Wednesday, April 19, 2017

An Evening with Jim Lehrer: Conversations about journalism, trauma and mental health

Oh that? That's just me hanging out with famed newsman Jim Lehrer,
hoping not to sound awkward or inadvertently start sharing stories of my 4-year-old's obsession with poop.
Thank God my amazing friend Melissa was there to offer more relevant topics of conversation. 

(Photo by Jason Plotkin)

Yesterday morning as I was out running errands I listened to the BBC Newshour on NPR. There was a report from Mosul by a journalist who was at the front lines of a battle between Iraqi forces and ISIS over a single street.

Just listening to the report while running errands in the safety of my car is frightening. The audio was a series of cracks, snare drum gun fire, explosions, whistles and pops. It's constant. The voice of Jonathan Beale from BBC News becomes increasingly strained as his report goes on. He's seeing the bloodied bodies of soldiers. The buildings surrounding him are pockmarked from gun fire and rubbled by bombs. On report he describes evacuating the battle because of safety concerns in a Humvee in which the seats were covered in blood. It was brave, effective reporting. Bringing the realities of war to my suburban enclave. 

You can watch video from this report here – though, unfortunately, you can't hear the same raw audio from his original report. His voice was trying to maintain calm during increasingly tense fighting. He was doing his job– witnessing a war and sharing about what he was seeing with a voice of authority and reason. A war, we here in the states are so far removed from. One we don't understand at such a visceral level– even though it has everything to do with the reach of our culture and our politics.

I found myself wondering about how the reporter fared after not only witnessing this violence, but also reporting while under fire. His life clearly at risk. How would he carry this moment– just one of the many in his career and in this long war– through the rest of his life?

It seemed appropriate then, that last night I was able to attend the inaugural event of the Trust for Trauma Journalism, whose mission is "to provide funding to advance innovative, exemplary reporting on violence, conflict, tragedy and their aftermath, and to sustain global initiatives preparing news professionals for the impact of covering traumatic events."

The night was a conversation with Jim Lehrer, anchor for PBS NewsHour and presidential debate moderator. My friend, York Daily Record enterprise editor Scott Blanchard, facilitated the event - asking Lehrer questions about his own experiences dealing with trauma. 

Lehrer described one moment that's haunted him for decades. When he was a young reporter in Dallas he was assigned to cover John F. Kennedy's motorcade on an overcast day in November 1963. Nearing deadline, his editors were asking whether the president would be using a bubble over his car in the event of rain. Lehrer asked someone working the security detail about the bubble. "No bubble!" the guy yelled back to him. And Lehrer prepared to write his story. 

Of course, later he'd learn the president had been shot. In covering that part of the story he ran into the man from the security detail who walked over to him, shaken and asked, "What if I hadn't said, 'no bubble'?" and Lehrer was left to wonder, "What if I hadn't asked the question?"

The anecdote speaks to the moments and stories that etch themselves into a journalist's brain. Affecting not only how they approach reporting a story, but their own mental health.

Every day journalists tell stories about the good and bad and all the in between of the world around us. Many put their own lives at risk– as those who report in conflict zones– and still more are confronted with the darkest moments of humanity and are forever shadowed by the events they witness on the job.

While they may not be the first responders rescuing children from a fire or the soldiers administering first aid to a comrade felled by an IED– they are witnesses to these horrors. Documenters of it. 

And listen, I know people love to hate journalists. Especially right now. But they are my former colleagues and current and future friends.

While journalists are often blamed for being biased muckrakers, liars or voyeurs, the reality is we're humans like anyone else. From my time in newsrooms, I can say there is no desire to do any harm, but simply to report truths as best we can, to document our short histories on this planet as best we can, to provide insight and understanding into complicated issues as best we can, to give voices to the voiceless and make sure those in seats of power are held accountable, as best we can. These stories are told by people who are passionate about their communities and the people in them. They affect us deeply.

Several years ago in York, there was a horrifying case of a 2-year-old girl who was beaten to death by her mother's boyfriend. My friend Jason Plotkin, a veteran photojournalist at the Daily Record, made a documentary interviewing the police, EMTs and others who responded to the call about the murdered child. We watched the documentary in the newsroom ahead of its release to the public. I can still feel the shock and despair that flooded the room as we all listened to the first responders talk about finding little Darisabel. We all knew the story, and still nobody could move or muster words in the long minutes that passed after the screening. The film was a powerful testament to the work of first responders, a painful reminder of how marginalized and vulnerable children can be, and an illustration for the power of strong community journalism. 

At the end of Lehrer's conversation, famed psychiatrist Frank Ochberg rose to speak. 

Ochberg is the founding father on the topic of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and has lead the charge on researching and discussing trauma science. He's also one of those rare journalism fanboys who first raised the question about the need for resources for reporters, photographers and editors who cover trauma (helping lead the charge to the creation of the Trust for Trauma Journalism). I can't quote him exactly, but I really connected with Ochberg's sentiment– the idea that how we help journalists are just an extension of the conversation of how we help our fellow humans cope with all manners of pain. 

I'm a journalist (well ... was a journalist ... maybe I'm an honorary journalist). I'm a sibling and friend to individuals who have struggled with PTSD. I myself have had my own mental health hiccups and have become a growing advocate of discussing the subjects of self injury, depression and anxiety candidly and freely. Because talking about these subjects candidly and freely opens up the door for others to do the same. 

Whether you have a colleague in a newsroom who's had to cover the story of a drowning child or you have a friend who's an abuse surviver or a neighbor who witnessed a fatal car accident– by  offering an ear or sharing your own pain, you can make it OK for them to share theirs. The path to better mental health and healing doesn't have to mean everyone is medicated and/or in therapy–though both can certainly help. It starts with each of us opening our hearts. And it's just as simple as making eye contact with them and saying I'm here to listen, not to judge, because we can all find connections with that primitive pain. 

I guess I kind of wandered off course there.

My point is that humans are also always trying to make connections with their life experiences and that of others. While the internet and social media has kind of broken the barrier for over-sharing about the mundanity of our day-to-day lives, we still throw up walls around the topic of mental health.

It's probably time to break down that wall. I'm proud of the work that Scott, Jason and others are doing to remove these barriers in newsrooms. We can all be chipping away at it in our own small corner of the world.

Before I went to the Trust's event last night, I was waiting for a friend at a bar across the street. (Sidenote, it was the first time I'd actually ever sat at a bar alone and ordered a drink ... which felt very far removed from suburban-mom-dom – but it was either that our stand outside the restaurant awkwardly for 20 minutes.) I struck up a conversation with the guy sitting next to me– Zach. He was in town from Cincinnati for a few days. I asked him how he was faring– he said the crowds and the noise were overwhelming. He told me he was an introvert and that he had anxiety and PTSD (he'd served in the Army and had tours in the Middle East, though he didn't go into detail about any of that). I told him I felt overwhelmed being downtown ... and I grew up in the area. All the noise– honking horns, sirens, people, people, people. I got why he'd prefer the country. I told him about the farm I'd worked at and how I preferred that to bustle of the city (I probably didn't use the word bustle ... cuz I didn't want to sound like a fussy grandmotherly sort. Not that I know any grandmothers who would use the word bustle, either). 

When I left I shook his hand and thanked him for his service (though I always feel trite about doing that). I looked him in the eye and told him to take care of himself. Hoping to relay all my sincerity and understanding into a few seconds of human connection. 

Who knows if he really felt heard or understood or less isolated in his worries. But I'm always going to try.

P.S. If you're interested in learning more about the Trust for Trauma Journalism visit their site and, of course, like them on Facebook.

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