I’m a Black Reporter. Covering America Almost Broke Me.

Journalists pay a personal toll covering public tragedies.

Reporter Jesse J. Holland
Jesse J. Holland interviews then-Rep. J.C. Watts of Oklahoma in Washington, D.C., in an undated photograph. Courtesy of the author

Years ago, when I was in the midst of covering the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and others, I woke up one morning feeling a little uncomfortable and weird.

I didn’t think much about it, because as a reporter for a major international news organization I had to get to work. I had spent months trying to collect news stories that documented the deaths of African Americans, like me, at the hands of police. At work, I’d look at death again and again, something I was used to. I’ve been a media witness at four executions, and my first professional beat was crime and policing, so I’d seen my share of dead bodies and dying people.

But at the same time as I dealt with violent death at work, I had responsibilities as a father and husband at home. My first job every morning was to get my children up, feed them, get them dressed, and take them to day care in downtown Washington, D.C., then drive to work.

I loaded my children into my truck that morning and was driving out into traffic when it hit. My chest seized, it became hard to breathe, and my heart started racing uncontrollably.

I remember thinking, “I’m too young for a heart attack, but this is what I’d think one would feel like.” But the only thing I could focus on was that I had two children in the car with me. “I’ve got to get my children somewhere safe before I hit a lamppost or another car or die behind the wheel,” I thought to myself. So I rushed them to their day care and then staggered back out to my car.

I rushed from Southeast D.C. to Alexandria, Virginia, praying that I would make it in time. And I did. I checked myself into the emergency room and sat there until a doctor showed up and examined me. After administering hours of tests, the doctor determined it wasn’t a heart attack or a stroke. It was a panic attack, my very first.

But it wouldn’t be my last.

While reporting on the deaths of African Americans— Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Freddie Gray, and dozens of others—and covering other incidents of mistreatment and abuse that are less known, I had a few more panic attacks. I learned to recognize them and manage my way through them without letting anyone else know.

I finally realized that witnessing, working with, explaining, covering, and consuming the idea of so much death and violence was having a serious physical and mental effect on me, both as a journalist and as an African American man. I was always angry and stressed. I would snap at people, including my family, with little or no provocation. I became less and less tolerant of people and tired of explaining racism and its detrimental effects, even if the questioner really just wanted to understand what was going on in the United States.

Eventually, I started hating having to go to work because I knew I would have to read, hear, listen to, or watch more trauma or death.

And it was unrelenting.

I used to be able to leave work at work, but with the creation of 24-hour news channels, always-on cell phones with emails that had to be answered, and Slack channels that had to be monitored, letting editors ask questions at all times of night, there was never an end. Nor was there an end to the stories of abuse, pain, and death.

News organizations have gotten used to the idea that war correspondents might carry a burden of trauma. PTSD counseling is often given to foreign staff. The BBC’s Fergal Keane set a courageous example when he stepped down from his role due to his own trauma. But we haven’t started thinking about what it means to face that trauma and death at home.

I’m not asking for anyone’s sympathy. I made the choice to be a journalist.

And I’m better now. I’ve been better for a few years. I’ve learned to cut off television, radio, internet, and my telephone, and forcibly divorce myself from the news until absolutely necessary and then only in the doses I know I can handle.

But for you journalists out there right now, know that your body, your mind, and your soul have limits that they will all enforce, one way or another.

Just like first responders, journalists in the United States are firsthand witnesses to some of the worst in humanity: violence, hatred and death. But unlike first responders, we have to immediately make it make sense to people who aren’t there and aren’t seeing what we see.

We internalize it, describe it to the public, and then go right back out there again.

And then our friends and family, who go to work and ignore the news until after their daily work is done, want to talk to us about what happened, or watch it on television at home, never realizing they are just putting us back into the same trauma we witnessed at work.

And for black journalists and other journalists of color, it can be worse. You know that it only takes a millisecond for the violence you’re witnessing to become violence being perpetrated against you, whether at a traffic stop, a protest, or a crime scene.

Seeing and living with all of that trauma will catch up to you. Maybe not this week, or next week, or next month, but it will have an effect on you.

I should have seen a professional a long time ago. That’s on me, but I’m telling you, the on-the-street journalist covering these protests, to demand time to take care of yourself.

An organization to which I belong, the National Association of Black Journalists, has a list of ways to cope during this time.

The news will be there when you get back, and, unfortunately, I promise you that there will be another atrocity, another protest, another death to be covered.

What you’re seeing, what you’re doing, is going to take a toll on you, your loved ones, and your friends. Don’t become a victim of the trauma you’re trying to show the world.

Your work is too important for us to lose you too.

Jesse J. Holland now teaches journalism at the George Washington University after spending more than 25 years as an author, TV analyst, and Associated Press journalist. He can be reached at @jessejholland on Twitter, @authorjessejholland on Instagram, and Jesse J. Holland on Facebook. Twitter: @jessejholland