No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main…
Any man’s death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind…
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls
It tolls for thee.
Nothing breaks a heart more than listening to the guttural sobs of a mother in front of her child’s body, charred beyond recognition. But she knows her blood. Or what was her blood, until the evening before. As I heard the cries, I took a step back, breathed deeply and said a quiet prayer before my first encounter with death in the dusty grounds of the civil hospital in Dabwali, Haryana.
It was Christmas Eve, 1995. A fire had broken out at a school event taking place at a local hall. A synthetic tent and the nylon-strung chairs inside caught fire when an electric generator short-circuited. There was only one exit. There were close to 1,500 people inside. Over 400 of them died that evening – children performing on stage, proud parents in the audience. Not a single household in the small town was spared from tragedy that day.
I had begun working as a broadcast journalist eighteen months earlier. It was my way of combining my love for writing with the pull I felt towards a powerful image, first ignited by one of the world’s most famous, even if somewhat controversial war photographs, The Falling Soldier, by Robert Capa. The image was of a militiaman taking a bullet in his head and falling to his death on to the grass during the Spanish civil war in 1936. For months after I first saw it, I felt both drawn to it and haunted by it at the same time. Drawn to Capa’s courage to go to the battlefield, haunted by what must have gone through the soldier’s mind. It was a black-and-white photograph, but my mind painted colours on to it: the clear blue and bright yellow of the sky, the grassy green meadow beneath his feet. If I could have been there, I would have known for sure. And I found myself wishing I had been.
As I walked down the main street in Dabwali though, Capa and the grassy meadow beneath the soldier’s feet were another universe entirely. Dabwali was real and I wasn’t looking at a picture on a wall; I was taking the picture instead. There was a clear blue December sky above, but the ground was tainted with burnt flesh, and the stench of death was everywhere. Nothing, no image, no classroom lecture in mass communications, had prepared me for what I was encountering that morning. The camera crew and I had driven through the night from Delhi, nearly ten hours on the road, and arrived first at the civil hospital a little before eight in the morning. I had been unable to close my eyes all night, afraid of the unknown. How close will I have to go to a burnt body? How will I handle myself when a parent breaks down in front of me? How will I deal with the questions, endless questions about punishment and justice? After all, as a young journalist on a story, what could I offer beyond platitudes? I felt at sea, completely unsure of how to prepare myself for my first brush with death. As a child I had been more than squeamish about blood. I was the kind who was exempted from dissection labs in biology class and had never seen a dead frog or rat, forget a human being.
Here, I had to confront someone else’s raw grief for the first time. I didn’t know what to say to the mother I met, or others like her, fathers, uncles, aunts, wives and husbands who were either crumpled over a body they had identified, or were frantically looking for anything, a shoe, a piece of jewellery, an article of clothing that survived the fire, anything that would help them identify their own. My colleague picked up the camera and walked in. He was a little more acquainted with such situations than I was. I told him to go in and I would follow, not quite sure what I was waiting for, and unwilling to admit that all the courage and bravado I thought I had were suddenly gone, overpowered by the black, burnt flesh I could smell in the air, on my clothes, everywhere.
That’s what violence and death do, not to those who suffer it, but to those who stand on the sidelines. Young reporters or battle-hardened senior correspondents, it makes us buckle under, it makes us afraid. It makes us thank our stars and say, ‘I’m grateful that’s not happening to me.’
But the truth is, it is. I didn’t suffer the grief of loss, but the tragedy happened to me. The helplessness and futility of what had happened to every resident of Dabwali were all too real. The need to tell it without allowing my own fear to show through was my personal tragedy. It was my challenge alone. The inability to admit to my anxieties, the fear of appearing weak to bosses and colleagues made the aloneness worse. As the sun became brighter over us, we finished our interviews and hit the road to make our way back to Delhi to file. The crew stopped for tea at a dhaba along the highway. I couldn’t put a morsel of food or a sip of tea down my throat. As I retched by the side of the road with the memory of images I had seen that morning, the woman at the dhaba forced a piece of mango pickle into my mouth. To stop the nausea and dizziness, she said. I didn’t lose anyone that day, but I wonder whether I lost a little bit of myself as I set about reporting, dry-eyed and straight-faced, hiding behind a false steeliness that fell away as soon as we left the scene.
British journalist Giles Fraser wrote in the Guardian in August 2014: ‘… being calmly rational about dead children feels like a very particular form of madness. Whatever else journalistic objectivity is, it surely cannot be the elimination of human emotion. If we do not recognize that, we are not describing the full picture.’ He was writing about Gaza, but really, he could be talking about any place in the world, and any one of us. And walking that line between emotionality and neutrality, between interference and detachment are challenges we all confront each time we set out to report on disaster, conflict or tragedy.
Our stories don’t just impact the people who hear or read them, they change those of us who tell them too, in insidious ways that we don’t realize until we are confronted with the next calamity, and our responses are suddenly different. Do they make us more human, more empathetic to those who are grieving? Or do we reach a point where we are desensitized to the pain and suffering we see?
I often find myself having a macabre conversation with the ghosts of stories past, asking which was worse, the fire accident in Dabwali, or was it walking through what came to be known as ‘amputee camps’ in Sierra Leone, where innocent adults and children were out and about, limbless. They were what is often referred to as collateral damage in a brutal civil war between the Sierra Leone government and military, and rebels fighting for control of the country’s vast natural resources – blood diamonds sold in illegal markets all over the world.
Or was it standing on a sidewalk in New York on 11 September 2001, ten blocks north of the World Trade Center, watching people, tiny in the distance, jump out of buildings, being swallowed up by flames before those buildings came crumbling down in a heap of rubble. What made them do that? Did they think they would survive jumping out of a window 104 floors above the ground? Or was that a better alternative to waiting for the flames to swallow them? Because there was certainly no help that was going to be able to reach them on time. I was on the phone with the studios in Delhi, describing to the anchor what was going on before my eyes. To this day, I don’t know how I found the words to do so, given the dread I felt while squinting to see arms flailing in the not so distant sky.
Six months before going to Freetown I went through the most life-changing experience I have lived through so far. My first assignment as foreign correspondent took me to Colombo to cover the presidential elections in December 1999. Chandrika Kumaratunga, fighting to be re-elected, was addressing her last election rally on the night of 18 December 1999 at the Town Hall grounds in the Lankan capital. She’d been a target of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) for a long time, so security was tight and therefore we felt confident we were all safe.
But we were all wrong.
As I went up to the foot of the stage to ask her a question or two on her way to her armoured Mercedes, a woman strapped with explosives appeared from the crowds behind the barricades, running towards the president’s car. Before then, I had only heard the sound of an explosion in movies. That night, the earth shook beneath my feet at the Town Hall grounds in Colombo. I don’t have the words to describe the sound, either of the explosion, or of my screams seconds after, as I looked around for my colleague Gaurav Dwivedi. For the split second I didn’t spot him standing behind me, as numbed as I was, panic reached my throat and erupted in violent screams that are still on tape. Chandrika was whisked away into the car, and we were left standing in the midst of splintered bodies of guards, journalists and policemen. Over twenty people died around us that night, fourteen of them blown to smithereens. The torso of Colombo’s director general of police lay on the ground like a ghoulish exhibit from a horror show. Pieces of flesh, his as well I am sure, had flown on to my face, got stuck in my hair and on my clothes. Of this, I had no idea, though, until I saw myself in the mirror sometime later.
When something dramatic happens, everyone talks of things becoming a blur. But I can replay each minute without confusion or embellishment, without missing a detail even after all these years. I have never watched the footage we recorded on tape that night, even though it has been played several times in promos for the news. Walking past the edit bays in office, if I hear the tape, I still freeze with fear.
That night, after we battled our hotel cabbie who didn’t want us to stain his pristine white seat covers with somebody else’s blood, hotel staff at what was then the Lanka Oberoi hurriedly escorted us away from the lobby – out of sight of the few holidaymakers and tourists they had as guests for the Christmas week. That was when I saw myself. In the elevator going up to our rooms my blood-streaked face was unrecognizable to me. I went straight into the shower, clothes, shoes on. I was wearing a brand-new lime-green kurta and a white churidar, scrubbing away blood and flesh, watching it all flow into the drain of the bathtub, tears of horror and fear camouflaged by the water streaming down my face. I insisted that Gaurav and I stay together through the night, wide awake, watching MTV in the hotel room because I didn’t want to see the news and live through what we had just survived; fearing even the shadows that the trees outside were casting on the sheer curtains of the room.
We came back to Delhi the next night, to tell the story of what happened, and it’s only after several years and after several conversations with friends and counsellors that I can admit to being afraid. So afraid to shut my eyes and sleep that it took me a month to turn the lights off at night again. So afraid that even today, retelling the story sends a chill down my spine. If a car backfires, I panic. On Diwali, I panic. The next time I went to Colombo in May 2001, nearly a year and a half later, I found myself wanting to stay away from crowded places, keeping a wide berth between anyone else and me on a pavement, a marketplace, everywhere.
As my journalistic career began to look like a collection of nightmares, the conversations I had with myself took several turns. The commitment to tell a story often conflicts with a base human need to preserve oneself. To simply stay alive. There’s a fine line between recklessness and bravado, they say, but I hesitantly submit that most of us aren’t able to tell them apart when we confront it. I know I wasn’t reckless in Colombo.
By the time I reached Freetown, Sierra Leone, on 24 May 2000, I can safely say I had become a little hardened. Or at least that’s what I believed. The day we had arrived, an ambulance had pulled up just ahead of us as we entered the UN field hospital where we were staying. There were two bodies inside, Kurt Schork and Miguel Gil Moreno, journalists who had been killed in an ambush as they were riding with the Sierra Leone Army. Before I had even begun to report, memories of Sri Lanka appeared like apparitions in my head. But I was here in Freetown, and I was going to file a damned good story, and I was going to stay safe and go home alive. I told myself this over and over and over again that day.
We had reached Freetown in an UN-chartered cargo plane, travelling with a swarthy Russian crew commissioned to transport armoured personnel carriers or APCs and other military supplies and munitions from Delhi to Freetown – supplies for the UNAMSIL, the UN’s peacekeeping and peace enforcement contingents in the West African country. The man leading the mission was an Indian Army general, Vijay Kumar Jetley. There were hundreds of Indian boots on the ground, albeit wearing the UN’s signature blue berets. In fact, one of the more heartening tales I have from Sierra Leone is that I became a postman for Indian peacekeepers around the country. Upon hearing a crew from Delhi was there to cover their assignment, hundreds of letters began to arrive at our guest house for us to courier back to families of the men stationed there. Thinking about that today brings a smile to my face, makes me feel a little human. After all, those peacekeepers weren’t just characters in my story. They were real people with real lives and real families who hadn’t been able to connect with them in months. I didn’t mind being a postman at all.
The Sierra Leone civil war was a brutal one. The UN and most human rights watchdogs put it down as one of the worst in history. The chosen weapons of war were machetes. Used by rebels to hack off arms and legs of innocent people without provocation, used to wreak terror on women and children and push them into sexual slavery or war on behalf of the rebels.
Satan’s flail has done its work
Limbs harvested and yet unused
Shattered lives as broken columns stand mute
A world unseen, some unseeing …
… Did Edvard Munch paint here?
He must have dreamt it – this fiendish site
Manmade, contorted out of shape and hate
These open wounds framed in guilt.
—(From The Camp: Sierra Leone 2000 written by Mark Jones)
For me, proof of being less squeamish and more battle-hardened lay simply in the fact that I walked into amputee camps without much hesitation, and I didn’t keel over the side of the road and retch afterwards. But I overestimated myself, and today, I realize, I had underestimated the power of memory. Seared into my mind, even now, years later, the faces I saw in those camps are clear as day. Like the woman sitting on the ground and talking to me. I didn’t realize while sitting in front of her that her reason for not getting up was simply that she had no legs. They’d been hacked off by machete-wielding rebels when her village was attacked. She lived alone in a shelter camp set up by Medecins Sans Frontiers (Doctors Without Borders) in the heart of Freetown. Her husband was killed, her children had been taken away by the rebels to be drugged and made child soldiers. Other residents of the camp had become her family. Teenagers without an arm or a leg, an infant with her wrist cut off, young men and women with prosthetic limbs trying to make sense of the violence around them, and get on with their lives.
I went back to my room in the UN-run field hospital that night, beating curfew and a few armed rebels, and tried to understand the meaning of resilience. I don’t know if I was able to hide the horror on my face when I saw the stumps on the people I had met at the camp earlier in the day, but as much as I had to hide my reactions from them, the sharp, corroding shock I felt simply had to be communicated to the rest of the world through my reporting. International media was full of news of the bloodshed in Sierra Leone but, looking back, I don’t think most readers or viewers could fully comprehend the scale of violence through the news coming out, in spite of the best, most detailed and emotive reports.
‘Journalists are not automatons. Expression of emotions is expected. To conceal dismay, anger or compassion at human suffering would be dishonest.’ This is what Stephen Ward wrote in an article for the Centre for Journalism Ethics at the University of Wisconsin, after natural disaster struck Haiti in 2010. He warned equally against journalism based entirely on emotion and its propensity to manipulate or sensationalize, and against journalism only based on a studied neutrality, saying instead that in good journalism, the ‘emotional and the objective impulses should converge’.
Good Lord, there are no words.
—Aaron Brown, CNN, 11 September 2001
For the most stoic journalists, seemingly expert at insulating themselves from their own emotional responses, that convergence was tested to breaking point on 9/11. America’s biggest news anchors struggled to fight back their own tears and camouflage choked voices by clearing their throats. When the news is alarming enough already, an emotional reporter or anchor unwittingly spikes those levels in viewers. And 9/11 was that kind of news. For a reporter on the job, the rush of adrenaline that came from running around was as great as the tumultuous reactions each one of us personally went through that day. The adrenaline helped us insulate ourselves, but only temporarily.
I was on vacation, visiting family, when 9/11 happened. Just a short walk from where I was staying in New York City’s West Village area. My biggest story, and I was there purely by chance. So many journalist friends come up to me even now, envious, and say they would have given an arm and a leg to be in New York that day. I don’t ever know how to respond to that. It was a story I lived as much as I reported on, blurring lines between personal and professional, testing my own skills at separating the two. I know it makes me an eyewitness to history, but some histories I would rather not have witnessed. I am sure I speak for every journalist out on New York’s streets that day.
I saw the twin towers collapse from the fire escape of the building I was staying in, with the phone pressed to my ear alternating between connecting with the studio in Delhi and desperately trying to locate a cousin who had taken the train to the World Trade Center around the same time the buildings had been hit, and taking calls from my frantic aunt worrying about him continents away, in Hyderabad. For three hours that morning, my answer each time was negative, each minute filling me with more dread. (Seven years later I would be in a similar position, waiting for news of a friend trapped inside the Mumbai Oberoi when terrorists laid siege to it in November 2008 while I rushed around the New Delhi newsroom processing and putting on air reports coming in from Mumbai.)
In New York on 9/11, I found myself doing what I had in Sri Lanka. Ridiculous calculation. In Colombo, I had no answer to why I survived unscathed. Not a single scratch, even though the woman I was interviewing lost her eye in the blast. I put it down to being a few feet left of the boot of Chandrika Kumaratunga’s car, as opposed to a few feet to the right. But this is my way of explaining the inexplicable. I could have been on the other side. I could have been standing where the local Rupavahini crew was, or the Japanese NHK crew was. Rupavahini’s cameraperson died in hospital, the NHK crew was airlifted back to Tokyo with critical injuries. Gaurav and I could have been either of them. But we weren’t. And no calculation can explain what I can only put down to pure luck. Or fate. Or destiny. It certainly was not my free will that saved us that day.
Standing on that fire escape, watching the flames ignited by the crashing of a fully tanked airplane with hundreds of passengers on board melt steel and cement and bring down the world’s mightiest buildings in a heap, my brother and I were calculating. The first tower fell perhaps because the plane struck it in the middle. The second one (he was leaving for work and had looked up into the distance on hearing about a fire in one of the buildings when he saw the plane hit) was struck higher, so perhaps that would stay standing. Pulling up these memories as I write, I’m completely astounded at what we were doing. There was no logic to our conversation, no knowledge or basis to calculate anything at all. I wonder what was really going on in our heads, but I suppose this was a form of insulation. Our unconscious, nonsensical attempts at keeping sane when nothing was making sense at all.
New York City avenues with their tall buildings on either side are like tunnels. On biting cold days they carry the wind at such speed your lips freeze over. That particular crisp, vividly blue September day, they carried waves of screams, thousands of people standing on the streets and looking up at the sky, watching in speechless terror as their skyline changed forever. My screams were stuck in my throat. I couldn’t let them out because I was on air.
People screamed, sirens screamed. And then there was silence. Deathly silence, in which you could hear the sound of a pin drop. The city stayed silent for days. Faces of the missing – thousands of them stared out at all of us from bus stops, electricity poles, public telephone booths, shop windows, just about any place available to stick a picture. Dazed, bereft lines of surviving humanity snaked around the Armory where a DNA collection centre had been set up to help match body parts found at ground zero to missing people. Each day, as I set out, I steeled myself over and over. This was war, tragedy and devastation all rolled into one, and each encounter with people crowding hospitals or the Armory ate at my insides bit by bit, each day the story that I filed had me wishing – no more, please. No more.
In the devastation, and the backlash of anger that followed, I looked for anything that helped with catharsis. Not just public catharsis, but my own personal healing. Journalists are more fragile than we are allowed to let on sometimes, so this is not an easy admission to make. Perhaps that’s why living through life-threatening events brings about an unusual camaraderie between journalists, hitherto strangers. Offices and schools were closed, streets were empty, but a bunch of us from all over were thrown together inside the news agencies charging us an arm and a leg to file stories for our networks halfway around the world. We worked separately, but our experiences were shared, common. In the world outside, collective outpourings of grief and fear brought New Yorkers together as well. They crowded bars and drowned their sorrow and their memories if only for a few hours. Now those weren’t all stories I could report, but they formed tiny shafts of light in the darkness that had fallen over the city, healing in their own, unwitting ways.
Camaraderie on the field is perhaps the biggest emotional safety net, however notional, that reporters have. We aren’t there to leave and run away, but talking to friends and family is not an option, especially when they say ‘don’t do anything crazy, just come back home’.
That really is the last thing I wanted to or needed to hear in Egypt during the protests on Tahrir Square in February 2011, nearly a decade after 9/11. Instead of recounting my days over the phone to my family, I found myself more comfortable in the company of professional rivals on the field turned friends.
Hosni Mubarak was trying to strong-arm and crush pro-democracy protests calling for his ouster. The Egyptian army had cordoned off entry to the square but mobs in support of Mubarak were everywhere. As the protesting voices were splashed in newspapers and on TV screens across the world, the mobs decided to turn against the messenger. The media came under attack. Western journalists – visibly different – were first, but we weren’t spared either. We’d begun using my little Flip camera, not bigger than a cell phone, that was snatched right out of my hands in broad daylight as we approached the square. Overnight footage of both clashes and peaceful protests, suddenly gone. To most people, the little 200-dollar camera wouldn’t have been worth the chase, but for me it was critical to recover it. Ravi, my colleague, and I ran after the boy, unsuccessfully. Instead we found ourselves stopped by the military as we tried to enter the square. To their credit, they found the boy, and my camera, but made me delete most of what I had recorded. The sense of futility and frustration I felt was beyond words.
Many of us were staying in the Ramses Hilton, just off Tahrir Square. (Like all astute businesses, it had already begun making the most of adversity by raising tariffs at the rate of 100 dollars a day for every day it stayed open, pretty much fleecing all of us while it could.) The tall building with balconies gave us a vantage point when we couldn’t go out of the hotel. It was also close to the Eurovision office, from where we were going to uplink footage and send live reports. But as the mobs turned even more violent, hurling Molotov cocktails into the crowds of protestors and surrounding the building’s entry and exit points, the hotel began to clamp down.
Hours earlier, when we had worked our way for our last live shot through the swelling mobs calling us ‘Yahuds’ or Jews/Israelis like it was an insult, we had been forced to bang on the Eurovision office door for precious minutes before it was opened by a nervous manager wielding a loaded revolver. Later that night, the office was vandalized, engineers and camera people hurt and thousands of dollars’ worth of satellite equipment destroyed.
But that was a little after we had left, helped by a Bedouin at the entrance who guided us through basement parking lots and neighbouring buildings on to side streets that led us to the hotel’s service entry. He’d been there every day, and as we had greeted each other on a previous visit, I had taken a photograph of him in the evening light over the Nile. I don’t need the photograph to remember his face, etched permanently in my memory, but today when I look at it, I know I’ve put him down in my personal history books as one of the many who’ve appeared in my life at just the right moment to help without expectation of reward or further contact. He’s smiling brightly in the picture, and every time I look at it, I smile too.
I also remember an infuriating argument with the news desk at the time over being unable to go back to Eurovision for the next live shot. Getting there would have meant making good on the money spent on booking a live link with Delhi, and it was a lot of money; but it also meant a pretty good chance I wouldn’t make it back without serious injury. So, I stayed in, in spite of protests from the desk in Delhi. In fact, one of the hardest things from the field sometimes is to be able to communicate to a newsroom full of expectation thousands of miles away just how difficult or grave a situation may be to navigate. Many times, as a reporter who’s trained to be adept, and adapt to circumstance, it is just easier to take the risk and comply, but that evening, compliance was simply not an option.
Worse, the hotel had decided to evict some journalists. The first targets were those whose bookings were over, and the hotel was refusing to extend their stay. The Al Jazeera producer, a young woman named Huda, and her cameraperson were arguing, willing to pay double. We had been exchanging notes for a few days now, and against the mobs and hotel vultures, she was an ally. I offered my room to share, which she gratefully accepted, but as we bunked together, things got worse. We were on the third floor, and very close to the street level. It was a matter of time before the mobs tried to smash through those windows, so I asked to be moved to a room on a higher floor, thinking that was a safer option. But then, we were warned that the mobs outside were threating to set fire to the hotel. Needless to say, our anxiety levels were rising by the second. At one point, desperate to keep our heads above water, I remember us bursting out in nervous laughter, backpacks strapped with passport, computer and a change of clothes, tanking up on chocolate from the room and kicking ourselves for our stupidity. On the third floor, we might have been more vulnerable to stoning, but at least we could have run to safety. If the mobs set the building alight, how on earth were we going to make it down from the seventeenth floor?
Eventually, we were all at the mercy of the Egyptian army that night. Western media contacts spread the word to all of us, over fifty journalists still in the building. The Egyptian army was coming to evacuate us. Two APCs rolled up outside the hotel, soldiers hurrying us into them. Stress and fear make people behave in all sorts of inexplicable ways, and Ravi and I suddenly got into a massive argument about leaving equipment behind because the army was refusing to let us carry anything but a small bag. Ravi, therefore, was refusing to leave, afraid of how he would explain missing equipment to the office. I was telling him not to be ridiculous, no point keeping equipment safe if he’s too dead to carry it back to Delhi. We reached a compromise ultimately, left some, carried some and trooped into the windowless APCs with the rest of the evacuated journalists.
This exit was hardly honourable, and hardly something that anyone of the fifty journalists wanted. Especially so because we had no idea whether we were being taken to the airport, or to jail. All of us started taking pictures of each other, so that in case something happened, the world would know that the army had taken us. Thankfully, the end was nothing quite as dramatic. The APCs rolled across a bridge to the other side of the Nile and dumped us outside a hotel, where we got rooms on the condition that we left our camera equipment in their luggage hold area. Quite the anticlimax, but again, at least we’ve all lived to tell the tale.
Journalists’ symptoms of traumatic stress are remarkably similar to those of police officers, firefighters who work in the immediate aftermath of a tragedy, yet journalists typically receive little support after they file their stories. While public safety workers are offered debriefing and counselling after trauma, journalists are simply assigned another story.
—Al Tompkins in ‘Help for Journalists Under Stress’ (Poynter.org)
The passage above obviously refers to police and firefighters in the Western world, but in general, this is a truism for journalists everywhere. I returned from Colombo in 1999, dazed and scarred inside. My body reacted in ways that my mind wouldn’t allow me to, and I fell sick. But three days later, I was back at work in the midst of the IC 814 hijack crisis, an equally gut-wrenching story that forced me to shut my memory off, so that I could focus.
Some would say that being able to focus is a blessing and a curse, because it makes us appear less human. In fact, apart from the moment in the shower in Colombo, in none of these events do I remember shedding a single tear, whether on the field or as an anchor in the news studio telling viewers the grimmest of grim, the most brutal of stories – about rape, murder, child abuse, natural disaster or war.
After over two decades as a journalist I, like most of my colleagues I am sure, am inured and desensitized to a certain amount of grief. Sometimes it is like being immersed in a novel and then moving on to the next one as soon as it’s over. I’m not proud of the fact that I can go out for a nice meal today after having told the most horrific stories on air, but I can. With time, I’ve realized that this acquired ability doesn’t just keep me sane, it keeps those I care for at home, my friends and family, also sane. It eases their worry about me. The old adage, I’m okay if you’re okay.
The only other exception perhaps has been more recently in May 2014, and in studio, where the news I was suddenly breaking on air was too close to home. It was a mid-afternoon news bulletin and the news coming in was about two women journalists who had been attacked in Khost, Afghanistan, around election time. As information began to arrive within minutes, to my horror I learnt they weren’t strangers, not faceless names of Western media bylines, but Kathy Gannon, someone who has been a mentor to me since my reporting days in New York, and her friend and photographer, Anja Niedringhaus, whose award-winning photojournalism preceded her reputation everywhere.
This is the only time I can remember simply not knowing what to do. Where helplessness and fear jostled with the need to stay focused and calm on air. As I tried to make frantic calls to Kathy’s number, then to a friend in Kabul, my hands shook. Giving out the news on air, my voice cracked. It was inaudible perhaps to the viewer, but the director in the Production Control Room (PCR) heard me, raised ‘nat sound’ on pictures, turned off my microphone and called upstairs to bring another anchor in as soon as possible.
Anja was killed on the spot, but Kathy survived and is thankfully in good health after months of hospital care and massive reconstructive surgery on her hands. But I know her and I know the job, and while she’s committed to going back to the field in Afghanistan, I am sure those demons will stay with her every day.
Was I weak in that moment when the news came in? Yes. Am I embarrassed in any way of having let my weakness show or impede my work for the very first time? No.
As I grow older, and look upon a career of over two decades of once-in-a-lifetime experiences, my singular lesson has been the sometimes difficult art of accepting the frailties of human behaviour. Accepting tears and rage and laughter; accepting crisis and heartbreak and joy with equal comfort or discomfort. These emotions can be unfolding around me, in what I see, the people I talk to and report on whether from the field or from the distance of a studio when I anchor; or they can be unfolding within me. That’s both the tragedy and the beauty of a journalist’s career.
(This essay appears as a chapter in Section Seven of “More News is Good News: Untold Stories of 25 years of Television News”. The book is a collection of personal essays by reporters and editors that maps the journey of both an industry and an organization that pioneered broadcast news- the stories we covered, and how we did so. It was published by Harper Collins in 2016)