Bill Gentile and Patrick Hamilton made a decision in the 1980s that could have killed them. The photojournalists were covering the Contra war in isolated Nicaraguan
mountains for Newsweek and the Associated Press, respectively,
when they came upon a young man bleeding to death after
being shot in a firefight. “The decision was either to continue
on our way, or to take this kid where he could get real help,”
says Gentile, now an independent journalist and documentary
filmmaker in Washington, D.C.
They chose to help, despite the risk that one of the soldier’s
opponents would kill them all if they were caught “aiding
and abetting” on their way to the nearest hospital — a three-hour dirt road drive away, Gentile says. As a journalist whose
professional role is to document, but not intervene, on such
an assignment, “You really have to be [prepared] to accept the
consequences of the decision, no matter what the consequences
are,” he says. Fortunately, in this case, the three made it to safety.
Most reporters don’t confront such stark life-and-death
situations. But many face ethical and professional decisions
that have physical and mental health implications for both
themselves and their subjects. For example, how should a
journalist approach a survivor of a school shooting? Will news
coverage of a crime victim help the family heal or deepen its
pain? And, how will covering the aftermath of a natural disaster
affect a reporter’s own mental health?
Offering evidence-based guidance to answer such questions
is the mission of the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, a
project of Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism
that provides tip sheets, seminars and other resources to
newsrooms and reporters. Its research program is run out of
the University of Tulsa psychology department by psychology
professor and trauma expert Elana Newman, PhD, who oversees
research on audiences’ responses to coverage of trauma, the
occupational health of journalists and more.
Bruce Shapiro, the center’s executive director and a longtime
human rights reporter, says it’s the authority of the Dart
Center’s research that makes it a trustworthy source among
journalists — a notoriously skeptical audience.
The psychological research behind the Dart Center for
Journalism and Trauma is helping journalists who cover
disasters do their jobs safely and ethically.
BY ANNA MILLER • Monitor staff