The balancing act: journalism and stress

My fiancé did not want to hear it.

I had just turned on an interview I had conducted with a coworker, Jeff Hullinger, that I would eventually post as a podcast. I left the interview running in the living room as my fiancé walked in, hung out for a minute, and walked back out.

Why? Because Hullinger had earlier that week witnessed an execution, and in the interview he described in powerful detail what he saw.

“I hope that interview wasn’t too much for you,” I said later to my fiancé.

Her response? “Yeah, I went into the other room and closed the door.”

The curtness in her voice made it clear how she felt.

This situation is not unique to me. Hullinger’s wife, he said, had given him a clear instruction when he accepted the execution assignment: “I don’t ever want to hear about it.”

This situation is also not unique to my life … and that concerns me.

I accepted long ago that I receive, as a journalist, an extraordinary amount of access unavailable to most. That access is often a treasure: I have traveled to the Olympics, interviewed countless celebrities and public figures, and enjoyed fascinating and probing conversations with people I otherwise never would have met.

In other cases, that access is a burden, a necessary evil in the journey to inform.

In my dozen years as a journalist, I have witnessed the wreckage of floods and tornadoes. I have interviewed people in their most vulnerable, anguished states. I have sat with children during times of extreme sickness; in some cases, I have even attended their funerals.

Even when I covered the Sochi Olympics, we received beforehand severe internal warnings about the potential for terrorism, which left several of my co-workers questioning their decisions to take the assignment.

Witnessing an execution is an extreme example; Hullinger described to me his need, early on in the process, to simply close his eyes for 20 seconds and brace himself for the horror he was about to witness. I often feel similarly on a smaller scale; I report countless stories where I must first steel my heart before heading into the field.

And yet, I cannot steel myself too much. I need to remain able to be moved by my story, to absorb its emotions and importance. I must stay attuned to the larger societal questions surrounding virtually every assignment I receive, even as those issues bring a level of stress that is sometimes overwhelming.

Being a journalist requires me to know about the issues. Being a good journalist requires me to care about them.

And I want to be a good journalist.

So I must often allow myself to absorb the stress that comes with access.

Either way I cannot easily tune out the information I learn, though I can sometimes defuse it with context. Two weeks ago I covered several stories about massive car break-ins in my neighborhood; I learned, through my research, Atlanta’s police department handles thousands of car robberies per year. This naturally made me somewhat concerned about my own car, but I quickly reconciled that by crunching the numbers and realizing the extremely low odds of my car getting robbed, especially if I took the right precautions. I could not avoid my newfound knowledge, but at least I could put it in its place.

Some experiences cannot be so easily discarded.

I, for example, have not witnessed an execution, but I have covered one on site. In 2012 Troy Davis had been scheduled for death on a hot summer day amidst extreme controversy about his sentence. I arrived at the state prison early that day and documented the emotion outside; I covered a string of protests, interviewed Rev. Al Sharpton and the rapper Big Boi from Outkast, and filed reports and Tweets as the tension ratcheted. At one point, shortly before Davis was to be executed, roughly a hundred law enforcement agents lined up in several rows around the prison grounds, presumably to prevent a potential riot from the protesters. I will always remember the bitter tension and ominous tone as the night emerged and Davis’ death neared.

I will never forget what happened next.

The state conducted the execution as planned, and word filtered quickly through the crowd.

And everyone went quiet.

Hundreds of protesters, whose had all day used their voices to represent defiance and perseverance, could not muster a word. Some mustered tears; others held hands and bowed heads in prayer. Then they gradually, silently, headed home.

I drove back to the station that night completely drained … and completely changed. These days, whenever I see a report about someone receiving the death penalty, I momentarily flash back to that night. I remember its gravity, and I remember the pain of that silence.

Every moment like that removes a little more innocence. Stories hang around like scars.

But I remain fully aware: in this job, I will continue to collect them.

And I hope I don’t damage myself in the process.

I often worry about the long-term effects of workplace stress. I notice it on those nights where I am too restless to fall asleep; I feel it on my social media feed when an unrelated headline triggers memories of past stories. I freely admit to practicing meditation and breathing techniques, and I work hard to always recognize the many sources of beauty in this world.

Again, I try to take the long view.

I love my job, and more importantly I believe in it. I see first-hand the power of journalism and storytelling, and so often I use my access to spotlight moments of positivity and inspiration. This past week I profiled a high school senior, diagnosed with autism, whose football team put him into a game so he could run for a touchdown. I posted the video to Facebook, and within 12 hours it had been shared 1,000 times and reached nearly 100,000 people.

I care too much about what I do to want to give that up … even when the story is so often the opposite.

Throughout the Hullinger interview I kept thinking about whether I would want to witness something like that. I definitely would not want to, of course, but I imagine it would make me think about the death penalty and cover it in a vastly different — and human — way.

Would it be worth the sacrifice? Would it be worth the stamp of permanent memories of an unfathomable image?

I don’t know. I have never been offered that assignment, so I have never had to confront that decision head-on.

But the journalist in me would feel compelled to take it.

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