On 10 September, Scott Walton, a lifestyle reporter for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, flew to New York city to cover a fashion show. The following day, he was there to witness the most traumatic event ever shown on live television, as two aircraft crashed into the World Trade Centre and reports came in of a third hitting the Pentagon and a fourth crashing en route for God knows where.
Walton rang his editor in Atlanta, volunteering his services to cover the carnage in lower Manhattan. And he was there for the next two days, until – in his words – "the real news reporters were on their way".
Like so many of his media colleagues, this fashion reporter joined the newly formed ranks of the "urban war correspondent". He ventured into a war zone no different from Beirut or Chechnya – splintered and smoking buildings, blood-covered rubble, laced with the stench of death. No flak jacket and helmet for this correspondent; just a pen and paper. At a time when news organisations such as CNN and the BBC have tough guidelines about sending inexperienced staff to war zones, Scott was totally unprepared for what he had to cover. And for what the after-effects were likely to be.
New York and Washington have long been considered the cushiest postings for foreign correspondents. The BBC used to send its veteran war correspondents there as a reward for years in the trenches. Getting them out again was considered a near-impossibility. But the events of 11 September have blown away the notion that one city is safer than another. This new dimension in the area of journalist safety will be high on the agenda at this year's News World conference in Barcelona on 13–16 November.
As news managers, we have learnt the painful lesson that international terrorism is no respecter of borders. And, equally important, that our domestic staff need to be supported, just like their overseas colleagues: properly equipped, properly trained and prepared for the mental suffering they may experience – and some already are – in the days, months and years following shocking events that they witness.
Since 11 September we have seen journalists respond in different ways to the carnage left by the suicide aircraft in the United States. Some have shocked themselves in revealing their despair, while others have maintained the English stiff upper lip, or maybe are in denial. On one hand, we wonder why it took so long, considering his extraordinary career, for a veteran news anchor such as CBS's Dan Rather to weep openly in an interview on atalk show. And on the other, we say to ourselves, "Wow! A battle-scarred journalist just cried in front of millions of viewers." The same week, several of CNN's correspondents broke down in tears as they reported on the aftermath of the attacks.
I say: it's about time. I say: it's OK for journalists to cry on TV. And it probably makes them better journalists.
It is about time the media industry took a hard look at such emotional outbreaks and moved the issue of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from the back burner to the front.
Only in the past few years have some media organisations recognised that their staff are more than likely to be affected by what they cover – may well suffer from PTSD and may benefit from having it treated. Broadcasters such as CNN and the BBC have for some time offered voluntary and confidential counselling for their staff. Last year, during News World, and with the collaboration of ITN, APTV and Reuters, CNN and the BBC offered funding for the first professional research into PTSD in war correspondents, producing the Feinstein report and the Charter for the Protection of Journalists. That has been followed up by research this year into the effects PTSD may have on members of the journalists' families.
Immediately after 11 September, CNN deployed counsellors to work with its staff in New York and Washington. And the company has now given its blessing to new research into PTSD among those who covered that story. CNN is one of the few media organisations supporting its staff in this way. It remains a controversial topic – and there is still a widely held view that "real" journalists don't show their emotions – that they must remain detached from what they report on.
Our newly recognised urban war correspondents are crying in public – while their overseas colleagues mostly cry in private. Either way, it's time to do something about it.
Chris Cramer will speak further on this subject at the News World conference in Barcelona, 13-16 NovemberReuse content