Knight Fellow in Trauma-Torn Haiti Shares Lessons in Covering Disaster

Dec 142011

I wasn’t sure what to expect when I arrived in Baltimore last month to participate with eight other journalists as Dart’s Ochberg Fellows. I did anticipate, though, that the collective experience of discussing how we cover trauma and disaster was going to be heavy fodder, especially coming from 20-plus months of continuous, on-the-ground work as a Knight Fellow in Haiti following the January 2010 earthquake.

My gut instinct was right. The six-day experience encompassed a full gamut of emotions, from tears and grief to outright guffaws. During our presentations for each other, we dug deep to define the sounds, sights, smells and stories that we experienced, and are still experiencing, as reporters and photojournalists. For most of us, the process of relaying this wasn’t easy. Reliving trauma and disaster is something we prefer not to do.

Yet from these presentations we gained a collective force and organically formed a bond. Regardless of our work – which ranged from war coverage to small town events, and from Delaware to the battlefields of Iraq – we experienced similar fears and challenges. We have had to push past these roadblocks to pursue a career which, despite all, we obviously love.

The week consisted of more than sharing the unique approaches we’ve adopted in the field. Besides the small sessions with my fellow Fellows and our sensitive Aussie leader, lectures and seminars with trauma experts and psychologists gave us science and medical terminology. We also got invaluable advice on how to take better care of ourselves. In-between, we had lavish meals and took long walks. There was a lot to digest.

The knowledge and insight I gained in Baltimore sits with me now that I am back home in Port-au-Prince. It speaks to me in a different way than does the rubble and destruction and poverty that are part of my daily vocabulary.

What it says reminds me that I have, without question, a new support network. I suspect that’s the heart of the Fellowship, the relationships that form from our time together. I know I can rely on a group of experts who have the professional experience and heart to guide me through hard times and help me be a better reporter. I also know that I have a cadre of colleagues who, in the face of extreme circumstances, are still committed to being the eyes and ears of those who cannot tell their own stories. The connection I formed with them is one that keeps me company now.

And if there’s anything good that can come from trauma, it is that.

Editor's note: Knight International Journalism Fellow Kathie Klarreich recently participated in the Dart Ochberg Fellowship program in Baltimore, where the fellows presented personal perspectives on how to cover crises. The Dart Center is part of Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. Klarreich is currently coaching Haitian journalists on investigative reporting skills to help them track aid money coming into their country.