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On Days Like These …

July 20, 2012

When tragedy strikes the nation, as it did today, I’m reminded of my days as a reporter and editor. It’s hard to imagine that I walked away from the profession 12 long years ago. Some days, it seems like only yesterday.

Especially on days like these.

When I worked in newspapers, tragedy had to be met with stoic determination. No signs of emotions. Emotions got in the way of giving the public the full story.

I remember tapping into that focused, emotionless determination more times than I can count.

I remember being in the newsroom when the Oklahoma City bombing happened and deciding as part of a team to run a picture of a dying toddler on the front page of the paper. I remembering watching the coverage of the Columbine tragedy from a newsroom 2,000 miles away and wondering if we would do the story any justice. I remember standing in disbelief as a tourist threw her arms around me and sobbed on my shoulder when I asked her about a woman who had died of a heart attack on her tour bus. And I remember when the 17-year-old son of the newspaper’s advertising manager was shot and killed in an armed robbery gone wrong, and feeling like I needed to keep an eye on the news while those around me crumbled.

I also remember trying to teach that calm detachment to others.

Like the time I took a cub reporter to an accident scene where a motorcyclist collided with a semi-truck. As emergency personnel surrounded the body, part of which was still wedged between the wheels, she told me in a frenetic tone, “He’s alive. I have to believe he’s alive. It’s all OK if he’s alive.” All I could think was, “If that’s what you need, then don’t watch the police officer pull the yellow tarp from his car.”

And the holiday weekend I covered a four-car pile-up on the interstate leading to Las Vegas with a reporter who had been in the seat only 90 days. I reached the scene first and was surprised to see her show up in a sundress and sandals. In between trying to gather facts from emergency personnel, I found myself face-to-face with the photographer, who told me that I needed to keep a close eye on the rookie because she was so overwhelmed that she had almost tripped over one of the four dead bodies at the accident. It was her last day on the job. She found the role to be too much.

Eventually, so did I.

One day, after 10 years in newspapers, my idealism clashed with where I saw the industry going. So I walked away.

And in the process, I lost my shield of emotional protection.

No longer can I look at tragedy with stoic detachment. When human atrocities make headlines, I am overcome by unrelenting sorrow. I find myself tearing up at the smallest things — a 3-month-old surviving a shooting, the possibility of losing polar bears forever because of human greed, the loss of a family at the hands of a father.

Some days, it feels like I am little more than a walking wound, waiting for the next tragedy to strike.

I’m sure I’m paying the price of all the years spent suppressing my feelings. After all — like dynamite — you can only push down your emotions for so long before they either explode from the pressure or destroy you from within.

I escaped 12 years ago, yet I’m still paying the price.

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