Editor’s note: This story is the eighth article in a 12-part series based on interviews with 35 women journalists who cover violence around the globe. Because women were promised anonymity, pseudonyms are used here.
Women journalists said they were often deeply affected by the stories they covered and the people they met. For most of the 35 women interviewed in this series, closeness replaced distance. Emotions replaced stoicism. And concern about telling the stories of people replaced a desire to get the “big” news story.
“I’m always attached, like a 100 percent,” said Falak, an Armenian photojournalist. “I never think this is a job. Never. In my feeling, if you are not going to be in touch with these people and build relationships—photography is about relationships—you want to know about these people’s lives—why should they tell you the truth? Photography . . . is not about taking and creating pictures. It’s more about building this bridge. . . . It’s huge work.”
Journalists offered no apologies for their emotional reactions.
“I’ll always pick up a child. I’ll always comfort a mother. I’ll throw down my camera and comfort people before I do anything else,” said Ella, a Zimbabwean journalist who has covered violence throughout Africa.
Mary, a journalist reporting on conflicts between indigenous people and the government in her home country of the Philippines, had a similar perspective.
“There are times when you get affected by the things you witness . . . when you talk to indigenous people who make a living off the land, where generations have been. It’s always an emotional story to tell because their lives depend on the lands they till, their ancestral domain. Sometimes you do cry. . . . It’s really impossible not to be affected.”
She and other journalists who witnessed tragedies experienced tremendous sadness at what they saw and heard. Some felt guilty.
Alima, a journalist who reports from her home country of Afghanistan, said: “It’s not easy to hear and listen to all such violations by those who saw and were witnesses. Even some of them couldn’t continue their talk, started crying, and, of course, it affects me as well.”
Isabelle, a U.S. journalist, said she cared deeply for the people she met when she worked in Yemen.
“The country really broke my heart,” she said.
Reporting on children
Covering violence against children was one of the most painful assignments journalists could take on, and in those assignments, detachment was nearly impossible.
Esin, a Pakistani journalist, remembered a time when she and her crew did not stand by and watch events unfold. She and colleagues saw “three or four men who had their faces covered. They had guns, but they had swords in their hands. We saw these men holding a 3- or 4-year-old child. They beat the hell out of him. . . . I felt like I couldn’t breathe.”
“We were so helpless. We couldn’t even record it, we were so scared. They picked up the child, and they started throwing him like a ball.” One of her male colleagues intervened and called the police.
“The boy was saved,” she said.
Emma helped coordinate coverage for a team of journalists after the December 2012 shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in the United States, in which 20 first graders and six school staff members died. She assigned reporters to write about the children, but she planned to write about the shooter and the adults “because I can’t handle any kids.”
But, because there were so many victims, she did have to report on one of the children, a little boy, whose parents had already bought his Christmas presents. She remembered that his family “was looking forward to his reaction when he opened his gifts, and he’s never going to know what he got as a gift. To me, as a parent, it’s very, very difficult.”
Later Emma was shopping for groceries, and she saw photos of the children who had died, published in rows on the cover of a magazine. “And you see those little heads. And I saw my little victim, and I sat down in the grocery stores and started sobbing, and that was a turning point, and I will never again (cover) a child.”
Adira, a journalist in Pakistan, covered the rape, kidnap and murder of a 3-year-old girl by two police officers. “The culprits were later punished, but what happened destroyed my peace for a long time,” she said.
Seeing the effects of war on children was particularly difficult for journalists, including Anna, a U.S. reporter.
“One of the things that touched me deeply was the kids in Iraq. You don’t have to be a mom to see the effects this has on children,” Anna said.
Even when children were older, journalists were heartsick about the immeasurable grief of parents who lost sons and daughters.
Adilah, whose first assignment was covering an earthquake in Iran, remembers crying when she met a mother whose three daughters had died. The mother also started crying and then talked to the journalist about her experiences. Adilah’s shock and grief, and the visibility of that, helped her build a connection with the mother.
“That one always got to me,” Charlotte said. “You think of your own son and what that would be like. That’s the piece that personally has been the most difficult to purge afterwards.”
Charlotte also wrote a story about two boys who were hospitalized with rare brain tumors. One of the boys died, and she wrote the story of his death from her home while watching her son play softball—all the while time feeling both grateful and guilty her children were safe and healthy.
Putting emotions aside to do the job
Journalists who covered violence often felt anguish at what they saw and heard, but some said they had to suppress those emotions in order to do their jobs properly. They had feelings; they just needed to keep those feelings under control so they could finish their work. Their comments mirror the findings of a study at Illinois State University, which included questions about “emotional labor.” The study found that journalists say they try to suppress feelings of sympathy and pity to maintain “objectivity” while reporting. However, the study also found that reporters often defer feelings so they can get their jobs done.
“As a human being, I can feel the pain of other people. My heart weeps at their cries,” said Adira. “I feel the pain and grief of people who have lost their loved ones. . . . but at the same time, as a journalist, I have to keep a certain distance from the story, as I need to collect information.”
Rose, a U.S. journalist who has covered crime and sexual assault, said detachment also helped her do a better job.
“Some people just get too emotionally invested in this, which sounds kind of cold, but for people who are crime journalists, you have to detach. You can still be human, but you can’t get caught up,” Rose said.
Even when they felt sad about the people and events around them, journalists said they had to maintain self-control.
“Covering violence is a challenge, and you have to be disciplined. . . . ” said Emine, a journalist who has covered the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has been involved with conflict with the Turkish government for decades.
“I just think that sometimes these things are thrust upon you, and you just do your job,” said Anna, who covered wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the aftermath of the World Trade Center collapse. “You go into reporting mode. You do your job. You get your story out.”
Adira, who covered a plane crash near Karachi, said it was “particularly difficult to report when people were angry and hurt. It was demanding to control myself and report such an event.”
Stella, who has covered sexual assault extensively in U.S. journalist, said that when she was assigned a violent story, “my heart would plummet down to my feet. Then your adrenalin kicks in, and you start doing what needs to be done because you’re a professional.”
Elizabeth, also a U.S. journalist, said self-restraint is key.
“You have to focus on reporting, particularly if you’re doing live television, so there’s really no time for that (emotion).”
Honoring, respecting sources
Journalists said it was important to respect the people they photographed or wrote about. Sources were not just voices in a sad story or subjects of dramatic photos. Sources were survivors or witnesses to a trauma, and journalists tried to show genuine compassion to them.
Journalists should always “be aware of their (sources’) dignity,” said Sarah, a Canadian journalist who has worked in Africa. Journalists should never see sources as nameless, faceless instruments, she cautioned.
“Journalism is nothing without sources, and sources need to come first,” said Lillian, a U.S. journalist who has worked in Latin America. “They need to come before your editors, your ego, your career. It’s a gift that people want to talk to you. It’s a gift of time, a gift of energy.”
Empathy is critical in working with sources, journalists said.
“It’s easy to separate yourself and assume this could never happen to me, but it could,” said Nora, a U.S. journalist who has worked in the Middle East.
And working with sources involves sharing a part of yourself.
“You need to be completely open. You have to read people. Most of your reporting is: ‘Here’s what I see. . . .’ If you’re not empathetic, you won’t last,” Nora said.
Claire, a South African journalist who has covered combat, agreed sincerity is vital in working with sources.
“I never believed that it was ok to be one kind of person in your work and another kind of person in your life,” Claire said. “You can’t believe in integrity, then screw people over to get a story.”
Claire added: “If you don’t respect these people don’t bother. They know.”
Respect for victims of violence includes attention to those who are hurt or who have died, journalists said.
“It’s an honor to be with people during these intense times,” said Charlotte. “That’s a lot of why I went into this business, to be a part of the world. . . . I wanted to be in the mix of the most important moment’s in people’s lives.”
Stella said she tries to keep her stories focused on honoring people who died or were hurt and her approach is “to tell the story beyond the crime.” She acknowledged to family members that her questions could be intrusive, and “if they don’t want to talk, don’t make them.
“We typically don’t write the who-shot-whom crime stories,” Stella said. “We try to tell you who this person was.”
Her work has been shaped by her own life experiences.
“My brother died, and my mother died,” said Stella. “I would put myself in the place of the victims’ families, probably too much. That’s what’s harder for me, to see the families lose their loved one in these horrific ways.”
Emma, said she, too, considers how to tell stories in a respectful way.
“If I were the victim of a horrible crime, I would want my story to be told with dignity,” she said.
“When someone is clearly traumatized, getting the story isn’t the priority,” Caroline said. “Just be a human being first, then you can sleep at night. Be sensitive and respectful. . . . Gore, violence and explosions are headlines, but I think the softer quieter stories have more impact.”
Some journalists developed bonds with their sources.
Audra, who covered the Lord’s Resistance Army in her home country of Uganda, and Leah, a U.S. photographer who has worked around the globe, said they both think about people they met long after articles or photos have been published. And Emma, a U.S. journalist, said, “I’ve made friends through my sources.”
Natalie, a U.S. journalist who covered combat, said she remembers people more than events. The stories she’s written about people “have stuck with me the most . . . and that has probably had a greater impact on me than some random rockets getting shot at me on the (military) base.” She gained tremendous respect for the military troops she met, she said.
Connecting to tell a thorough story
Connection on a personal level was important in journalism because it was one human helping another. However, personal connection also was necessary to tell a thorough story, some journalists said.
“Bear in mind that the voices of victims are very important,” said Audra.
While interviewing people who have experienced or witnessed violence might seem invasive, it’s a critical task in journalism.
“Those witnesses were on of the most credible sources of what happened,” said Adira.
While some reporters covered breaking news, those who wrote about the aftermath of violent events found that they needed a unique set of skills to help them deal with survivors’ emotions
Charlotte, who also has written about domestic violence, observed that reporters covering breaking news will cover one event, but afterward, journalists working on follow-up stories may spend months with survivors and relatives. This involves getting to know them on a personal level, building relationships, and establishing trust.
“I’ve had people tell me over the years, ‘I can talk to you in a way I can’t talk to my family because I’m afraid I might upset them or bring them down,’” Charlotte said.
Rose said that talking with survivors or relatives of violence can be a way to make sense out what happened.
“For a lot of people, talking to me seems something positive,” she said. “When they come to me, they want their stories to be told. They want to shine a light on the issue.”
To interview or photograph people who’ve experienced violence, journalists need not only technical skills; they need compassion mixed with good judgment.
“All violence is painful, but I guess when you’re dealing with victims of violence, I think that’s the biggest lesson—how to talk and deal with people,” said Asya, , who has covered violence in the Middle East.
And approaching survivors “depends on the person, situation, is the violence still continuing? Sometimes it’s best to hang back and listen and wait, rather than have pen and pad asking, ‘How are you feeling?’ You have to know which tools in the tool box to pull out in any given situation,” said Asya.
Falak said talking with trauma survivors and victims requires sensitivity and patience. And it can take time to build trust.
“Sometimes they didn’t want to remember what happened to them. Sometimes, I spent a lot of time talking with them about different things, going back and back, and one day they started to tell the story, and they wanted to be photographed. It’s all about patience—how much do you want to gain and go deeper and deeper,” she said.
Nora also said journalists need to be understanding and, sometimes, restrained.
“You have to be enormously patient,” she said. “I am well aware you can re-traumatize people. . . .
“People will tell you what they want to tell you, and they won’t tell you all of it. . . . You have to deal with the notion that sometimes you’re not going to know. You’ll know enough for journalism,” Nora said.
“I went up and said, ‘How do you fell about all this?’ I got glares. It was a big education for me about how to witness something. There are times when you have to fall back and let the story unfold. When there’s a lot of things going on, you can feel like you need to be in the middle, but if you just pull back and watch, you learn so much more.”
Ava has since written about the aftermath of war, including stories of veterans with post-traumatic stress. Those stories can make public feelings that veterans have kept private, and “the best I can ask for is that I was able to put into words what they are grappling with,” she said.
Martina, an Argentine-born journalist working in Mexico, said she makes a conscious effort to relate to sources on a personal level. She begins interviews by focusing on the mundane.
“‘Tell me about what you cooked today. What’s your favorite TV show?’ It sounds really trivial. We’re here to get a story about an atrocity, but I think it’s really humanizing.”
She ends each interview with a personal conversation as well—conversations about nail polish, partners, children.
Martina added: “I think the person has opened up to you, and they deserve to end on a note that’s not awful. They deserve to laugh, not to cry.”
Empathy: good for sources, hard for journalists
Journalists said empathy is a good reporting skill—it helps journalists connect with sources, but it can be emotionally hard on journalists.
“If it’s somebody who has experienced violence, they tend to be more upbeat an can-do because they survived. . . . If it’s a family member who experienced violence, it (interaction with journalists) is usually because their family member died. It tends to be more difficult to talk to family members. It can get to you,” said Emma, who has covered more than 60 mass shootings in the United States.
Olivia, who covered the shootings at the Pulse nightclub in Florida, said she is emotional when she writes, but that can be a good thing.
“With emotions, you can connect with people,” said Olivia.
But while empathy is “good for my writing . . . it’s difficult to deal with on a personal basis,” said Olivia.
Charlotte, a U.S. journalist, had a similar perspective.
“I think it’s helpful to have a little bit of a wall, but if you want to feel what they (sources) are feeling, you have to take it (down).”
But just as you take it down, you need to put the wall back up.
“It’s helpful as a writer to feel what they feel, but the downside is that you do feel what they feel,” said Charlotte.
Since the early 1900s, many journalists have touted “objectivity”—the idea that they gather information using scientific methods without allowing their own personal views to affect their research findings. Sometimes, this objectivity has been seen by the public as lack of emotion. However, in recent years, some journalism organizations have suggested objectivity isn’t possible, although journalists can be fair in their reporting.
Next: Journalists talk about religion and their views on God.