Crossposted with permission from palabra.
Nicole Chavez found herself in a disturbingly familiar circumstance when she rushed to report on the murders of 19 students and teachers at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas. The shooting by an 18-year-old armed with a military style rifle triggered memories of the trauma she endured almost three years ago, covering the murders of 23 people across the state, in her hometown of El Paso.
That 2019 “act of terrorism against Mexicans and the Hispanic community,” as Chavez wrote then, happened at the Walmart where Chavez often shopped as a child. It struck her that her dad and sister could have been in the busy store that day. In January, 2020, Chavez told palabra that “it was my duty” to volunteer to report the story.
But covering one of the deadliest anti-Latino massacres in modern history exacted a toll. Chavez didn’t sleep for months. “I would wake up in the middle of the night crying, I had nightmares,” she said.
She was afraid those nightmares would return after reporting for CNN in Uvalde, another predominantly Latino community.
Chavez is based in San Antonio, less than 100 miles away from Uvalde. I met her a decade ago, when I was a reporter in Austin. Knowing her personally, I decided to check in on her and other journalists covering the nation’s latest gun massacre.
Covering tragedies in your own community is always a difficult assignment. As a mother myself, I couldn’t stop thinking of all the families’ anguish and pain. I felt special empathy for the journalists with loved ones among the victims. Reporter Priscilla Aguirre, who writes for the San Antonio Express-News (MySA), kept reporting and tweeting on the shootings even as she found out that her 10-year-old cousin was among the injured survivors.
I prayed for those who lost a child. One was Uvalde Leader-News reporter Kimberly Mata-Rubio, mother of 10-year-old Lexi. Mata-Rubio recently testified via video before the U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Reform. On the morning of the shooting, she had attended her daughter’s academic ceremonies and promised to take her out to get ice cream after school to celebrate the good grades she had earned.
“I can still see her, walking with us toward the exit,” Mata-Rubio said in a tearful message. “In the reel that keeps scrolling across my memories, she turns her head and smiles back at us to acknowledge my promise. And then we left.”
Soon after Mata-Rubio arrived at work, the news broke about the shooting.
“I left my daughter at that school, and that decision will haunt me for the rest of my life.”
How to Cope?
When I checked-in on Nicole Chavez, she said it was her experience in El Paso that helped her cope in Uvalde.
“When you’re out in the field reporting on these tragedies you have to let yourself feel,” said Chavez, who now writes about race and equality for CNN.
Through therapy, Chavez has learned to process her emotions. “If you feel like you want to cry, cry,” she said. “If you feel like you're going to scream, call. Take a break, call your mom, and, call or talk to a friend, just like remove yourself from the situation, go get some water. It’s okay to take those breaks.”
Chavez said CNN provided her and colleagues with mental health resources, but it has also helped to have her friends in journalism reach out to talk.
“You are not the only one going through this; as a journalist if you have a chance to lean on others, you should do it,” she said.
Chavez’s testimony made me reflect on the many tears I have held back in my career, and how, after the adrenaline faded, I often turned to work as a coping mechanism. I ignored my body screaming at me to take a break from the rush of deadlines. I struggled to say “no.” I wish I had asked for help years ago.
But reporters like me and Chavez didn’t receive training in journalism school, or early in our careers, to prepare us for the trauma we’d experience as reporters. Most journalism schools in the United States don’t offer such classes, even though educators, myself included, believe they’re needed.
We self-condemn for feeling pain thinking it is unfair to the victims, we wrongly assume lack of sleep during these kinds of coverages is normal and something we must “deal with (it)” as part of our jobs.
“You kind of feel this, ‘it’s not about you,’ '' said Liliana Salgado, a video journalist for Reuters.
The Columbine school shooting in Littleton, Colorado occurred in 1999. Back then, journalists never imagined so many more of our schools would also become combat zones.
Salgado said she never imagined she would report on what is now known as one of the nation's deadliest school shootings.
She felt blindsided when she arrived at the Uvalde school. She was unprepared for how her body would react to the anguished screams of parents as they found out their children had died.
“It is the worst scream you will ever hear. It is the worst visual you will ever see,” said Salgado.
After a 16-hour shift, Salgado finally made it to her hotel room feeling numb. That’s when it hit. “My brain was just running around in circles. I could not take those images from my head and I could not take those sounds from my head. I could not stop thinking about how I just witnessed almost the worst moment,” Salgado said.
Salgado was pleasantly surprised to find out that Reuters was making mental health therapists and a Peer Support Network available to her team at any time during Uvalde’s coverage. She said the network consists of veteran colleagues who have received specific training to give support to other journalists.
Arizona Republic news reporter Rafael Carranza reported in Uvalde for five days. It was his second experience with the aftermath of a mass shooting.
“When you're dealing with human tragedies, it's human to grieve and to feel all of these types of things. And I think that as people it's important for us to give ourselves that space and that time to work through (it) rather than, you know, keep it bottled in.”
Carranza added that in Uvalde he hit a breaking point when he stood around the crosses and watched as people began placing flowers and photos of the victims.
“It really, really, hit because you can see the faces of the kids.”
For Telemundo reporter Víctor Hugo Rodríguez, the Uvalde massacre triggered haunting memories of covering shootings at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas in 2017 and El Paso in 2019.
“Those are stories that you bring home. And I feel like we leave part of our heart in every story and then you get depressed when you’re by yourself because you do think about all those people and then you start questioning life and wonder why would someone have to go through that,” Rodríguez said. “I do feel like I’m going to take a lot of those stories with me until I die and I think of them all the time.”
Reporting on the shooting of a 14-year-old girl at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs has been one of his most difficult stories, Rodríguez said, recalling that the victim “was almost the same age as my daughter.”
After covering so much tragedy in his 21-year-journalism career, Rodríguez says he has had to seek help for depression and paid for his own therapy.
“I do believe that there’s PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) for journalists and I think that’s an issue that should be addressed,” he said.
During times of crisis and disasters “journalists are first responders, too,” said Nora López, executive editor of the San Antonio Express News and president of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists. “The problem is that we've been one of the last public service professions to recognize the psychological consequences of this responsibility, and it's one that we take very seriously.”
As a news manager, she added, she recognizes mental health resources need to be available immediately.
“We’re barely bringing counselors, and we’re already two-and-a-half-weeks out, so we need to be doing it a little bit quicker,” she said.
We're Not Alone
So often journalists hide emotions in order to appear unbiased in the face of trauma. But that’s the wrong approach. I found solace, and some therapy, in seeing so much support on social media from peers who highlighted the importance of our mental health and expressed publicly their emotions – some said they even cried on-air.
“We maintain that journalists' notion that we do have to remain unbiased, however, there's always still the fact that we are humans first, and we're journalists second,” said Leslie Rangel, a yoga educator, mental wellness expert, and journalist in Austin, Texas.
She emphasized that, even though we’re journalists, we need to take the time to “flip the lens on ourselves”.
A reporter who becomes emotionally involved with the story should be seen as a strength and not as a weakness, another expert argues.
“The biggest and most important asset that your newsroom has is not the computer or the camera, or the cell phone, but the people and their hearts and minds,” said Luisa Ortiz Pérez, executive director and co-founder of Vita Activa, a helpline of support for trauma, anxiety, and burnouts.
If you need help, Vita Activa offers a helpline with fellow journalists and advocates of freedom of speech and human rights ready and willing to listen to what you are experiencing. They don’t have any mental health professionals, but they will hold the space with you and direct you to resources. It is confidential, anonymous, and free.
Newsrooms need to have resources, such as a crisis suicide prevention line, mental health breaks, and other services routinely available in their healthcare packages, Ortiz Pérez said.
For Rangel, these tools are important for journalists of color.
“I think naturally our culture teaches us that you're supposed to care about others, your family, or your job, or anybody else, and you put yourself last,” she said.“Every time we continue pushing those emotions, the fear of the pain, it just continues building. It's just like shaking up a Coke bottle, eventually, you're gonna keep shaking and shaking and shaking it and then one day the lid is gonna pop off.”
Rangel advises that we challenge ourselves and be a “little selfish” in the process. She created @TheNewsYogi: yoga for journalists, a platform where she shares free trauma counseling for journalists and mental wellness resources. Rangel said the idea came to her after noticing that she was increasingly angry and isolating herself. Her breaking point was an emotional breakdown and crying fit before a liveshot.
As I wrote this and after hearing from my colleagues, I couldn’t stop thinking about the weight of guilt many journalists carry in silence. I have often cried in my car, or endured months of struggling to sleep after covering a tragedy. I didn’t know my body was responding to a work-related vicarious trauma, an occupational challenge for people working and volunteering in the fields of victim services, law enforcement, and first responders. It’s the product of continuous exposure to victims of trauma and violence.
“When you see, hear the sounds of the shootings, when you see the victims crying, when you see people at the burials or the funerals, when you see that your body reacts as if it was happening to you. That is vicarious trauma,” Ortiz Pérez said. “And the more exposed we are to vicarious trauma, the more our bodies need to mourn, to rest and to cope because it is happening to you.”
Resources for Journalists:
The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) says it’s important to recognize the warning signs of trauma, such as difficulties concentrating, unusual irritability or short temper, images or thoughts related to a project intruding at unwanted times, unusual isolation or withdrawal from peer groups or social situations, disruption of sleep, increase in self-medication.
“Research suggests that between 80 and 100% of journalists have been exposed to a work-related traumatic event,” according to a 2015 study by the DART Center for Journalism and Trauma (a resource center dedicated to improving media coverage of trauma, conflict, and tragedy). The study says many journalists experience repeated exposure, with 92% of journalists experiencing at least four traumatic situations.
Taking care of our mental health matters as much as taking care of the mental health of those around us. The last thing we want to do is re-traumatize victims, said visual journalist Sergio Flores
“There's no photo or video that is worth putting empathy second,” said Flores, who witnessed families in Uvalde asking many journalists not to take a photo or video but were ignored, largely by non-local journalists.
“I would see someone crying, like a community member, and then you would just see TV cameras or other people just kind of descend on them and try to get footage or photos of him crying and it just really felt gross to me.”
Flores says at some point he stopped taking photos.
Empathy goes a long way, and rookie video journalist Lidia Terrazas may have taught us a great lesson during her Uvalde coverage.
“Be compassionate in a way that when you see somebody at an altar or memorial, it's not all about getting there with the camera and asking for an interview,” said Terrazas.
When George Rodríguez, a grandfather, asked her for help as he delivered flowers and balloons to his 10-year-old grandson’s cross, Terrazas didn’t question him, or take video. She didn’t see him as a potential exclusive.
Terrazas accompanied him, offered her shoulder, showed kindness, and listened to his pain.
But in a matter of seconds, Terrazas found herself on the other side of the lens when multiple journalists approached with cameras.
“Journalists asked the same question three times in the span of two minutes, ‘what was that kid to you?’ ‘What was your relationship?’ They were reminding him of his grandson, his grandkid who died,” said a crying Terrazas.
She says at some point, he looked at her, overwhelmed with emotion and said, “I already answered that question.”
Terrazas later held the overwhelmed abuelo's hand and walked him to his car.