Summer 1999

Dealing With the Trauma of Covering War

Journalists Talk About Ways They Cope With What They See

Excerpts From a Conference

Iraqi forces killed this Kurdish woman and child with poison gas in Halabja, 1998. Photo by Ramazan Ozturk/Sipa Press.


A few months ago, several journalists came together to talk about the personal traumas and ethical dilemmas of covering wars, ethnic conflicts and human tragedies. The seminar, “Dateline: Hell,” took place in New York City on March 31, 1999. The event was produced by Center for Communication and co-sponsored by the New York University Department of Journalism and Mass Communication, NYU’s International Trauma Studies Program, and NYU’s Center for War, Peace, and the News Media.

The program was moderated by Ann Cooper, Executive Director of the Committee to Protect Journalists. Participants included Leslie Cockburn, Producer of “60 Minutes;” Thomas Goltz, author of “Azerbaijan Diary;” James Nachtwey, photographer, Magnum Photos; Elizabeth Neuffer, foreign correspondent for The Boston Globe, and Stacy Sullivan, consultant for the Human Rights Initiative at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government.

Toward the end of the discussion, members of the audience asked questions. One person wanted to know what kind of psychological or emotional support journalists are able to receive, and from whom, when their jobs put them into traumatic situations.

Our excerpt begins with the panel’s response.


Leslie Cockburn: Our news organizations have never been—the editors and the people back in New York—have never been in these situations. They have no idea what it’s like. And the idea that there would be a support group is sort of an anathema. I think that people support each other; I think that journalists support each other. And then if you really are having problems, after having been in a traumatic situation, you go to someone else who’s been there, too, or has been somewhere else.

Elizabeth Neuffer: Yeah, in the world of reporting, I’m afraid a reporter’s mental health is down very much on the list of priorities. I happen to feel very strongly that’s not right because I’ve really seen some reporters utterly destroyed by the things they’ve seen. And I think it affects their reporting, and I think it affects their personalities. But you have to consider that many of us who covered the Balkan War also did it without satellite telephones and without armored cars and without a lot of the basic support that perhaps at the higher end of the scale some news organizations were able to afford. The bottom line is get the story, no matter what it takes. And indeed most of our editors are clueless. Because if they have covered a war, they covered a war that is of a very different nature than the kinds of wars that are happening now. Which are more intimate, more personal, or you tend to be essentially living among the people who are getting bombed, not being behind forces.

I always tell people who ask me this question a story about when I came back from covering the Gulf War, which was not actually a real war. But I just happened to see some very bad things. And I came back and was sort of finding it very difficult to talk to anyone. I mean, I just didn’t talk at all basically. And I went and happened to see my old sources at the FBI, which I used to cover. And I was chatting with one of the agents, and he sort of listened to me for a while. He picked up the telephone and he said, “There’s someone I’d really like you to talk to. I’m just going to send you down the hall for a few minutes.” Indeed, he sent me to the FBI psychiatrist. And I was appalled. “What do you mean? I don’t need any therapy. I’m fine, I’m healthy.”

But, his point was—and I think it was a wise one—he said, “Elizabeth, whenever we send an agent into danger, when they come out of the field, we send them to see a psychiatrist, because that’s just our policy. It’s good for you, it’s good for the agency. And since your newspaper is not doing it, I’m doing it for you.”

Ever since then, whenever I’ve gone into a place, I have gone to see a counselor on my way back. And did so repeatedly via telephone from Bosnia when things proved terribly upsetting for me, because I felt otherwise I would store up these memories. My own father was a real victim of post-traumatic stress syndrome, and I grew up with that. He was badly injured and badly affected by participating in a battle on Guadalcanal known as the Fight for Bloody Ridge. He lost an entire company in one night, and he lived with that for his life. Watching what it did to him, it’s not something I would want to repeat. So I’m a little kind of overzealous on this, but I think it’s something news organizations do need to address.

Stacy Sullivan: I came back from Bosnia after two years of working there for Newsweek as a freelancer. Got hired while I was there and came back to work for them in New York. When I came back to New York, I was incredibly lonely. I had nobody, except for my fellow correspondents who were in Bosnia. Elizabeth was one of them, with whom I spoke every night on the phone. We were all in tears.

I had a complete and utter meltdown to the point where I quit my job at Newsweek. I had absolutely no infrastructure. And there wasn’t one editor who had ever been overseas doing that kind of reporting. It was only after I quit, I mean a real emotional breakdown, that they said, “Gee, you should have told us what you were feeling.” In my mind, as a young new hire at a major newsmagazine, I didn’t feel I could walk up to my editor and say, “I’m having a little problem with post-traumatic stress. And do you feel like I can maybe take a little bit of time off while I sort out my problems?”

It’s something we need to get more comfortable with. But it’s also something editors need to be much more aware of. I know that I and almost everybody who covered the war in Bosnia got a therapist when we came back and dealt with it that way. I have to say it’s been really helpful for me.

Ann Cooper: How would you suggest that the editors deal with it? Just make it part of the routine so that nobody feels sort of singled out?

Stacy Sullivan: I could not believe that a major newsmagazine like Newsweek, who has correspondents all over the world, and has for years, would not be aware of post-traumatic stress and the psychological problems that people [experience] who have been in a war zone. There was no awareness. It was like when I told them over a very tearful goodbye lunch, they were just shocked. You know, it just had never occurred to them.

I think just being aware and asking correspondents about it, and telling them that they shouldn’t be afraid to talk about it. Or, if they need to take some time off, go see a therapist, do whatever they need to do, they should do it. And it’s a perfectly normal thing to experience after covering a war.


A victim of an endless civil war where the government was widely accused of using starvation as a weapon. Sudan, 1998. Photo by Paul Lowe/Magnum Photos.



Question: What are the actual traumas that you’ve experienced? What sort of help do people need? Also, in the course of your work, are you re-traumatizing the people that you are writing about or photographing?

James Nachtwey: I think it’s less retraumatizing the people we’re photographing or interviewing than actually giving them an outlet. If journalists weren’t there, they wouldn’t have a voice. They would not have a way to let the outside world know what has happened to them and their families and their civilization. And I think it’s important for them to know that someone from the outside world is interested, is willing to go to those places to share with them the dangers and whatever hardships are there at that time to tell their story. And I think they recognize that and appreciate that.

Elizabeth Neuffer: You asked about symptoms. I’m not sure I can give you a good analysis. But I think most people come back feeling very isolated, and feeling that nobody understands what they’ve been through, and with a sense of intense anger. Usually at one’s company. Because after all they put you there, and they’re not taking very good care of you once you’ve come home. And they don’t understand. I could go to the editor of my paper and explain this to him, and he would say, “But, Elizabeth, you’re on leave,” and he would not understand why I took a leave or the nature of that leave. But there’s panic. I’m sure—the other day there was a big crash out on the street, and I dove under my desk, just without even thinking about it, because I was convinced it was a shell landing. And, you know, it’s not dramatic; it’s just sort of an instinctive response. And I’m sure in time that will go away.

But, you know, what happens to us is secondary. It needs to be acknowledged, the stigma needs to be removed, but it’s part of the job, too, and it’s not something you want to wear on your chest to say oh, you know, I’m a victim of post-traumatic stress. It’s like Jim said, a dangerous part of the job, dealing with it. It’s one of the things you should know when you sign on. And it’s to some degree your responsibility to take care of yourself.

The job is really to get the story out and to talk to people. And I second what he said. People I talked with I found wanted to tell their story, sometimes even more than once. And that they weren’t re-traumatized. They were relieved by having someone listen. And that the key, as a reporter, is to make sure you do listen. Because I’ve seen many people under deadline, and perhaps who are less experienced, be reasonably callous. And one of the great things you have to learn is you really do need to sit, even if it takes an hour, to let someone spill out that story. Because otherwise you’re not giving them the respect that they’re due.

Question: Do you sometimes feel an irresistible urge to help the victims that you’re dealing with? And does that interfere with your job?

Stacy Sullivan: I feel an irresistible urge all the time to help people that we’re interviewing. It happened a lot with the victims of Srebrenica. Even months afterwards, you would go and talk to them and they still didn’t know what had happened to their husbands, brothers, fathers. I did not feel that it was any conflict with my professional—I didn’t feel any ethical conflict by helping them out.

We would often collect old clothes, or buy a sack of potatoes and vegetables and drop it off at people that we had interviewed repeatedly. There have been times when I have left money in a hidden spot, on the sofa, underneath the seat cushion. What you don’t want to do is to pay people for information, to talk to you. I think that would be a violation of your ethics. But if you, as a human being, want to help them out, and you’re not giving them money for information, I personally don’t have a problem with it.

James Nachtwey: I’ve been in many situations where people are severely wounded, in great distress, and their own colleagues and comrades are already tending to them. And at that point I do my job, which is to photograph it. There have been some times when I’ve encountered people who are wounded or who are about to be attacked by someone else, and I’m the only one who can help them. Then I stop doing my job and I help them. And that’s a personal choice.

I think that theoretically, in a very purely journalistic sense, I’m probably violating something by not allowing what is about to happen, happen. But I stop short of that. I remember a time in Haiti when I rescued someone from a lynch mob. I did the same thing in South Africa. Rather than stand around to make great pictures of this person getting lynched, I got them out of there. And I think that anyone on this stage, and probably any of you, would have done the same thing.

Thomas Goltz: I’d like to answer that in sort of an oddball way, and the question that hasn’t been really asked but could be implied from yours, sir, which is when do you start to carry guns? Well, I think the answer is never. I never have in any of the sectors that I’ve been in. It’s like one of those things that one must not do, some great unspoken rule, although the temptation is often there. And especially if you’re in a tight jam with people who are carrying guns, to what extent then do you help them by picking up a box of ammunition or what?

My rule is never to touch anything military if you’re in a military zone. But I’m not even sure if that is such a good rule, because if you are traveling with them, don’t you owe it to them to at least carry the ammo? I don’t know, it’s one of these weird ethical questions.

Leslie Cockburn: Don’t carry guns, don’t carry ammo. Never.

James Nachtwey: I would help carry a wounded soldier. I’ve put down my camera and helped carry a wounded soldier through fire, because they didn’t have enough soldiers left to help. But I don’t think I’d carry ammo; I think I’d draw the line there.

Ann Cooper: Why? Why would you not carry ammo?

James Nachtwey: Because I don’t think it’s my job to further destruction. At the same time, I recognize what you’re feeling, because I’ve been with people who are fighting people in dangerous situations. And you become their comrade. You share with them, and they’re sharing with you. So I understand that temptation very well.

Leslie Cockburn: I think that you always are obligated to—if you’re the only person who can help someone, and they’re in a situation—Jim was talking about a wounded person, but it could also be, for example, I was in Kabul and there was ethnic cleansing going on in Kabul. People were being taken out of their houses and shot. People with certain records. And there was someone who I was with who was on that list. And they were going to have to decide what to do and how to get themselves and their family out of the city. And I felt it was quite appropriate to help that person, because I knew that he could be dead the next morning if he didn’t receive any help. So I think there are lots of situations where you do put down the camera, or your pen, and you help. And if you don’t, then you’re some kind of machine.

Question: When you’re taking a picture, is it hard to share pain with someone, since the camera is separating you from your subject?

James Nachtwey: The connection is made with the person you’re photographing before you raise the camera. It’s how you approach people. You try and do it respectful of who they are and what they’ve been through, and you try and show them that. And I think if you’ve done that, then when you’re using the camera, they understand.

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