowing in terror,” the boss countered that the station was “bringing in food when they’re working long hours.”
Let’s face it: Like most of us toiling in the newsroom, those young editors were probably happy just to have jobs. Which is to say it’s not only the stories that journalists cover that weigh on them: The whole profession is a pressure cooker. “Everybody is doing way more with way less,” Handschuh said. “The person who can’t hold up to that test loses their job or is ostracized.”
A recent analysis and ranking of 200 common jobs from job-listing site CareerCast put “newspaper reporter” dead last. Photojournalists (No. 195) and editors (No. 137) didn't fare much better. Given the precarious economics of industry, there’s little job security, particularly for those working at print publications. Newspaper jobs have declined 40 percent in the last decade. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that jobs for reporters, correspondents and broadcast-news analysts will fall another 13 percent by 2022.
Journalists aren't popular, either. In a 2013 Pew Research Center survey, journalists ranked just above lawyers in public perceptions of the profession’s contributions to society.
And as any reporter who’s ever been dressed down by an overzealous PR flack or threatened with a lawsuit will tell you, the job entails a good degree of work-related harassment -- threats from sources and subjects, hate mail, abuse on social media. All this on top of the standard workplace stressors -- deadlines, conflicts with coworkers and managers, malfunctioning equipment. “Being a journalist is more stressful than people realize,” said the University of Tulsa’s Newman.
We cope in different ways. But the image of the chain-smoking, heavy-drinking reporter exists for a reason. “As hard drugs are to the hard-rocker and tattoos are to the NBA player, so booze is to the journalist,” wrote Slate media critic Jack Shafer in 2008. His piece, which was inspired by the no-alcohol rule The Cincinnati Post introduced on its final day of production, is a paean to the reporter with addiction problems: “If he likes sex, he has too much of it. Ditto for food. If he drinks, he considers booze his muse. If he smokes, he smokes to excess, and if he attempts to quit, he uses Nicorette and the patch.”
“There’s almost a celebration of characters,” said Raymond McCaffrey, a veteran journalist of 25 years who is now director of the Center for Ethics at the University of Arkansas. But one needn’t look far to see that this appreciation for characters can serve to glorify behaviors that would raise concern in a more typical workplace. In life as in death, literary critic and journalist Christopher Hitchens’ drinking was treated as evidence of his joie de vivre. But as The Nation’s Katha Pollitt dared to note among the chorus of enablers romanticizing Hitchens’ alcoholism after he passed away from esophageal cancer in 2011, in reality, “his drinking was not something to admire, and it was not a charming foible. … [It] made him angry and combative and bullying, often toward people who were way out of his league -- elderly guests on the Nation cruise, interns (especially female interns).”
It was not surprising that most of the writers glamorizing Hitchens’ substance abuse were men. Journalism is a male-dominated profession, and the same frat-house ethos that treats drug and alcohol abuse as cool also discourages us from speaking frankly and openly about trauma we experience on the job.
“You see a lot in the literature about journalism’s macho culture,” McCaffrey said. “People talk about how journalists feel pressure not to turn down dangerous assignments. Women in particular have identified the profession’s macho culture as one that discourages emotional expression.”
McCusker returned to work at the Times-Picayune after a month-long leave of absence, during which he attended therapy for PTSD three times a week. He was eventually sentenced to six months’ probation for the altercation with police, shaking hands with the officer he had injured as he left the courtroom.
“I didn’t feel I could show weakness because there were so many brave people showing strength around me,” McCusker, who now works for The New Orleans Advocate, said. “There is an element of not wanting to be vulnerable, wanting to project strength.”
Despite our role as transmitters and amplifiers of information, when trauma hits home, journalists are hesitant to be honest if they are suffering, much less ask for help. “Journalism is one of the last careers to acknowledge the world of trauma,” Newman said. “The culture of the profession says, ‘We are observers; we aren’t the ones to be observed.’”
That culture needs to change. The subsequent installments in this series will delve deeper into the ways institutions can prepare journalists to face work-related trauma and provide resources for those who suffer. But it is up to those of us in the field to change the way we think and talk about mental illness.
According to Newman, low perceived social support is among the greatest risk factors for psychological problems. Which makes one of the most powerful remedies an obvious one: “It all has to start with us taking care of each other and not being afraid to say, ‘I need a hand,’” McCusker said.
“There’s this notion you’ve got to be tough,” McCusker said. “You’re a human being -- don’t forget that. No one’s expecting you to be anything more or less than that.”