How a global crisis turns into a personal crisis

It was early March when Krista Allen, a reporter with the Navajo Times, heard about the first suspected cases of covid-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, in Western Navajo. 

“I just sat there for a while, for about a week, because I didn’t want to go over there. I was scared,” Allen told me over the phone.

Allen has worked in the area for a decade, building trust with sources she’s come to know as well as family. Through the Navajo Nation’s clan system, many of them are her family. When she started getting calls and texts about the growing number of people getting sick after a local church rally in Chilchinbito, Arizona, an expanding story about a global pandemic suddenly became very personal. 

Allen overcame her initial hesitation and drove to Chilchinbito. She spent days and nights interviewing people who had attended the rally and whose family members had fallen seriously ill or died. By May, the Navajo Nation’s rates of infection were the highest in the country. “I just have to pray,” she said. “I just have to pray for strength and ask for strength to keep doing this.” Never in her career, she told me, had she ever had to deal with anything like this.

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There’s a lot in 2020 that journalists have never had to deal with before. The threat of covid-19 has disrupted and distorted nearly every aspect of life and made in-person reporting risky; quarantines and shelter-in-place orders have collapsed any separation between work life and home life; the uprising against anti-Black institutional violence has made maintaining journalistic neutrality—if you believed in such a thing in the first place—an ethical impossibility. Reporting on such an unprecedented upheaval, as you’re living through it, makes it a personal crisis, too.

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The last mass-scale news event that caught the Western world’s attention started in 2015, when more than a million people crossed the Mediterranean Sea to seek refuge in Europe. Thousands died along the way; many drowned within sight of shore, or within sight of European authorities. The journalists who covered the death and trauma suffered—their suffering in no way compared to that of the people they were covering, this must be clear, but they suffered nonetheless—from various forms of emotional distress: depression, post-traumatic stress, and moral injury. 

This last diagnosis, moral injury, is perhaps the least familiar. Often described as “a bruise on the soul,” moral injury comes up often in military studies of combat veterans. Other studies in recent years have centered on journalists who report on traumatic events. Moral injury can be triggered by committing, witnessing, or failing to prevent an act that violates one’s personal ethical code. It typically manifests as overwhelming feelings of guilt and shame, but can also emerge as anger, a shattered sense of self, and an inability to trust or forgive. It is distinct from PTSD, and is not considered a mental illness, though it can act as a harbinger of that disorder. Anthony Feinstein, a researcher and psychologist based in Toronto, coauthored a study with Hannah Storm from the International News Safety Institute on moral injury and journalists during the 2015 refugee crisis. Their study describes the condition as a “person’s self-perception that they have lost their moral compass.” For journalists covering the multiple crises of 2020, Feinstein says, moral injury is a significant concern.

“You might argue it’s particularly relevant now,” Feinstein told me, “because there’s so much pressure and threat that people face that it’s easy for behavior to break down and not conform to what people accept as an acceptable moral code.” A time of crisis, he said, can bring out the best in people, but it can also bring out the worst. “People are making judgment calls all the time, and from time to time people will get it wrong.”

In their study, Feinstein and Storm noted the experiences of journalists who attempted to help refugees—for example, making a snap decision to dive into the water to rescue people from an overturned boat. I asked Feinstein, What’s the problem with putting down your camera to help? He broke it down for me: What if there’s more than one person who needs help? How do you choose who to save? What if you fail, and your action or inaction creates more suffering? How do you manage the disappointment or anger or grief of those you’ve let down?

“It’s really important that you get clear in your mind about what you can and cannot do,” Feinstein told me. “You have to understand your role as a journalist, and to value your role as a journalist. When you have that kind of clarity, it becomes a buffer to moral injury. It’s when you haven’t thought these things through, and you potentially blunder through them with well-meaning intentions, that you’re going to end up doing things that, in retrospect, will come back to hurt you.”

 

IN EARLY MARCH, when the pandemic reached New Orleans, Times-Picayune photo editor Max Becherer found himself reaching for the lessons he picked up in Baghdad, as a photojournalist. “When I’m in a conflict zone, I think of what’s the worst-case scenario, and then I make a plan back from that,” he told me on the phone from his car, after a day out shooting.

At least with war —and this, Becherer took pains to point out, was not the same as a war—you could keep yourself running on emotional autopilot for a little while. “You knew you’d be there for three months, then you’d be out.” But without an exit or an end in sight? He sighed. “When is the time to pause?” 

The longer the state of crisis wears on, Feinstein told me, the greater the risks of fatigue, exhaustion, and depression become. 

“It’s ongoing in a way that covering a mass shooting isn’t,” Soumya Karlamangla, a health reporter for the LA Times, told me. “You’re not reporting on the aftermath of the hurricane. You’re reporting on the hurricane coming towards you.”

Karlamangla has covered at least one catastrophic event—mass shootings, fires, a terror attack—every year for the past several years. Covering covid-19 this spring exacerbated many of the anxieties she’s accumulated over time. After several weeks, she consulted her therapist. 

Her therapist’s advice to most patients experiencing similar anxiety—to take breaks from the news—didn’t apply to Karlamangla, though. “I told her I’m not going to stop reporting,” Karlamangla told me, “although I think in an ideal world that’s what she would tell me to do.”

Feinstein’s journalist patients have been calling him for appointments with more frequency in recent months. One of the things they’ve been worried about is bringing the virus to their families. “The story is now suddenly very close to home,” he told me. “What in the past has been a threat directed at other people is now a threat directed at you as well.” On top of covid-19, journalists covering the national protests face immediate threats of harm; more than four hundred violent incidents against media, largely perpetrated by law enforcement, were recorded in the first three weeks. Journalists are also witness to the astronomically higher levels of state violence, and the toll on Black journalists is particularly heavy. 

In their study on the refugee crisis, Feinstein and Storm found that journalists were more likely to develop moral injury if they felt under-resourced and under-supported by their news organizations, if they worked alone, if they were personally connected to the story, or if they grappled with the decision to step outside of their role as journalists.

“News organizations have to foster an environment that allows journalists to take care of themselves,” Feinstein told me. “Yes, the story’s big and there’s a pressing need for news, and it’s probably never been more imperative that the story gets out in a responsible way, but at the same time, to make that happen you need healthy people.” Treat this crisis, he says, like the marathon it is.

 

“THE FIRST TIME I photographed them taking the body bags out of the hospital, the first thing is that you go into your photojournalist mode: Oh my God, this is news,” Stephanie Keith, a freelance photojournalist in Brooklyn, told me over the phone. “After the adrenaline wears off and you’ve taken the photos, then it really starts to sink in. Those are people. Dead people. That come from my community.” After she finished shooting, she walked back to her car and cried.

To cope, Keith relies on an exercise she learned from her doula. She imagines a comforting place from her childhood, picturing it so well in her mind that even in the middle of an assignment, even without closing her eyes, she can temporarily escape death, panic, and sorrow and find reprieve.

“I can’t burn out,” she said. “I have to work. I have children that I’m responsible for.” She keeps working, but she takes breaks from depressing coverage—if she shoots body bags one day, the next day she’ll shoot a story about neighbors helping neighbors.

At High Country News, Paige Blankenbuehler leads a team of staffers tasked with covering covid-19 throughout the American West. She credits the paper’s editor in chief, Brian Calvert, with cultivating a work culture where emotional well-being is prioritized. “He’s been really good about checking in with staff,” she said. “It’s acceptable to step back and take a mental health afternoon if you need it, or start later if you need a morning to collect yourself.” Reporters and editors share poems in the team Slack channel. “Remember,” by Joy Harjo, resonated with the staff. Another is “Sea Canes,” by Derek Walcott:

Half my friends are dead.

I will make you new ones, said earth.

No, give me them back, as they were, instead,

with faults and all, I cried.

Allen, the Navajo Times reporter, prays. In the past three months she has watched the number of infections and deaths in her community rise. “A lot of them are my sources,” Allen told me. “A lot of them are my elders, a lot of them are my grandmothers and grandfathers, my little sisters, my little brothers.” 

So she prays. She takes walks outside and breathes deeply. Her sources, the ones calling her with bad news, also call her to check in. “You need to take a break,” one will tell her. “Walk around and smell the flowers,” another will say. Some offer different medicines, telling her to burn cedar, to boil sage, to let the steam wash over her. So she does, and it helps. It all helps.

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Susana Ferreira is a freelance journalist, producer, and writer. As a correspondent and stringer, she has filed from throughout the world for major dailies, wires, television news networks, and radio. She’s a Portuguese-Canadian dual citizen and speaks five languages—six, if you count “Toronto English.”

TOP IMAGE: AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster