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Journalists struggle with pain of 9/11

Sep 16, 2002  •  Post A Comment

The knot in her throat was audible on air last Wednesday as WCBS-TV correspondent Penny Crone said she would rather be inside praying at one of the many memorials held on the first anniversary of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 than outside reporting.
She had covered New York’s police and fire departments and their power structures for enough years to feel connected to about 25 people, some of them good friends, who were lost at the World Trade Center.
“This just brings it all back,” Ms. Crone said later.
On the anniversary of the most wrenching story of their careers, journalists-many of whom had gone, with little respite, from Ground Zero to anthrax in their workplaces to Afghanistan to various other emergencies-were having problems coping with powerful memories.
Like Ms. Crone, Fox News correspondent Rick Leventhal, one of the first journalists on the scene the day the World Trade Center became known as Ground Zero, found himself choking back tears last Wednesday.
“It happened to me this morning,” Mr. Leventhal said. “Bagpipers are playing, drummers are drumming.”
CBS News correspondent Byron Pitts, who a year ago ducked into a public school to escape the debris unleashed by the collapse of one of the towers, said his wife thinks he has been less expressive than is his nature.
“I haven’t cried,” he said. “I haven’t expressed any significant personal reaction to 9/11 or to Afghanistan and the time I spent there. I say to her that’s because I’m still processing it. I don’t know what my deep feelings are about 9/11 or Afghanistan, beyond the fact that I am sad.”
According to Anthony Feinstein, associate professor in the department of psychiatry at the University of Toronto and co-author of a seminal study, published in this month’s American Journal of Psychiatry, of the level of psychological distress among journalists who cover war, “A transient increase of emotions surrounding such a traumatic event I think for the majority of people is really quite appropriate.”
“Anniversaries are always very important with respect to events, particularly traumatic events. They become real watersheds in people’s lives, and the first anniversary is such a powerful one,” Mr. Feinstein said.
He came to New York last winter to begin collecting data about psychological distress among journalists who covered Sept. 11 and was asked by CNN New York Bureau Chief Karen Curry to be present in the bureau for a couple of days during the anniversary week should anyone want to talk with him.
Counselors have been available at Fox News headquarters since late August.
MSNBC arranged for a licensed therapist to be at the news channel’s building in New Jersey on the anniversary of Sept. 11.
NBC News notified staffers in early August that in addition to ongoing assistance at the company’s medical center, professionals would be available on days right around the anniversary.
In addition, Andi Gitow, a psychologist and Emmy-winning producer who is head of “Dateline NBC’s” psychology unit, was in den-mother mode last week, making rounds, checking in with colleagues and listening intently.
She found some not-unexpected indicators of “emotional exhaustion,” but she also found a larger “recurring theme” as people channeled feelings into anniversary assignments. “It can’t be about me, because I have a responsibility to be sensitive to the story and get it out in a way that honors everyone,” is how Ms. Gitow characterized that theme.
Mr. Pitts, who was deployed to Afghanistan, had been a media witness at two executions. It was he who reported to fellow members of the press last year that “Timothy James McVeigh died with his eyes open.”
His strongest memories from Sept. 11, 2001, are of the people jumping from the burning Trade Center towers. “To watch people die in such helpless fashion for me was very hard.
“Who am I to feel sorry for myself because I happened to be there?” he says now. “I got to go home to my family. I got to write about it with some personal distance. How dare I even say out loud how I think?”
Still, it is, he said, tough to talk to those who lost family members on Sept. 11. “I still feel a great sense of sadness.”
Fox News’ Mr. Leventhal also is haunted by a lingering anger and memories of people jumping to their deaths. “Even pictures of the towers bring it back,” he said. “It’s hard to relive it.”
He said he has dealt with his feelings “in a variety of ways. I never sat down with anyone.” But he did find that sharing experiences has helped.
“How can you talk to professionals about losing all those people?” asked Ms. Crone, who left Fox-owned WNYW-TV last winter after 14 years. The switch gave her six weeks off in which to immerse herself in a husband, a new son and a new dog before joining new colleagues. The new colleagues “just don’t know how helpful they have been,” said Ms. Crone, who also “went to church a lot.”
“It is my faith that has brought me the most comfort,” Mr. Pitts said. “The optimist in me says it was awful but it will be all right in God’s time.”
There is a reluctance to characterize at what level, or in what numbers, people might have sought out work-site counselors. No one wants to take the chance that those who did might feel betrayed or exposed.
“I don’t think it’s easy to have a psychiatrist sitting in your midst waiting for business, as it were,” said Mr. Feinstein, whose presence was announced with “an e-mail discreetly circulated that should anyone want to sound me out, here’s my e-mail, here’s my cellphone number, I’m going to be around.
“I haven’t been inundated with calls or flooded with calls, but there have been a couple of people who have wanted to see me and hopefully found that helpful,” he said.
While researching his study last winter he found indications of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) among journalists covering Ground Zero, but not depression on the scale that had been noted among war journalists. (The study showed elevated susceptibility to alcohol, depression and PTSD.)
Anecdotally, he found that the approach of the anniversary triggered some “remarkable dreams,” renewed concerns for how children are-or are not-coping with the trauma and heightened anxieties that had subsided.
Mr. Feinstein stressed that only a “significant minority” of people will find that these feeling are not transient.
But he noted that the job can be a “Catch-22” for journalists.
“One of the pathological ways of dealing with overwhelming trauma is to distance yourself from it, to cut yourself off from it. But what makes it difficult for a journalist is if you have to write about it and report it, how do you avoid it? You can’t. And so you’re exposing yourself repeatedly to the kinds of events that potentially are troublesome to you.
“That’s why journalists are such an interesting group to study.”