Thursday, November 8, 2012

Wartime Journalism & "Cannibal Holocaust"

I knew what I wanted in high school. I wanted to go to Emerson College and study film. I just assumed that becoming a Hollywood screenwriter would immediately follow suit. My parents were wiser and always encouraged a backup plan, namely in journalism, but rather than listen I chose to gamble.
After taking a leave of absence midway through college to work on a failed indie horror film project, I returned to Emerson with a renewed vigor. In an attempt to expand my horizons and appease my parents’ suggestion, I took a “Wartime Journalism” class with the renowned Jerry Lanson...despite the fact that I never watch the news. I like horror onscreen, but I hate it in real life. That class, while amazing, underlined why I was not cut out for journalism. Thus I took the assignment of my final paper as an opportunity to explore my mind and rave about a favorite artist's misunderstood work of art, pastimes that I indulged in at least once a semester. For my Wartime Journalism class, the spotlight was on Ruggero Deodato's unbelievably controversial Cannibal Holocaust. I first saw this film in Summer 2001, after several years of avoidance based on its gruesome content and questionable reputation from both a cinematic and moral standpoint. Much to my shock and delight, I fell in love with the film that day in June. Much to my shock and horror, I relived its impact when the world changed that following September 11th. Barring Madonna and a handful of favorite (scripted) series, I have relentlessly avoided watching television ever since.

Robert E. Jeffrey 4/15/2005

JR485: Final Paper

     Outsider In: Looking at the

                      Psyche of the War Journalist 

I was first intrigued by the concept of wartime journalism in 2001 as a result of two significant works of filmmaking. The first, in the summer of 2001, was my viewing of a highly controversial, oft-banned 1979 Italian horror movie called Cannibal Holocaust, about the ill fate of a US network documentary team who travel the world staging or inciting bloody warfare and filming it to draw record ratings. The second was a documentary which aired on CNN shortly after the September 11th attacks, one which showed the public execution of an Afghan woman convicted of adultery  and the skinned bodies of enemies of the Taliban.

The atrocities in both films, one a satire of the American media and one an insight into life under the Taliban, were similar in tone and content. They also equally provoked my interest in disturbing questions about what should be filmed and broadcast for television, and about the true intentions of the filmmakers who cover the world we live in. At the time, I was angry at what I perceived to be exploitation of current events. In the wake of the impact that Cannibal Holocaust had on my cynicism and the impact that 9/11 had on my paranoiac tendencies, I initially suspected CNN was exploiting literal “snuff” footage for ratings in the wake of a national tragedy and an international panic. These two powerful films shaped my perception of wartime journalism, prompting a unique approach to this course that finally lead to my writing this paper.

Despite being someone with no interest in a career in journalism, I am amazed by how much the experience of journalists who voluntarily commit themselves to the ghoulish horrors of warfare--all for the sake of authentically capturing it through their own eyes--has influenced my artistic endeavors. This is not to suggest that the lifestyle of a wartime journalist (a profession I was admittedly unfamiliar with until recently) has ever guided the formation of my ideas. Rather, it is because the existence of this profession, and the nature of their daily lives, has offered a whole new perspective to me on the role of violence in the media.

When journalist David Filipov spoke before the class, I was emotionally enslaved to his presentation: laughing at some stories, recoiling in horror at others, and vicariously riding the adrenaline rush of his brushes with death. It was a fascinating journey to go on, as an audience member. But to actually experience it must leave an incalculably profound effect. I wondered if his memories weren't far less entertaining without the benefit of an engaged, but naive, audience: going back and forth between enemy sides in a foreign country, performing as an actor or comedian to protect your body and life, witnessing brutality and knowing that your lives and the lives of those around you could vanquish at any second. I tried to imagine going from that lifestyle to sitting at a desk at the Boston Globe. Those front-line atrocities must still seem more real, even more present, than anything happening around him in America possibly could. Having learned that he has two children, both of whose parents are working war journalists, I wondered what home life must be like: after stretches of domesticity, do he and his wife both feel a need to be back in the heat of combat? And does this affect the security of children longing for the protection of Mom and Dad?

Most parents would probably agree that David Filipov and his wife made the right decision in leaving that world behind. Recent international events have demonstrated that the mere thought of a war going on can bring about great anxiety in young children, even those who have no familial connection to it whatsoever. A 2004 article entitled “Controlling What News Your Child Sees From TV” on the memorial website 9-11 Heroes references a study by the Georgetown University Psychology Department on the effects of repeated news footage of the September 11th attacks on elementary school children. (9-11 Heroes) “Of the children in the study, 85 percent indicated that their basic sense of security and safety were shaken by the September 11 attacks.  Psychology Department Chair Deborah  Phillips reported afterwards that 'no one lost a family member…it was children not directly associated with the attacks, so I was surprised to find such high levels of stress. I expected maybe half, not 85 percent.'" (9-11 Heroes)

            These numbers merely refer to young children, with an inevitably limited understanding of the profundity of war but an innate fear of its deadly destruction. On the complete other end of the spectrum, the military and war journalists actually go to that proverbial “front line”, with many of them spending long stretches on the precarious road between a life removed from reality and a death lifted from gory nightmares. And what of their sanity? If children can be rocked to the core by repeatedly broadcast news footage of American skyscrapers tumbling into a city of people screaming in terror and distress (9-11 Heroes), could someone who sees such atrocities on a regular basis, for an extended period of time, possibly hold onto a sound mind?

As a writer of fiction, I was so affected by Mr. Filipov's classroom presentation that it prompted my decision to let the nature of this Wartime Journalism course shape a screenplay that I had been writing, one I already planned to incorporate into a separate class on the nature of violence in literature. This was compounded by the visit of Kevin Sites, who took a less dazzling, more analytical, and ultimately vulnerable approach to his experiences as a war journalist. He revealed that he had suffered the loss of a marriage and more than one engagement due to his commitment to his profession, and before the entire class he openly grappled with questions of what ethics to abide by in his career. It was very clearly an honest search for answers, rather than a demonstration of his career success. 
What most piqued my interest in learning about the profession of a war journalist was a desire to understand the psychological effect that “the news” has on the people who cover it. It seems that a lot of airtime and column space over the past two decades has been devoted to how children are affected when they see bloodshed on the six o’clock news, why teenagers run to slasher movies at the local multiplex, and what all this could mean when said young people enter the adult world. But it would appear, at least on a mainstream level, that less emphasis has been placed on the psyche of the people who broadcast such violence: the executives and editors and censors and newscasters who watch that bloody reality everyday and then decide on how they will break such truths to the rest of the world. At the heart of such mental and moral questions is the war journalist. Often a lone human being with modest protection and a questionable span of life, (s)he is willing to give up everything to potentially write the article or take the photograph that leaves a lasting impression on society. This passion, this monogamy, and this potential for horrible means of destruction has fascinated me since the beginning of the course, and it is what sent me off to at least scratch the surface of how a psychologist would look at the mind of a war journalist.

In 2004, The National Center for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorders (PTSD) released a fact sheet entitled “PTSD in Journalists” written by Dr. Elisa E. Bolton and containing new findings from studies on journalists that were conducted in 2002 and 2003. (Bolton) Dr. Bolton points out that “it has been assumed that journalists are not permanently impacted by death and destruction…[that they are] unusually tough, somehow immune to the reverberating impact of the human suffering they witness.” (Bolton) “Journalists are often exposed to highly stressful, traumatic situations, and required to bear witness to others who have been overwhelmed by traumatic events. While emergency workers have, particularly in the last decade, recognized the need for self-care and organizational safeguards, journalists may not yet have been recognized as potential candidates for employee safeguards and increased support.” (Dart Center “Self-Primer”)
Does the general public care about the minds and lives and fates of war journalists? It’s sad to say, but time and time again the masses seem more apt to be moved by the sight of a fallen soldier--perhaps because the image is unconsciously identified with the most heroic figure in the spectator's life--than by the brutal death of a captured war correspondent. “In recent years there has been growing recognition that being a journalist, especially a war correspondent, can be quite dangerous. In 2001 alone, 100 journalists were killed. Organizations and researchers are recognizing that in addition to the danger of death, journalists are exposed to the risk of great emotional distress. Yet, [recent research] also indicates that few employers of photojournalists recognize the stress and negative impact on mental health that is associated with some assignments. Even fewer employers offer counseling services and education about PTSD symptoms.” (Bolton)
            The irony is that education about what one should or should not do on the front line would not necessarily be put to use anyway. In The Psychology of War, Lawrence LeShan excerpts the reflections of a WWII veteran named William Manchester who was hospitalized in Okinawa but escaped so that he could rejoin his fellow marines on a dangerous mission that they were about to embark on. “It was an act of love. Those men on the line were my family, my home. I had to be with them, rather than let them die and me live with the knowledge that I might have saved them. Men, I now know, do not fight for flag or country, for the Marine Corps or glory or any other global abstraction. They fight for one another.” (LeShan 97)
While William Manchester was speaking as a veteran of combat, he could very well have been speaking as a wartime journalist. David Zucchino, a correspondent embedded with troops in Iraq, described his own experience as though he were a soldier, not a writer. “Peering through one of the Bradley’s three-inch-slits of bulletproof glass, I wasn’t just viewing the battlefield for a news story. I was searching for Iraqi fighters for the gunner to kill.” (Greer)

In War Is A Force That Gives Us Meaning, journalist Chris Hedges asserts that he  managed to retain his morality during his own wartime experience. However, referencing his time covering the first Gulf War, he concedes that, in the midst of the battlefield, a state of amorality is all too easy to sink into. “The prospect of war is exciting. Many young men [believe that they will] discover their worth as human beings in battle. The admiration…the glory…the ideal of nobility beckon[s] us forward. All the more startling [is that] that such fantasy is believed, given the impersonal slaughter of modern industrial warfare. Iraqi soldiers were nothing more on the screens of sophisticated artillery pieces than little dots scurrying around like ants—that is, until they were…reduced to scattered corpses….[by] high explosives fired from huge distances.” (Hedges 84)
Even in our advanced state of technology in the arena of mass murder, the human psyche has yet to be upgraded. It is just as vulnerable to emotional damage from firing today’s high-distance blasters as it was from impaling enemies face-to-face with bayonets a century ago. “Men in modern warfare are in service to technology. Many never actually see the people they are firing at nor those firing at them. To be sure, soldiers who kill innocents pay a tremendous personal, emotional, and spiritual price. But within the universe of total war, soldiers only have time to reflect later. By then these soldiers often have been discarded, left as broken men in a civilian society that does not understand them and does not want to understand them.” (Hedges 83, 86)
Even the most celebrated of wars—the  wars that carve out nations with the greatest of prospects, the wars that restore peace to troubled lands, the wars that literally save the world—the effects of violence prove immune to the glory of the soldiers who fight or to the journalists who cover their fighting. In War and Human Nature, Stephen Peter Rosen discusses the findings of a physiological survey conducted by the U.S. Army in the Spring of 1944. The first element discussed in the original review of the data was the stress level of all of the troops surveyed, which was related to “many factors, but among all of the factors, lack of sleep was cited more often than any other as a factor affecting combat performance”, with  troops citing few hours to sleep even during quiet times at war. (Rosen 110)
However, studies conducted in the 1960s on the effects of sleep deprivation as a stress-inducer lead to retrospective reanalysis of the WWII study, leading to the very possible conclusion that the WWII respondents were  hampered by fatigue and uncertainty moreso than lack of sleep. “Fatigue, the weariness that sets in after performing a task for long periods of time, has complex effects on human thinking and behavior. [In the 1960s studies], a particular kind of stressor—uncertainty—produced an entirely different reaction”. (Rosen 112-113).

Citing the actual test results, Rosen explains that the brain’s “corticosteroids are produced by conditions of novelty, strangeness or unfamiliarity—in which uncertainty is paramount. Unfamiliar situations produce feelings of uncertainty or anxiety which in turn trigger the secretion of cortisol. Cortisol levels are found to be particularly high in anxious or depressed patients.” (Rosen 113) But lest one think that journalists who covered WWII were spared such mental reverberations, Pulitzer Prize-winner Ernie Pyle’s recollections offer a startling account of the inescapable transformation. “Before he died in April 1945, war correspondent Ernie Pyle wrote, 'I’ve been immersed in it too long. My spirit is wobbly and my mind is confused. The hurt has become too great.' If this happens to you, seek counseling from a professional.” (Hight & Smyth, Chapter 4).
Much to my pleasant surprise, the Internet has given birth to a vital organization that was formed specifically to address the oft overlooked psychological needs of journalists who cover traumatic events. “The Dart Center for Journalism & Trauma is a global network of journalists, journalism educators, and health professionals dedicated to improving media coverage of trauma, conflict, and tragedy. The Center also addresses the consequences of such coverage for those working in journalism.” ( Among the many resources available through their website is a “digital handbook”, Tragedies and Journalists: A Guide for Effective Coverage, by Joe Hight and Frank Smyth. In it, the authors take an empathetic approach to the daily lives and stresses of the modern journalist. “An exceptional thing about journalists is that we alone seem to think that we are exceptional in our reactions. Violence and its emotional aftermath affect all first responders, including police, fire, and ambulance workers as well as journalists.” (Hight & Smyth, Chapter 8).

In their message to journalists, Joe Hight and Frank Smyth integrate throughout each chapter the need for journalists to constantly communicate, to vent out what they see and how they feel in response—perhaps because, the authors suggest, journalists don’t do it enough. “A coffee shop or a bar may provide colleagues with an invaluable venue in which to talk and perhaps debrief each other about the emotions of their work. Recognizing the need for a debriefing forum or the opportunity to articulate emotions in the aftermath of a school-yard massacre or the World Trade Center attacks is not a sign of weakness, as too many journalists seem to think. Instead, when done successfully, debriefing fosters strength. The act of articulation — writing, drawing, painting, talking or crying — seems to change the way a traumatic memory is stored in the brain, as if it somehow moves the memory from one part of the hard drive to another. Journalists are people who, like almost everyone else who is exposed to pain, feel it whether it is theirs or not. Keeping it bottled up may only prolong its impact and make it worse in the future. Journalists, including free-lancers, should seek and take advantage of opportunities for both peer and professional counseling.” (Hight and Smyth, Chapter 8).
As a writer of films that explore the many facets of of sex and the nature of violence, I can relate to a journalist. I see the innate perversity of my screenwriting reflected in journalists' work in a very striking fashion: we both spend our hours penetrating a world of unspeakable depravity as a means of achieving career goals that feel less like signposts than they do missions, on which sanity and mortality is trivial compared to the work left behind. It is clear that journalists, as a group, are as dedicated to constantly expanding and improving upon their coverage as artists are dedicated to enhancing their body of work. Like artists, they are less interested in their safety--physical or mental--than they are in the final product, and they may be inclined to express their thoughts and fears through work rather than conversation. But clearly these related traits are dangerous, and unnecessarily so.
Journalists and artists communicate with the world on a profound level, putting passion and commitment towards work that stretches their emotional landscape. But raising their adrenaline by being exposed to ghastly horrors is as all-consuming in its destructive danger as it is inescapably thrilling. Wartime journalists are  prone to the same effects commonly associated with post-traumatic stress disorder in soldiers, and this is why they need just as many resources and just as much emotional support as an ER doctor or police officer. David Filipov and Kevin Sites have recognized this, and their respective classroom presentations served as a form of the catharsis that is vitally necessary in their profession. But that doesn’t mean that they won’t go back to the front line, because it doesn’t mean that they have grown immune to the euphoric excitement of their brilliantly deadly profession. Like artists, war journalists are passionate about living their lives doing what they love....even if life itself should end on the job. 

Works Cited

Hedges, Chris. War Is A Force That Gives Us Meaning.
Anchor Books, New York. 2003

LeShan, Lawrence. The Psychology of War.
            Helios Press, New York. 2002

Rosen, Stephen Peter. War and Human Nature.
            Princeton University Press, Oxford. 2005

Web Sources

Bolton, Dr. Elisa E. “PTSD In Journalists”. National Center for Post-Traumatic
Stress Disorder: Department of Veterans Affairs.

Greer, Jane. “War and Peace, Human Agency, and
Other Matters”.

“Self-Care Primer”.

Hight, Joe, and Smyth, Frank. Tragedies and Journalists:
A Guide for Effective Coverage.

Mission Statement”.

Film Referenced:

Cannibal Holocaust. Dir: Ruggero Deodato, 1979.
EC Entertainment DVD, Netherlands. 2001

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