Journalists Are First Responders, Too

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Editor’s note: A longer version of this article appears in the National Association of Hispanic Journalists’ palabra.

Nicole Chavez found herself in disturbingly familiar circumstances when she rushed to cover the murders of 19 students and teachers at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas. The shootings by an 18-year-old armed with a military-style rifle triggered traumatic memories of covering the murders of 23 people in her hometown of El Paso almost three years ago. 

That 2019 “act of terrorism against Mexicans and the Hispanic community,” as Chavez wrote then, happened at the Walmart where she grew up shopping; her dad and sister could have been there on that day. It was an act “against her people and those she considers family.” Back then, she told palabra that “it was [her] duty” to volunteer to report the story.

But after covering the El Paso shootings, Chavez didn’t sleep for months. “I would wake up in the middle of the night crying; I had nightmares,” she said.

She was afraid those nightmares would return after reporting in Uvalde, another predominantly Latino community.

Chavez is now based in San Antonio, less than 100 miles from Uvalde. I met her a decade ago when I was a reporter in Austin. Knowing her personally, I decided to check in on her and other journalists covering the massacre.

Covering tragedies in your own community is always a difficult assignment. Even from afar, I couldn’t stop thinking of all the families’ anguish and pain as a mother myself. I felt empathy for the journalists with loved ones among the victims, too. Reporter Priscilla Aguirre, who writes for the San Antonio Express-News (MySA), kept reporting and tweeting on the shootings as she found out that her 10-year-old cousin, who survived, was among the victims and critically injured. 

I prayed for those who lost a child. One was Uvalde Leader-News reporter Kimberly Mata-Rubio, the mother of 10-year-old Lexi. Mata-Rubio recently testified about her loss to the U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Reform. The morning of the shooting, she had attended her daughter’s academic ceremonies and promised to take her to ice cream after school to celebrate her good grades.

“I can still see her, walking with us toward the exit,” Mata-Rubio testified. “In the reel that keeps scrolling across my memories, she turns her head and smiles back at us to acknowledge my promise. And then we left. I left my daughter at that school, and that decision will haunt me for the rest of my life.”

Mata-Rubio went to work at the Uvalde Leader-News. Shortly after she heard the news of the shooting.

How to Cope

When I checked in with Chavez, she said her experience in El Paso helped her cope in Uvalde. “When you’re out in the field reporting on these tragedies, you have to let yourself feel,” said Chavez, who now writes about race and equality for CNN.

Chavez has learned through therapy to process her emotions. “If you feel like you want to cry, cry. If you feel like you’re going to scream, call. Take a break, call your mom and call or talk to a friend. Just remove yourself from the situation, go get some water. It’s okay to take those breaks,” she said.

She said her employer provided her and her colleagues with mental health resources, but it has also helped to have colleagues reaching out. “You are not the only one going through this; as a journalist, if you have a chance to lean on others, you should do it,” she said. 

Chavez’s testimony made me reflect on the many tears I have held back in my career and on how, when my adrenaline faded, I often turned to work as a coping mechanism. I ignored my body screaming at me to take a break under the rush of deadlines. I struggled to say “no,” and I wish I had asked for help years ago. 

But reporters like Chavez and me didn’t receive training in journalism school to prepare for the trauma we experience as reporters. The majority of journalism schools in the United States still don’t offer that, even when educators like me think that it is needed. 

The Columbine school shooting occurred back in 1999. But even then, journalists never imagined so many of our schools would turn into combat zones.

Liliana Salgado, a video journalist for Reuters, said she never imagined she would report on Uvalde, now one of the nation’s deadliest school shootings. Salgado was unprepared for how her body would react after hearing the anguished screams of parents discovering their child was dead.

“It is the worst scream you will ever hear. It is the worst visual you will ever see,” said Salgado.

After a 16-hour shift, Salgado returned to her hotel feeling numb, and that’s when it hit. “My brain was just running around in circles. I could not take those images from my head, and I could not take those sounds from my head. I could not stop thinking about how I just witnessed almost the worst moment,” Salgado added. 

Arizona Republic news reporter Rafael Carranza covered Uvalde for five days. It was his second time experiencing the aftermath of a mass shooting. “When you’re dealing with human tragedies, it’s human to grieve and to feel all of these types of things. And I think that as people, it’s important for us to give ourselves that space and that time to work through (it) rather than, you know, keep it bottled in,” he said.

He said he hit a breaking point in Uvalde as he stood around the crosses and watched people putting flowers and the photos of the victims.

“It really, really hit because you can see the faces of the kids.”

For Telemundo reporter Victor Hugo Rodriguez, the Uvalde shooting triggered haunting memories from covering shootings at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs in 2017 and the El Paso shooting in 2019.

“Those are stories that you bring home. And I feel like we leave part of our heart in every story, and then you get depressed when you’re by yourself because you do think about all those people, and then you start questioning life and wonder why someone would have to go through that,” Rodriguez said. “I do feel like I’m going to take a lot of those stories with me until I die, and I think of them all the time.”

Reporting on the killing of a 14-year-old girl at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs has been one of the most difficult stories for him since that victim “was almost the same age as my daughter.”

After covering so many tragedies in his 21-year-journalism career, Rodriguez says he had to seek help for depression and paid for his own therapy: “I do believe that there’s PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) for journalists, and I think that’s an issue that should be addressed.”

During these times of crisis and disasters, “journalists are first responders, too,” said Nora López, executive editor at the San Antonio Express-News and also president of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists (NAHJ).

“The problem is that we’ve been one of the last public service professions to recognize the psychological consequences of this responsibility, and it’s one that we take very seriously,” López said. As a news manager, she recognizes mental health resources need to be available immediately, not during the aftermath.

“We’re barely bringing counselors, and we’re already two and a half weeks out, so we need to be doing it a little bit quicker,” she said.

We’re Not Alone

So often, journalists hide their emotions in an effort to appear unbiased in the face of trauma. But maybe that’s the wrong approach. 

“We maintain that journalists’ notion that we do have to remain unbiased; however, there’s always still the fact that we are humans first, and we’re journalists second,” said Leslie Rangel, a journalist, mental-wellness expert, and yoga educator.

She emphasizes that as journalists, we need to take the time to “flip the lens on ourselves.”

A reporter who becomes emotionally involved with the story should be seen as a strength and not as a weakness, another expert argued.

“The biggest and most important asset that your newsroom has it’s not the computer or the camera, or the cell phone but the people and their hearts and minds,” said Luisa Ortiz Perez, who is the executive director and co-founder of a helpline called Vita Activa.

Empathy goes a long way, and rookie video journalist Lidia Terrazas may have taught us a great lesson during her Uvalde’s coverage.

“Be compassionate in a way that when you see somebody at an altar or memorial, it’s not all about getting there with the camera and asking for an interview,” she said. 

When a grandfather asked her for help as he delivered flowers and balloons to his 10-year-old grandson’s cross, Terrazas didn’t question him as a journalist or take video, nor saw him as a potential exclusive. Instead, Terrazas accompanied him, offered her shoulder, showed kindness, and listened to his pain.

But in a matter of seconds, Terrazas found herself on the other side of the lens when multiple journalists approached with cameras.

“Journalists asked the same question three times in the span of two minutes, ‘what was that kid to you?’ ‘What was your relationship?’ They were reminding him of his grandson, his grandkid who died,” said Terrazas, crying.

She says at some point, he looked at her, overwhelmed, and said, “I already answered that question.” 

Terrazas later held the overwhelmed abuelo’s hand and walked him to his car.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story stated the number of deaths at the El Paso shooting at 22. It was 23. The Texas Observer apologizes for the error.