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Western journalism isn't politically neutral, and journalists go through rites of initiation that don't truly prepare them to deal with trauma. Instead, they believe a myth that covering trauma intervenes to better the world.

That's the viewpoint of Carrie A. Rentschler, PhD, of the University of Pittsburgh, who explained the culture of journalists to journalism students at the University of Central Oklahoma this past spring when she spoke about journalism, trauma and the ethos of interviewing. Rentschler, who earned her PhD in communications from the University of Illinois, based the speech on her dissertation, raising questions about the meaning of journalists' trauma and victimization, especially pertinent after September 11.

Rentschler sees journalism from an anthropological perspective, where journalists are initiated and ritually trained to believe in the profession, which includes what she calls the "myth of intervention"-the belief that covering crime, violence and disaster is a means of intervention into the world of death and suffering. She says witnessing violence as a photographer or reporter is an important rite of initiation.

"The professional ethos of journalism is modeled on physical and emotional stamina and a no-holds-barred attitude toward gathering the news," she said.

Besides the fact that media, especially television, which carries violence to promote ratings, require that journalists cover violence, she continued. She explained that journalists believe they need to get up close to violence as a form of social obligation-supposedly helping prepare the public to deal with it, based "on a set of unquestioned assumptions for why journalists should witness violence repeatedly in order to cover it." There is no evidence that the public benefits by being exposed to violent news, she noted, although journalists see the public's safety needs as synonymous with the media's need for crime coverage. Furthermore, journalists are not expected to assist victims physically. "The myth of interventionism rests on the faith that if the news covers the violence, then someone will do something about it," Rentschler says.

She argued that it doesn't add up. Not assisting victims has added to journalists' trauma in many cases, including the suicide of photographer Kevin Carter, who did not help a starving girl but took an award-winning photograph of her.

Instead, the myth accepted by journalists is that covering violence might cause trauma-but the belief is that it has to. It hardens journalists and prepares them for advancement, she argued, which is why rookie journalists start covering cops and crime, purposely being sent unprepared to cover trauma. If enough violence is witnessed, causing initiation pain, sooner or later journalists become detached-what she called a kind of "pollution ritual." Those who can't take it either fake it or are weeded out.

Are journalists traumatized by this? Of course. Rentschler pointed out that for most people, excluding journalists, the repeated witnessing of scenes of violence would be highly abnormal.

She correctly concluded that stories of journalists' victimization and trauma represent a crisis in journalism-challenging accepted beliefs.

But in the war on terror, instances of violence against journalists overseas are increasing-the tragic execution of Daniel Pearl, for example. Rentschler said this is partially because journalists are seen as participants, not observers. And journalists do little to dissuade that image, wearing military uniforms, using military transport and imitating military poses. Some carry guns. "For refugees who have just witnessed their homes and families being bombed, there isn't much difference between a Western journalist taking pictures and the war planes," she said. "Witnessing violence is its own form of participation that turns violence into news, which in turn plays very strategic, ideological and political roles in the war on terrorism. What then is the practical distinction between witnessing violence and participating in it as a journalist?" she asked.

Rentschler concluded in hoping that much of the coverage about violence against journalists will be an entry point for discussing the roles of journalists. "Perhaps the issue isn't so much that journalists suffer trauma, but that their trauma tells us-and them-something about the political stakes of journalism today: that journalism is not, and never has been, politically neutral," she said.