- The Washington Times - Friday, April 17, 2009

Journalists who peer into the abyss of war, crime and natural disasters as part of their jobs can end up as emotionally scarred as the victims they never imagined joining.

“These are the kind of stories I’ve covered, the kind of images I carry with me,” said Mike Walter, a 25-year veteran Washington broadcast reporter and anchor who explores the merging of journalism and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in a documentary that will debut Saturday at Filmfest DC, formally the Washington, DC International Film Festival.

In the film’s introduction, he offers a simple description of his career: “More fires than I care to count, more murders than I care to remember.”

The psychological toll left him wondering how well other journalists handle the stress that lingers after the assignment ends - the subject of his 36-minute video, “Breaking News, Breaking Down.”

On Sept. 11, 2001, Mr. Walter was stuck in traffic during his morning commute to WUSA television station when American Airlines Flight 77 crashed into the Pentagon.

“The jet slammed into the Pentagon once, but for me, it never stopped crashing. I don’t know how I’m going to be able to sleep tonight,” recalled Mr. Walter, who reported the story while standing in front of the gaping hole on the Pentagon’s north side, breaking down as the cameras rolled.

Media figures with styles as diverse as Dan Rather and David Letterman also lost their composure on air while recounting the al Qaeda terrorist assault on New York City. But the shock doesn’t have to be of historic proportions. Almost anyone can watch a tragic event unfold, never shed a drop of blood, and still be wounded severely.

Dr. Frank M. Ochberg specializes in such cases. The Harvard-trained psychiatrist became associate director at the National Institute of Mental Health during the 1970s and now is as a professor at Michigan State University.

He helped start the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma in 2000 and became its chairman for three years. He continues an active involvement with fellowships in his name.

Dr. Ochberg first locked onto the topic in hopes that the act of journalism could help rather than intensify the feelings of calamity victims. Measuring the effects on reporters and photographers initially seemed like an afterthought to him.

“Journalists can experience powerful frustration and demoralization,” said Dr. Ochberg, “especially when they go literally to the ends of the earth and subject themselves to physical and emotional risk. And they realize that their job is to bring back information that only falls on deaf ears. All their work might just end up in flaming passion and no solution.”

Combat veterans, police on the beat, battered spouses and ambulance technicians are among the most frequent sufferers. They report combinations of unshakable memories, isolation and anxiety for no logical reason. In severe cases, victims can get startled uncontrollably, can barely sleep and become severely - even suicidally - depressed.

At least two Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalists have fixated on self-destruction. In August 2006, a despondent New Orleans Times-Picayune photographer, John McCusker, became so desperate over the loss of his home after Hurricane Katrina that he assaulted police officers and begged them to shoot him.

In 1993, Kevin Carter photographed a starving child being stalked by a vulture in Africa. Within a year, he had killed himself, and his suicide note cited the images from his journalistic work, along with financial and other personal issues.

Making matters worse is that journalists volunteer for these difficult experiences and some get addicted to the “fight or flight” levels of adrenaline that the human body produces naturally.

Journalists also try to juggle being neutral, objective, professional and constantly alert, a kind of macho cross between the spirit of public service and scientific self-restraint.

“The role of being ‘objective’ can be quite a burden,” said Bruce Shapiro, executive director of the Dart Center.

Through extensive interviewing, Anthony Feinstein, a professor at the University of Toronto, estimates that 6 percent to 12 percent of all journalists have PTSD. For war correspondents who have been to five or more conflicts, he said, the percentage of PTSD sufferers jumps to an estimated 28 percent.

Helping journalists cope becomes tougher when personal and emotional backgrounds are factored into the equation.

In his book “Where War Lives,” 1993 Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist Paul Watson speculates that war correspondents start out a bit unbalanced.

“I’ve spent a lot of time around journalists who cover war, and being a [war correspondent] is a form of mental illness in the first place,” Mr. Watson said during an interview about his book with public-radio host Terry Gross.

“In my opinion, and I include myself foremost in this group, there are a lot of misfits, people who are seeking self-esteem through risk. I really don’t think we’re knights on white horses. The wars in human hearts are just as important as the ones we see on TV.”

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