Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Of Floaters and Feelings

Sorry to continue with the macabre theme this week, but a comment from my dear friend Carolyn - an ex-reporter who taught me much about street-level newsgathering - revealed how a distant afternoon we've both pretended to forget, still haunts her...
"My worst - and I still hear this scream in my dreams, and Stu, I think you were there - was a case in which a man had drowned, and the cops were dragging the river for the body, and for some ungodly reason had allowed the man's family - his children - right up close to watch. Well, when the rake hit the arm of the guy and pulled it out of the water, his daughter started screaming - as long as I live I will never forget that scream, it went on and on, she collapsed, it was awful. I looked at my photog and he said "Sometimes I hate this job."
I'd been in news only a few weeks; the veteran of a half dozen press conferences, three meetings and little more. But suddenly I found myself at river's edge, sandwiched between two tripod veterans as would-be rescuers dragged the depths of the mighty Tar for a missing fisherman.

As I brought the small dinghy into focus, I pressed the 'RECORD' button and grew entranced. The man in the boat was down on his knees, pulling aboard a metal chain hand over hand. When it kept coming up empty, he'd motion the boat pilot to rev the motor and move a few more feet downstream.

This went on for quite some time and I stayed glued to the viewfinder, rolling tape and grinding my teeth. On either side of me, the other TV news photogs rolled their eyes at the new guy. I barely noticed them, as all my attention was drawn to tiny black and white screen at the end of the eyepiece. As heart beat increased with every pull of the dead man's chain, my two more experienced colleagues talked shop, traded police scanner frequencies and cracked on each other's Mom.

Not me. I followed the boat in my viewfinder as it moved slowly down it's invisible string. It was almost halfway to the nearest bend when family members started to arrive. At first there were only, but before long five large farm women paced up and down the dock beside us, wrininging their hands and muttering prayers. My two future buddies quieted down a bit, but still exchanged bored glances.

Feeling newly uneasy myself I leaned into the camera and zoomed all the way in. Backlit now by the setting sun, the silhouette of the men leaning low out of the boat was dowright iconic. I didn't know what that word meant back then, but I did realize I was documenting things I had never seen with the naked eye.

Panning slowly to keep up with the boat, I almost missed it, but out of the lower edge of the screen, the slumped head and shoulders of a very large man bobbed to the surface. The men onboard almost went into the drink as they pulled the body toward the boat. My eye buried to the eyepiece, I heard two cohorts lunging for their own lens.

That's when the screaming started.

Three or four voices. of varying pitch but related timber, howling ill-formed syllables of unmistakable pain. Forgetting my shot, I jerked my neck to the left and saw them. As if recieving electrical shock, the women convulsed and dances on the small pier, in much the same way you might if you saw you loved one at the end of a hook.

The next sounds, heavy metal clicks in close succesion, woke me from my stupor. My two competitors tore their cameras from their tripod heads and quickly shouldered them. As they began to advance on the wailing women with their looming lenses, I found myself torn between duty and decency.

I did NOT want to point my camera at those poor women, but I immediately understood I had to. As a small part of me wretched in disgust. I unlocked my tripod head and picked up the camera, realizing this was just the kind of drama I'd been seeking. Who knew it would feel so lousy?

Fourteen years later, I still attend the occasional drowning, and I've put more sad people on television than I care to count. It's my job. But I've never forgotten that day,when I had to get my hands dirty in the name of news. These days I employ more distance and tact in the pursuit of truth - knowing you can document the truth without getting in the way.

Most of the time.


Carolyn said...

Paul says that's the one he will never forget, either.

turdpolisher said...

great post. i think nailed that gnawing pang in the pit of your stomach without even describing it.

Lex said...

I wonder if anyone has ever done any kind of study on post-traumatic stress disorder among journalists. Wait; don't laugh. I spent years as a cops reporter and years more supervising them, and I've seen some people get seriously messed up from what they see, particularly in rural areas where they see pretty much everything because there's not much infrastructure preventing them from doing so. (In my first gig in Statesville, I occasionally heard calls on the scanner and got there ahead of anyone else -- ambulance, Highway Patrol, whatever.)

I blogged at work a while back about a study that suggested that it's what soldiers do, rather than what they see, that is the key predictor of PTSD -- soldiers who know they have killed, particularly those who know they have killed (even accidentally) anyone besides enemy combatants, apparently are more likely to get it than their peers. ("But don't all soldiers in combat kill?" you ask, and today the answer's probably yes, but in World War II the proportion of combat veterans who knew they had killed someone else was dramatically lower.)

I wonder whether there isn't a similarity, although the scale obviously isn't comparable, between the responsibility such a soldier feels and the responsibility a journalist feels for his/her behavior in episodes such as the type you've described.

And if there is, what do you do about it? Try to discourage any sense of responsibility? I think not. But responsibility, as Stephen King once said about talent, appears to be a two-edged sword that doesn't care whom it cuts.

Jonathan Jones said...

The answer to your question Lex is yes, there have been studies that show journalists are susceptible to PTSD based on what they see while working. At the Dart Center for Journalism & Trauma you can find all sorts of information about it. The center is run out of the University of Washington's Communications Department. It was at Michigan State when I took one of their workshops at a regional conference and they know their stuff. There's a lot of good advice for dealing the the after affects of covering a traumatic event and preparing yourself for covering one.

Lenslinger, that was a good post that captured the feelings many of us have had. I personally am haunted by a fiery 2 a.m. car-wreck. Every now and again my nostrils flair and I'd swear the room was filled with that smell.

A good photographer friend I used to work regularly with, he and I took to describing ourselves as vultures in our own way of coping with what you know feels wrong -- being there at a person's worst moment.

Zippy said...

On two occasions, I've been the one to tell someone that a loved one was dead. In one case, it was my wife who did it, as she was riding with me in the news truck when the call came in.

In neither case did I roll tape.

Jami said...

Remember the UNCG apartment fire. I was standing there when Beth Harris' father walked up the the fire PIO. It was my first week back on the job after my daughter was born. I cried for days and it was that one event that made me want to leave news. Not sure what made me come back.

Bluedog Photog said...

Jami, I don't know what made you come back but I'm sure everyone there is happy you did. Ever think of coming back this way? Miss ya, dear.

Carolyn said...

I think the beginning of the end for me personally was a story about a little girl in NC - 5 years old. She and her mom were waiting outside their house for the school bus to take her to kindergarten, and the mom wnet back in the house for just a minute - and came back and the little girl was gone. They found her half nude body in a ditch a few days later. She had been sexually assaulted and murdered. I had just had my first child - a daughter - and the vision of what that little girl must have gone through in the last moments of her life - she must have been so scared and confused - why would this grown up be doing this to her - did more than haunt me. It drove me to tears, made me so angry, I felt terrible grief for this child that was not mine. I didn't even cover this story - it came across the wire, and still I could not get rid of it. I had always been able to compartmentalize things fairly well - they only reared their ugly heads occasionally -until this. I think becoming parents changes us - Jami alludes to that. But for me, this was one of the handful of things that signaled the end of my life in news. This, the OJ trial, the overcommercialization of everything and the total focus on crap instead of news, the newsroom dynamic I was in - I woke up one day and said "Why am I doing this?" It had stopped being important to me - important enough to live with the crap that goes along with it, anyway.

Jami said...

Bluedog, I miss you guys.. and I couldn't have asked for a better group of photographers to work with... I guess that's why I married one of you! But I can't leave the beach! We'll be up to visit soon.-- Until then.. I just keep up with what's going on through all your blogs! Thanks!

Bluedog Photog said...

I don't blame you there... the beach is awesome! Maybe we'll be down your way when another hurricane comes blowin' through... like Isabelle a couple years back.

da' kids said...

Awesome story!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!