Compassion goes a long way when reporting on tragedies like Boston & Newtown

By Genevieve Belmaker for Poynter

Journalists are often warned about the perils of getting emotionally involved with stories and subjects, but when reporting on a tragedy there’s always room to act as a human being first and a reporter second.

Reporting on the pain of the small college town of Blacksburg, Va., after the horrific 2007 shootings at Virginia Tech, my natural instinct was to grieve with the folks there. At the time, though, I didn’t know how to use my emotions as a compass to help me connect with people I needed to interview.

But six years later, I know that for journalists in such terrible situations our humanity is a strength, not a weakness.

Bill Leukhardt, a reporter with the Hartford Courant, has seen tragedy from both sides. His stepdaughter, Lauren Rousseau, was one of the teachers killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., on Dec. 14.

Leukhardt, whose wife is also a journalist, said during a recent symposium at Columbia University dealing with breaking news, trauma and the aftermath that they understood why they received so many media inquiries after their stepdaughter’s death. But that didn’t make it any easier to open up for interviews.

The symposium was presented by Columbia Journalism School’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism and the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma on Monday in New York City for an audience of mostly working journalists and journalism students.

Leukhardt and many other panelists had an overarching message for reporters speaking to the grieving: show compassion and acknowledge loss.

“Kindness is what really resonates with families,” Leukhardt said, adding that when people who knew victims don’t want to be interviewed, leave them alone. “Be respectful, be kind.”

Read the rest here at Poynter

Training Journalists for Trauma in the Field


NEW YORK—Peering through the haze from a smoke bomb, with the simulated sounds of war in the background, Igor Kossov bent over to bandage a fake wound on a dummy. Though it looked like a scene for a movie, Kossov was rehearsing for the real thing.

(R-L) Ben Depp, David Sperry, and Igor Kossov run to injured bodies during RISC training simulation. (Samira Bouaou/The Epoch Times)

Kossov was one of 24 freelance conflict journalists from all over the world—10 of whom are based in New York City—who took part in life-saving first-aid training last week at the Bronx Documentary Center.

Reporters Instructed in Saving Colleagues (RISC) was created by former conflict journalist Sebastian Junger after his close friend and colleague Tim Hetherington was killed during a mortar attack while working in Misrata, Libya, in 2011. When Junger found out that Hetherington may have lived if someone had known how to treat his wounds, he decided to start a basic medical training program for conflict journalists.

The RISC medical kit straps to the side of the leg and is given to journalists who complete the training. (Samira Bouaou/The Epoch Times)


Don’t Wait to be Inspired to Write

I once read this great story about a young writer named Amanda Hocking.  Hocking writes fantasy stories and became a guru of self-publishing (translation: financially successful) before getting a pretty sweet deal from a publisher for a couple million dollars.

But that’s not what I like about Hocking. What’s cool about her is that even as a young writer, she was smart enough to work as hard as possible on her writing and sell it in any way she could. She said in the story I read about her with the NYTimes that she treated writing as a job, and wrote even when she “didn’t feel like it.”

That mixture of old school and new school is a magic combination these days. The new ways to get ideas and information out put the power in the hands of writers. If you really want to write and publish something, nobody can stop you except you. You could still flop, but at least you’d be writing and trying to sell your writing. It reminds me of street musicians. They are out there, performing, doing their thing, even though it’s just on the street. They might be making $50 or $100 a day, but at least they are practicing, performing, and getting better (hopefully) at their craft.

Personally, I love street musicians just because of that. They overcome who knows what to get out and perform for strangers. Writers have to do the same thing. It’s easy to write in a journal and be bold about what you are saying when you know nobody is going to read it. It’s easy to write any old thing on your blog and post it for the entire Internet-using world to potentially see. But to write professionally and with a purpose is different. To write as a writer, regardless of external forces that might make it seem unfeasible for you to work.

There’s a great TED talk by a guy named Gary Vaynerchuk, called Do what you love (no excuses!). My favorite line in Vaynerchuk’s talk goes something like this: “If you love Smurfs, Smurf it up!” Well said, man.

Don’t Give in to the Temptation to Give Up

It’s tempting as a journalist to give up and just find some other job. Something more stable, predictable and that feeds a steady paycheck into the bank account. There is also the in-between realm of working a “day job” that pays the bills and doing journalism on the side in one’s spare time.

There is nothing wrong with wanting to pay the bills, but I can speak from experience on this one–working a day job and being a journalist on the side is an incredibly slow way to get the experience you need and want. There are cases of those who are incredibly focused and get themselves into a niche and ride it all the way to quitting their day job and becoming a full-time journalist. But if you add much of a personal life in there–spouse or kids, for example–you are probably looking at several years of dragging along and not making much progress.

Then there is the temptation to just find “other people’s projects” and tag yourself on to them. In other words, “get hired” for other jobs. There again, you are going to have to spend precious time working at finding work. All time that you will not be spending working as a journalist.

I had an epiphany recently about the structure that makes the most sense for a freelance journalist who wants to be their own man. Or woman. My theory is not tested yet, but in my head it makes a lot of sense, and it is measured against 7 years of experience as a freelancer.

It goes something like this:

1. BE CREATIVE. Designate at least 1-2 projects you are working on that have no current market or audience, but that you feel strongly about. This could be a book or short story or essay you are working on.

2. BE PRODUCTIVE. Spend some time every day writing. Try to make it the same time or time frame. Test different times and see what makes the most sense for you. Put aside everything else during that time, including hiding your cell phone and email accounts. Writing emails does NOT count.

3. BE IN CONTROL. Realize that you are the one who is in control of what you work on. Don’t let yourself get pushed and pulled into doing things that have nothing to do with your work as a journalist. If that means you have to take your camera with you when you take your kid for a walk so you can practice photography, then just do it. Integrate your craft into your life–don’t try to manipulate your life to fit what you imagine your career is.

4. STAY IN THE LOOP. Be in touch frequently with other journalists. Meet them in person, connect through social media, send emails. Whatever you need to do. When you know what other journalists are doing with their time, it will inspire and push you to do more, do better, and quite simply–just do.

5. MANAGE YOURSELF. If your goal is to try to make a living as a freelance journalist, you are your most valuable resource. Don’t underestimate the value of being able to write, report, photograph, interview, research, find good stories. Despite the current market’s general disrespect for journalists (in terms of pay), realize that this is a highly valuable skill set. Market your skills with that in mind, and don’t take any wooden nickels.

6. MIX PROJECTS. Use a mixture of projects to advance your experience and credibility and livelihood as a journalist. Take on some projects that are just because you want to do them, some that are paid but have little to do with your real passions, and some that might develop into something better. You will know what works based on your financial needs. Don’t do only projects that are your dream projects, nor all jobs that are just to pay the bills.

Any other points to add to this list, let me know. I’d love to hear them.