For the The Post and Courier, the newspaper in Charleston, S.C., it’s been a crazy three months. The regional paper has been driving the coverage of the shootings at the Emanuel AME Church.
The small newsroom’s reporters have been working flat out for more than two weeks, since the first word of the attack started coming across the police scanner. Reporters were dispatched all over the city, many to the church, where they joined a swarm of officers and police dogs. Tony Bartelme, a 30-year newsroom veteran, headed to the hospital, where he met the grandson of one of the victims outside.
“He kept on saying ‘I’m lost, I’m lost; I don’t know if my grandmother’s alive now,’ ” Bertelme says. “Then, about an hour later, I just heard him scream.”
Even before the shootings, it had been an emotional time for everyone at the paper. In April, they won a Pulitzer Prize for their coverage of the grim subject of domestic violence. The same month, they were the first news organization to post video of the fatal shooting of Walter Scott by a police officer in North Charleston.
They built a database of every police shooting in the state, a project that Bartelme says required 12-hour days. “We were doing a six-month project in a month and a half.”
The Post and Courier has been working on a series of high-profile stories, whether being out front on the Confederate flag coming down or writing the definitive narrative of the nine people killed inside the church.
“We don’t want to leave the office,” says reporter Deanna Pan. “National reporters can jump in and jump out, but for us, this is not just our job. It’s where we live.”
“It’s a very addictive state of mind,” says Bartelme after haggling with editors over column inches for his latest story about the shootings. “You are looking for new stuff. Your mind is constantly on it. You’re hard to live with.”
“Journalists who cover highly traumatic events are as vulnerable to psychological injury as police officers or EMTs or firefighters,” says Bruce Shapiro of the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma.
He says that the trauma is doubly hard for local reporters, who are part of the community and don’t get to leave the story behind.
“They are grieving as they are reporting,” Shapiro says. “Now, this can be a powerful source of mission. But it also can be a source of real stress.”
When the shooting story broke, reporter Andrew Knapp was about to have cake and sing happy birthday to his wife, “and so I had to leave my wife and children on her birthday to go cover the news.”
When I met him two weeks later, he’d been working on a profile of Dylann Roof, talking to friends and family of the alleged shooter. Knapp looked exhausted. His eyes were red and he took long pauses, telling me about when he went home at night.
“I usually had my radio off, and I would just sit in silence reflecting on what I’d learned and my own emotions about it and it was difficult to go through.”
The paper is monitoring its reporters and offers counseling to those who seem to need it.