Monday, September 28, 2009

A Moment on Murderers Row

Journalist’s Chaplain

Murderers are featured on page one of the Austin American-Statesman today (Monday, September 28, 2009) at the start of the trial for accused Hill Country killer Paul DeVoe. His victims allegedly number a half dozen between Central Texas and Pennsylvania. The “jump page” includes five more murders. The number one Austin killer, of course, was Texas Tower shooter Charles Whitman who killed 16 in his 1966 spree. Also, on the list is the man law enforcement called “The Monster”, Kenneth McDuff convicted of abducting, torturing, sexually assaulting, and murdering Colleen Reed in 1990 and six other people.

Noticeably missing from the list is one-eyed drifter Henry Lee Lucas, ultimately convicted of eleven murders including that of a woman known only as “Orange Socks”. Her otherwise nude body was found near the I-35/Walburg exit Halloween eve, 1979, nearly 30 years ago. When Lucas was arrested in June, 1983 in Montague County, he told the judge that he’d killed “about a hundred more women.” Lucas later recanted all of the killings, and his death sentence from the “Orange Socks” murder was commuted to life by then governor George W. Bush. Facts indicate however that Lucas did murder a lot of women starting with this own mother. Having covered him from the day after his arrest in the murder of his landlord through the “Orange Socks” trial in San Angelo, after a change of venue due to so much publicity here, to his appeals, I remain convinced that Lucas killed and killed. The details, sometimes show outside of the jury’s presence, were gruesome.

Anybody who covers crime for any length of time is going to be exposed to this sort of thing. The effects of this exposure can be profound. Maybe journalists need a chaplain.

I find no association between the words “journalist” and “chaplain”. Nothing turns up in a brief Google search. There are, of course, military chaplains, law enforcement chaplains, hospital chaplains, and some corporate chaplains. The corporate chaplain is also the closest kin to what I see as a journalist’s chaplain. Somewhere, there may be a journalist’s or journalism chaplain, but I cannot find one.

I believe, however, there is a need. This belief is born from my 40+ years in communications, much of it covering crime. A journalist cannot become personally involved in a story. I journalist’s job is to communicate that crime in a professional manner. Unable to cope with man’s brutality to his fellow man or woman, many left the news business. They may still be holding in all of that outrage.

A journalist is the eyes and ears of the public. The journalist sees and hears things, however, that the public should never see. The journalist and the photojournalists often see the awful results of violence—human upon human. The journalist then reads the affidavits with all the sordid details of crimes. The eventual trials bring forward even more detail. Journalist also see the sad waste of life and property from all kinds of disasters from hurricanes, tornados, floods, and otherwise.

These same journalists and photojournalists may carry these mental movies with them for the rest of their lives. The nightmarish pictures, cause scars or even wounds that don’t heal and questions that go unanswered.

These experiences may disrupt their lives and relationships. I often sense this in conversations. There is a certain despair.

On top of this, today’s journalism is a stressful profession with constant deadlines. Reporters and photographers are being asked to do more with less. News managers are under constant budget pressures. Editors and mid-managers often feel the most heat because they are mashed from above and below.

It is not the purpose of any chaplain to attempt to counsel the journalists. The job of a chaplain is to be present and available to people who are hurting outwardly and inwardly. A chaplain should be available to all faiths and those without faith. The chaplain may refer the journalists to counseling or their Employee Assistance Program. Of course, all communication would be confidential—journalists understand confidentiality.

Do journalists need a chaplain? Something to consider.

© Jim McNabb, 2009


Anonymous said...


First, Texas has claim to other mass murder cases. I think Elmer Wayne Henley is the record holder in the state for the most murders.

Henley is in state prison for murdering 27 young boys in the Houston area.

In the Luby's massacre in Killeen, George Jo Hennard killed 23 people, wounded another 20 and then committed suicide

As to your question about whether journalists need a chaplin, the answer is no. What journalists need is a manager who knows which reporters have the stomach and psychological balance to cover the ugly, gut-wrenching crime stories.

Each reporter brings a different set of strengths and weaknesses to the table, and it's a manager's responsibility to know where each reporter fits best. Some reporters are highly effective at producing emotional feature pieces, others are highly effective at covering government, while some reporters are highly versatile in tackling general assignments that include little time to prepare a story for a live shot.

If a manager finds a reporter is facing emotional problems because of crime stories he's covered, the manager needs to move the reporter off crime.

I've dealt with reporters who cried because of what they saw at a crime scene or who were afraid to be at a crime scene. Those reporters were shifted off crime stories and used instead in covering issues that better fit their skills and abilities.

NewsMcNabb said...

Editor's note: I too have dealt with reporters who had problems after an awful event. I have also seen reports done by Austin reporters who had problems on the live air.

I know about all the stories you mention--the carnage. Yet, you say, "No", the reporters who report these events are fine.

I respectfully disagree. Yes, managers need to be sensitive to the "strengths" and "weaknesses" of the staff, but managers are not counselors. Chaplains aren't either. It's another level of asking, "Are you OK?" I asked that question many times after events like the Branch Dividians, hurricanes, tornadoes, or egregious murders--particularly those involving children. "Are you OK?"

Sure, reporters and photojournalist are tough. They'll say, "Sure, I'm OK," but what else are they going to say to the boss? Maybe they should talk quietly with someone else.

"Anonymous", it's not a question of "moving" a reporter from a beat. It's bigger than that. Your verbiage is glib. "Anonymous", I don't know whether you've ever been in management, but I think your take is wrong. Sorry. Give this some thought.


P.S. "Anonymous", we're talking about murder cases that have a link to Austin, not Houston and Elmer Wayne Henley. The American-Statesman's cover story was about Austin, so I responded in that contest.

Yeah, we covered the Killeen Luby's killings. Again, it had no Austin connections. It's not in our viewing area. The above applies.

Lance said...

We'll, I wish my newsrooms had had the luxury of strict beats. If there was a spectacular fire, and only my thoroughbred State Reporter was was out the door, and hurry up.
Here, have my hankee...
I'm sure the news affected everyone. I'll never forget how my Chief Photog, a tough as nails West Texan, looked coming back from old 620, when a car full of teens shot off the curve on the dam, and rolled 700 feet.
This weekend I had the absolute pleasure of doing a shoot in LA with one of my favorite Reporters from the Austin days.
Together we had worked forest fires at night, driving through areas where the ground glittered with sparks in in the wind, and entire copses of trees glowed a skeletal orange. A living Mescaline Woods poster. We had been right on the porch at a daycare fire, as babies were handed through a smoke choked window to the firemen. We had worked all manner of nasty wrecks, shootings, and mayhems. We had found a prominent Texans' King Air, totally melted into a pool of shimmering Aluminium, still smoking nicely.
And a Fed Ex jet that dug a deep hole and consisted of confetti shreds, and no piece larger than a penny.
The pilot had screamed into the radio all the way down, for 12 minutes, according to emergency workers.
(You just don't forget facts like that)
We had shared an alarm filled burning helicopter one night, when the stubborn pilot tore a page from his log, crumpled it up, and had me press it against red hot melting fuses to push and hold them in place as we yawed and lumbered down Congress avenue just above the streetlights, leaving a greenish gray plume like the Wicked Witch trying to make Frost Bank helipad.
Oh, and we not only covered Henry Lee, we wheedled our way into a 45 minute one on one (no camera) and got his macabre autograph, too.
Yeah, it was all bizarre, and it went on for a long, strange time.
Even stranger is to shoot again, way up here in the future, with someone I've done 300 packages with.
The hauling of the gear, the sizing up the scene,
the little courtesies, the reminders, the nod of a head or half throat clear, the seizing of the moment.
I have heard of the alcoholism, the rumors of drug use, the talk of persistent problems. Of more concern to me is the loss of good talent after only a few years in the field.
But this weekend, my friend and I didn't seem scathed. In fact we were fat, old, healthy and laughing.
I do think there should be some sort of nationwide
clearing house that includes the type of services Jim
proposes. Because, even if you have a BJ or and RTF degree...if you don't go net or freelance...and you "get out"...there is very little to do professionally except be a PIO for a University, City, or Agency. Face it, how many Reporters or Photographers do you have that are over 40??
There really should be some sort of "post broadcast" entity out there to help transition from being a media sungod to an average Joe.
And trust me, when looking for a job, call letters look good only to other broadcaster. It leaves the rest sort of confused. Gee that's neat, now what is it you can do? Press fuses?

Anonymous said...

Come on, Jim, you were in TV for years and should know better than to put words in someone else’s mouth. You said I believe reporters who cover crime are “fine” and in no need of a chaplain. I didn’t say that, Jim. My comments reflected my view that reporters who cover crime sometimes have emotional problems, and it is those reporters who should be shifted off crime coverage.

To clarify, I don’t think a station has a responsibility to dig up chaplains for reporters who have problems covering crime. Instead, many broadcast companies have counseling services that are available to employees, who can and should take advantage of them. A manager can remind troubled reporters about the availability of those services.

Jim, you said reporters and photographers may not tell a manager they are having emotional problems covering crime and that TV news managers and chaplains aren’t counselors. With that backdrop, I’ve always found the best approach is for managers to pull reporters with emotional troubles off crime news and refer them to counseling services.

I’ve asked reporters whether they were okay,as you have done, but I’m not a counselor and I’m not a clergyman.

Reporters need to be responsible for recognizing when they need help and then asking for it, Jim.

Eileen Flynn said...

Jim is absolutely right that reporting on violence and death week after week takes a toll. It does sometimes lead to despair.

I am good friends with the cops and courts reporters at the Statesman. They are both sensitive and empathetic men who do their jobs well. That involves knowing the sometimes gruesome details of a murder -- details we wouldn't necessarily run in the paper. It means calling victims' family members whose raw emotions are palpable. It means going to a crime scene or accident scene and seeing a dead body or a puddle of blood. It means sitting in a courtroom for days and listening to the horrific story over and over.

Of course that has an effect. There are some images you can never shake.

Covering the weekend cops beat for about 18 months at the Statesman did a real number on me. As did my week in post-Katrina New Orleans. I don't know how people do it on a daily basis.

Look, I never cried at a crime scene, and I don't have any emotional problems (at least none diagnosed yet -ha!). But the fact is, if you're human, you react to this stuff. And I suppose in some cases it would be nice to have a go-to person you can share with after a traumatic story. Something less formal than an EAP.

Of course with the newsroom budgets these days, it would have to be a volunteer position.

Flyjax said...


When I arrived at the Branch Davidian compound on the early morning of March 1st, 1993, I had plans of marrying that summer to a person who was also in the business.

By the time the compound became a fireball on the prairie, my wedding plans were shot and the sight of eighty-plus souls roasting were indelibly imprinted in my being.

The next day a friend call me early in the morning from Charlotte. From the time of my shooting the first fatality of my career in 1981, until then, I had never expressed emotion over an event that I had covered.

I cried like a baby.

Yes, the carnage that covering the events from day to day does leave scars on all of us in ways seen and unseen... and I do believe that there needs to be some kind of support system... religious, or secular, for the unbelievers... for all of us.

Great topic.

Anonymous said...

It can be dangerous to play in-house counselor to a reporter who has developed emotional scars from covering crime. One reporter, in particular, shared her emotional issues with another staff member and with no one else. The reporter ended up taking her own life at home, because she wasn't able to cope. Since she was a very private person, no one else in the newsroom was aware that she was having problems.

We had a discussion after her death about the importance of alerting management to situations in which anyone in the newsroom was having psychological problems and how important it was to refer that employee to company-paid counseling.

With this situation in mind, no one in a newsroom should be playing the role of counselor.

Anonymous said...

Hey! I'm over at the courthouse and some reporters randomly started talking about this entry n your blog! Pretty funny.


NewsMcNabb said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
NewsMcNabb said...

Editor's note: I hope reporters at the courthouse covering the DeVoe trial are OK. Do they need a chaplain? :o Jim

Lance said...

People hooting and laughing at the Courthouse?
My, my, kids.
This is actually the most serious subject I've seen here.
What did CSN&Y sing so long ago? "Don't worry about it, it will happen to you..We were children once, playing with fire."
Crews are asked every day to run toward scenes that would make the most hardened Sheriff blanch, and maybe pour a drink over, later.
I've thought this was a significant issue for a long time.
For me, shooting news, and taking it seriously, was almost a personal Vietnam. It was usually fun, and I did it often and well. As Raoul used to say,"get me a body count". It's likely a pro sport to your best crews. However.
I've always thought about the fact that we work(ed) for the private sector, for for profit companies. Consider newsrooms where the personal impact of spot news coverage was mostly internalized for fear of looking weak. Hidden because of political consequences or pecking order. Possibly spoken of only in the environment of the news car coming back, a furtive discussion of how really gross or shocking "that was".
This is a serious issue. Police, Fire, EMS, and news crews go to exactly the same scenes time and again. The officials have the full support of a tax funded organization that likely provides training and an EAP. Probably their EAP works well to keep them IN the system, being non-profit in nature, rather than monitoring them as "problems" to be weeded out. The official responders are quite coddled when you look at it closely, operating in a closed fraternity with a full expectation of a 20 year retirement, and the full health and medical support of a tax funded agency. In media, bidness is bidness, and I don't think anyone would tell EAP or anyone else, "I just can't get this image out of my head." it would likely only mean "hire a new head" to the private sector.
I would suspect many media people would be hesitant to go to an in house EAP, in a private profit oriented company, due to the political risks.
One suggestion is a monthly news meeting where these issues are discussed at length and openly, among management and peers and maybe a couple of outside consultants. I tried to be real open to these issues when on the desk, having enjoyed time in the field prior. A prominent (former) News Director accused me of "running an EST session in 'his' Newsroom.
Well I did care about everybody. People came up to me at parties for years afterward saying "I was the best AE they had ever worked for."
I thought that his statement was great. We had an excellent line up of people, and had gone from a high 3 to a low 1 in 18 months, the first 1 rating since the opening of UHF in '66.
EST away. Count da money...
It's not a casual thing, it's not "just news", ratings and profit can't be the only concern. The people are what make it work.
Talk about it.

David Harder said...

Great topic Jim,

Like most reporters (former in my case) I can still vividly remember many incidents that impacted my emotional well-being , such as the time when I ran up to the Emergency Room entrance at Brakenridge Hospital with my video camera just in time to see the stretcher of a child who had shot himself in the forehead; speaking to a father in East Austin, off Airport Boulevard, just minutes after his son had been shot and killed by junkie; being screamed at by the family of a little boy who drowned in Lake LBJ, etc. These incidents do take an emotional take a toll on one’s psyche.

But reporters, like the cops and EMT’s the report on, are supposed to be tough. Certainly reporters don’t get much support in a newsroom. Sadly most colleagues are competitors, and in my experience, senior newsroom managers have little or no interest in the personal well-being of their reporters.

I think there is a place both for professional counseling services to be provided to reporters by their employers, but also a need for associations where people of like-minded faiths, and even across faiths, can gather to encourage each other.

The problem is always that if a reporter joins such an association, they would be seen as being partial to the faith community which birthed the association. Joining might also not bode well for their advancement within a newsroom, typically a fairly anti-religious place.

Still, I’ve long thought such an association (such as an “Association for Christian Journalists” or an “Association for Journalists of Faith” to be broader) is needed.

Would anyone join one if such a group were formed in Austin?

-David Harder

Anonymous said...

I was at the Devoe trial for a day. I saw pictures of the dead victims. That didn't bother me. I honestly think cops shows have desensitized me. The bodies just didn't look real.

You know what shook me a little? The families. They were barely able to contain themselves from wailing in the middle of the courtroom. It was awful. At least to me.

Do I want a chaplain? Hell no. The idea of any religion-affiliated services puts me off.

NewsMcNabb said...

Editor's Note to the last anonymous post. The role of a chaplain is to be present to another person, to be there for them listening. It isn't necessarily a religious thing.
The fact that you shared that TV cop shows may have desensitized you and the grief of the families got to you might seem to shore up the efficacy of the chaplain concept.
You got off of your chest.