Fatal Fire Interview No. 1: Valerie Schremp Hahn

For my first interview with a journalist who has experience covering fatal fires, I spoke with Valerie Schremp Hahn, the night police reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. We talked for a little more than 25 minutes. Some of what she said was enlightening, some was a bit disappointing, but all of it was fascinating, given what we’ve learned this semester.

First off, I found it disappointing (though not surprising) that the Post-Dispatch doesn’t have any sort of in-house counseling available for reporters. It’s good that they can get that sort of assistance with the health care the Post-Dispatch provides them, but reporters would be more likely to notice those problems and feel comfortable seeking help if there were something available in the workplace.

The most interesting thing I gleaned from our talk had to do with the frequency with which Valerie covered fatal fires. She said that fires aren’t usually deadly, and even when they are, the job of covering them gets split up among the different members of the police staff. Therefore, she only covers a fatal fire about once a year. Granted, she’s worked there for 17 years, and she covers other traumatic events that aren’t fire-related, but I began to wonder if the size of staffs was an important factor in deterring the negative effects that can come from covering traumatic incidents.

However, the infrequency with which she covered these fatal fires seemed to create an inconsistency when Valerie talked about follow-up stories. She compared the decision to follow up on those affected by fires to the way the Post-Dispatch covers crashes.

“You know, we can’t write about every crash where somebody is hurt, so we don’t, usually,” she said. “We usually only write about fatal crashes, because if you write about every crash, you’d be writing about crashes all the time.”

This didn’t seem to jive with her previous statement.

Also, Valerie mentioned that people are often in shock right after a fire when she interviews them. This is important, because some journalists believe that the interviewees are A-OK (and Valerie did echo this a bit in the way she kept expressing surprise at their graciousness) instead of realizing that they are just suffering from shock. It’s good that she is aware of that, but I wonder if her reporting process should advance past mere awareness.

Overall, however, I felt like the way the Post-Dipatch (or Valerie, at least) covers these events was satisfactory. Valerie said she made sure to take caution to not be a negative influence and she really seemed to understand the importance of humanity when reporting on these kinds of situations. I’m not sure, from what she told me, that the Post-Dispatch environment would be an entirely helpful place if a reporter was really suffering mental duress from covering trauma. But at the very least, it sounds like they have a big enough staff that the burden doesn’t fall entirely on one reporter.

Some highlights from the interview are above and you can read the entire transcription by clicking here.

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Having the tough talks

In my Advanced Reporting class today, Tom Warhover brought up the topic of traumatic issues. We were supposed to spend the remaining 45 minutes of class discussing this issue. This piqued my interest, because I wanted to see how this class viewed the subject that we have spent the whole semester examining in the Covering Traumatic Events course.

But I didn’t want to spurt off all my knowledge and make everyone look bad now that I’m an expert in this subject. (I kid.) So I remained silent when Tom brought up the topic for discussion. Now, maybe it’s because it was only 10 a.m., but no one in the class had any comments to make. Everyone was very tentative to speak up and Tom was so blown away that he ended class then and there, because he wanted to have an dialogue among invested participants, not students being forced to talk. But I think Tom mistook our behavior for indifference and/or boredom when it was really something different.

Again, I could be wrong and maybe it was just the before-noon effect, but I think people generally don’t want to have this discussion, the self-selected crew of oddballs in our class notwithstanding. Traumatic events are not the happiest occasions (duh), but I doubt that journalists believe traumatic events (or the act of reporting on them) don’t merit discussion. Sometimes it’s just hard to get the ball rolling.

I believe this is another obstacle in the mission of Katherine and other journalism teachers to improve the way we cover traumatic events and improve the way institutions care for the journalists doing the coverage. It takes a push to get these talks started. For one, the inherently depressing subject matter doesn’t exactly lend itself to chattiness. And it’s not uncommon for people to need a strong nudge before they’re going to examine themselves, especially in a communal setting. But what’s worse is that it’s a vicious cycle. If we don’t have those discussions in the first place, we reduce awareness. And although, as I said, I’m sure if you asked a journalist on a true-or-false test whether or not this stuff was important, they’d fill in the bubble next to “true.” But they might not realize the severity of never having these talks.

No one wants to have the sex talk with their parents, but it (hopefully) happens anyway. Maybe we need to have that approach when it comes to the mental health of journalists in traumatic settings.

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Empathy first; job second

The first story I covered this semester on my sports features beat for the Columbia Missourian was the Sasha Menu Courey case. I was struggling to get a foothold on my beat, and I needed a story. One fell in my lap. 

I won’t lie; at first I was excited. I really wanted to put the pedal to the metal this semester, but I was having difficulty determining how to do that. When this scandal became public thanks to ESPN, I felt relief. I had something to do.

Ironically, I already had a story idea in the works about NCAA sexual assault scandals and how Mizzou has handled theirs in comparison to other schools. I decided to aggregate data on documented sexual assault scandals in college athletics, and each time I found something, I had a similar feeling of relief. I spent hours collecting the stuff, reading gruesome details but still being happy to have a clear directive.

Then, I sat back a little later and it all started to sink in. I was reading some awful stuff and, after a delay, it was getting to me.

We didn’t even use the information I gathered, but that wasn’t really the point. More importantly, I saw how traumatic events can affect you. Hell, I was just aggregating data. I wasn’t talking to victims. And it still had an effect on my psyche. That’s one big takeaway.

The bigger one? I realized how easy it can be to be cold when you’ve got that journo-crazy look in your eyes. Thankfully, no one was affected by my temporary aloofness, but if I had talked to actual people, things could’ve gotten sticky. 

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