An emotional toll: reporters and the “big story”

By David Baxley, SPJ South Carolina, Assistant Professor of Mass Communication, Francis Marion University

May 20, 2013 – a day many living in central Oklahoma won’t soon forget. Twenty-four people died during an onslaught of tornadoes that afternoon. The southern Oklahoma City suburb of Moore felt perhaps the worst blow when seven children died inside Plaza Towers Elementary School.

Long-form broadcast tornado coverage is certainly nothing new. Stations compete to bring viewers the best explanation of the dangerous storms, complete with live helicopter footage and reporters scattered in live “mobile’ units across the entire viewing area. The real-life emergency viewers see flashed on their television screens resemble scenes in a blockbuster movie. And, part of that reality involves news crews who are sent out to cover the storms’ aftermath.

The adrenaline is pumping.

I’ve never seen anything like this. In my 18 years of covering tornadoes here in Oklahoma City. This is, without question, the most horrific … [breaks down] … I’ve ever seen.” – Lance West

Reporters are ready to give an accurate account of what has happened, who is involved, and how it impacts viewers. But, how are reporters ready to handle stories that involve death, destruction and despair?

There is nothing to prepare you

When Plaza Towers Elementary School collapsed on that day, KFOR in Oklahoma City sent out one of their best reporters – Lance West.

“I’ve never seen anything like this. In my 18 years of covering tornadoes here in Oklahoma City. This is, without question, the most horrific … [breaks down] … I’ve ever seen.”

Quickly, the anchors on the news desk, Kelly Ogle and Linda Cavanaugh, explained to viewers the emotional toll the devastation was having on their colleague.

“You’ve got to understand, when you do down to these scenes and you see first hand – not just through the prism of the television – but you’re there living it, it is an extremely emotional event for reporters as well as all those involved,” Ogle said to viewers.

He’s going to get that information for us, but he’s human just like the rest of us …” – Kelly Ogle, KFOR Oklahoma City

And, he was right. No amount of experience can prepare you for seeing dead and maimed people while others search for loved ones.

Lance West, KFOR

Ogle followed up: “Lance is one of our best reporters … Emmy Award Winning reporter. He’s going to get that information for us, but he’s human just like the rest of us …”

But, most days, news viewers never see the full impact of gut-wrenching, sad, emotionally jarring stories journalists cover each day. Each reporter has a different way of dealing with such traumatic events while covering the “big story.”

Stephen Hauck, a television news reporter/anchor for 20 years, has also covered his share of tragic events, including tornadoes. While working for the CBS affiliate in Birmingham, Alabama, Hauck and his photographer brought video images of total destruction after a monstrous tornado ripped through Jefferson County, Alabama, in 1998.

“For many days, I interviewed people and told their stories, and witnessed first-hand the shocking power of nature wipe-out multiple communities,” said Hauck.

But, even that would not prepare Hauck for what would come 18 years later.

Covering the Pulse nightclub massacre

Hauck had not been on the job long at Orlando’s WOFL FOX 35 when terrorist Omar Mateen walked in the Pulse nightclub on June 12, 2016. According to Hauck, the day would become the single most emotional and challenging day of his entire career.

Stephen Hauck covered the tragic Pulse nightclub massacre soon after starting his job at WOFL FOX 35 in Orlando, Florida. Photo by FOX 35 WOFL-TV

As one of the first reporters on the scene early that morning, he witnessed the unimaginable carnage, the chaotic scene of victims transported to a local hospital, and the wail of families crying out for their loved ones.

“Because there were so many casualties and injuries, I even witnessed police officers carrying bodies in pick-up trucks and rushing into the ER entrance,” Hauck said.

“What I witnessed was the countless family members and friends of the victims, coming to the hospital to check on the condition of the victims they knew – but, in the middle of the chaos, they couldn’t get any answers – as to whether or not the person they loved was even in the hospital or was dead on the club floor.”

… I had to intentionally, deliberately, not allow myself to be consumed by the emotion of the story …” – Stephen Hauck covering Pulse nightclub massacre

He vividly recalls interviewing relatives and friends of those who had been killed just a short time earlier. Consciously, Hauck kept his composure.

Stephen Hauck

“I just knew if I was going to be any benefit whatsoever as a television reporter, I had to keep my focus on reporting the news. It was not easy, but I had to intentionally, deliberately, not allow myself to be consumed by the emotion of the story – concerning victims, where they were being treated, how people can help, the needs of the community, and so forth.”

And, once the scene was cleared on that tragic day, the emotional onslaught didn’t stop. In the days and weeks that followed, more stories about who the victims were had to be told. The raw emotion of telling those stories, just like any traumatic story for a journalist, can be overwhelming. For Hauck, he turned to his faith.

Finding support 

Hauck says God helps him process through emotionally stories. Photo by Rodney Dube

“I have always relied on my faith in God to help me through,” he said.

“I’ve always felt God had me in each situation for a reason and has been able to use me as a conveyor of information that benefited the community. So, since I feel I cover these stories for a reason, it allows me to process through each of them, knowing God will help me recover, and prepare me for the next story.”

Hauck also believes journalists must take some time off to get away from the hectic challenges of working as a journalist. Every year, he volunteers his time on mission trips, allowing him to replenish and renew his mind and soul.

Sometimes you have to allow yourself to cry

Ellis Eskew, Anchor WAKA-TV Montgomery, Alabama

Ellis Eskew, an anchor/reporter at WAKA-TV in Montgomery, Alabama, has covered her share of sad and emotional stories, too. “There are times that I have cried when I got back to the station and started to write the story,” she said. “But I think that is okay. It is part of the process, especially if it’s an emotional story.”

Eskew, who has worked in TV news for 15 years, recalls once reporting live from the scene of a school bus crash that killed four students. “It’s important in times like these to concentrate on getting the facts and reporting them as clearly as possible,” said Eskew.

To replace those sad thoughts, she volunteers her time. Doing so “we can help make you feel better about the situation,” she said.

You have to remember what you role is. You can help serve the community and families best by staying calm, collecting the facts and reporting those facts.” – Ellis Eskew, WAKA

Whether it’s covering a devastating tornado, a fatal bus crash, a nightclub shooting, reporters have a responsibility to uphold journalistic integrity. But, the long hours, the deadline pressure and the emotionally-draining stories can eventually take a toll on a journalist’s well-being.

Find a way to combat that stress. Remind yourself to do the best job you know how to do, but also keep in mind you are, after all, human. Learn to take a step back every now and then, and bring it all back into perspective. You’ll be happy you got your mind off the never-ending news cycle for a little while – or, at least until the next “big story.”

David Baxley

David Baxley is Assistant Professor of Mass Communications, Francis Marion University, and a SPJ South Carolina member. Baxley worked in broadcast news since 1999. He is also a meteorologist. Before entering academia in 2016, Baxley worked as an investigative producer at WIAT-TV in Birmingham, Alabama, for two years.