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How Reporters Deal With Dark News

Ivan Watson
Ivan Watson

The daily news is rife with treachery and danger: multiple wars, simmering revolutions, natural and unnatural disasters and random acts of violence. It's enough to make one curl up in a fetal position and avoid the outside world altogether.

But what about those people whose job is to gather and deliver all of that dark news? What does the constant onslaught of terrible tidings do to someone's state of mind?

"Reporters are these strange creatures who go charging towards that plume of smoke. When people are running away from something screaming, we're running toward that something," says Ivan Watson, a former NPR reporter and now senior international correspondent at CNN.

Watson, who is based in Istanbul, was almost caught in an explosion in Iraq — while reporting for NPR in 2008 — when an official NPR vehicle was targeted and bombed, nearly missing him. Over the years, he has covered a raft of difficult stories, including civil unrest in Egypt, the Russian war in Chechnya, conflicts in West Africa and post-9/11 Afghanistan. He is now in the Philippines, covering the recent disastrous typhoon.

"I have made use of therapists to help and deal with the complicated emotions that come from these types of experiences," Watson continues, "and I think that's essential. Basically, the aftereffects of this mean that I don't jump into these situations lightly, there is fear and concern and anxiety before going into one of these stories that I know will be difficult emotionally to handle. I've been down that road before. It's not fun."

Lyse Doucet
Lyse Doucet

'Calculated And Responsible'

Addressing the question of journalistic jitters, Lyse Doucet — chief international correspondent at the BBC — laughs. "I'm not sure I'm a very anxious person at all," says Doucet, who in 2002 was eyewitness to an assassination attempt on Afghanistan president Hamid Karzai.

Doucet has filed dispatches from Palestine and Israel, West Africa, India, Afghanistan, Pakistan and other hotspots around the world, including Syria. She often reports on the aftermaths of major natural disasters.

"Maybe it's a predisposition thing, the way your brain is wired," Doucet says. "I was brought up with faith, so I don't really think about death or anything. It's one of those 'When it's your time, it's your time' kind of thing.'"

Echoing Watson, Doucet says, "I don't willingly go to areas that are extremely turbulent or dangerous, I make sure to be calculated and responsible." In every new city, she does little things that raise her comfort level, like going shopping for bread and eggs at a local supermarket.

"I also don't get too many assignments that might threaten my life," she adds.

But what really keeps her mind off anxiety is her passion for telling stories. She says she focuses on "the narrative. People's stories. That's what is really humbling to me. Who am I in the face of all this? Who am I crossing a troubled border with a crew—along with six-year-old children who have to be brave because they have no other choice? What makes me braver? Nothing."

Ultimately she finds, "in the midst of it all, there is immense kindness and compassion. You'll find people doing extraordinary things in less than extraordinary times."

'The Beautiful Things'

But surely the repetitive stress of chasing bad-news story after bad-news story takes a toll on a reporter.

Ivan Watson finds relief in variety. According to his CNN bio, he has profiled "a millionaire doctor who used hypnosis and shamanistic traditions to treat heroin addicts in the mountains of Kyrgyzstan" and frolicked with "Turkey's enormous and treasured Kangal sheepdogs in the highlands of Anatolia." He also reported on wine in Georgia.

"I tend to try to fight cynicism," Watson says. "I've seen an awful lot of terrible things. I've been on the front row witnessing acts of evil. I tend to try to focus on the beautiful things around it."

In the endless cycle of crises and conflicts, "there are moments when people are taking care of each other," Watson says, "and there is kindness among all this hardship."

The Protojournalist: A reporter's sketchbook. @NPRtpj

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: November 18, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
A previous version of this story misquoted Ivan Watson as saying, "I've needed years of therapy to absorb and deal with some of the very complicated emotions that come from these kinds of experiences." He actually said, "I have made use of therapists to help and deal with the complicated emotions that come from these types of experiences."
Janaki Challa