Marcella Raymond: A reporter speaking out about the effects of covering violence
Chicago’s violence has many casualties and the toll it takes on first-responders is not a new story. Dozens of stories were written in response to the six Chicago Police suicides over an 8-month span between August 2018 and March 2019. Attention was also paid to firefighters, EMT’s and emergency room workers but until this week, little if any attention has focused on the toll violence takes on the reporters who cover it day in, day out.
Marcella Raymond, a long-time fixture on WGN-TV disclosed publicly on a Facebook page she created June 16 that she is suffering from PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) as a result of covering violence. Her admission has sparked conversation and debates inside and outside of newsrooms around the country and may ultimately lead to some changes.
Not everybody who witnesses a traumatic event up close — a fatal car crash, a murder — develops PTSD; according to the VA, about eight percent of men and 20 percent of women do so. Exposure to war, high-intensity assignments or longer time in the field will up the risk further.
The diagnosis includes a trio of distressing symptoms that must remain for at least a month. The first part is re-living the traumatic event, for instance as frequent flashbacks or nightmares, or as extreme physiological reactions to everyday things like reading a book. The second is avoidance — such as going out of your way not to get near the local playground or, say, eschewing the smell of charred meat on a barbecue — and a “numbing” toward other people and positive emotions. And the third is being revved up all the time, looking for potential signs of danger. A person with PTSD often experiences depression, too.
Raymond, a single mother of a soon-to-be college freshman, has been on the frontlines of covering Chicago violence since 1998. Born in the Bronx but raised in suburban Downers Grove, Raymond attended Montini High School and then the University of Iowa before transferring to Columbia College Chicago, where she graduated with a degree in journalism in 1988. She began her career at WTVO in Rockford until 1992, before working at WDTN in Dayton, Ohio as the station’s morning anchor. In 1998, she landed a job as a freelance morning anchor and reporter at CBS 2 Chicago. In 1999, she got hired by WGN, where she has been ever since. Raymond worked on the station’s morning show from 1999 to 2009 and it was in 2009 that she was first diagnosed with PTSD. Although she has since said that the story that put her over the edge in 2009 was having to interview the brother of a soldier killied in a mass shooting at Ft. Hood in Texas, in which 13 died, Raymond believes her PTSD was the result of years of covering violence. After Fort Hood, she took 2 1/2 months of disability leave and although she told her bosses about her issues at the time, she returned to work. And while she did get off the station’s morning shift and continue to see a therapist, she would also continue to work general assignment, which often included stories about violence.
In the decade since then, the violence in Chicago and beyond hasn’t let up, adding to a problem Raymond thought she adequately addressed. Then on June 16, Father’s Day, Raymond had to knock on the door of a Chicago firefighter whose son was stabbed to death and had his car set on fire. The mother of a 18-year-old son herself, that story set Raymond over the edge again, and she says this time it was worse for her than in 2009.
After some thought, Raymond decided to go public about her PTSD and created a Facebook page dedicated to talking about it. It got noticed by Chicago reporter Robert Feder, who mentioned it in his media column and has since attracted a large response from supportive reporters and members of the public. A couple days later, Raymond met with The Chicago Ambassador’s Bob Chiarito in the hopes that her story will bring awareness to news organizations about what its reporters face and to make it easier for fellow reporters to speak up about their own issues.
CA) You have disclosed that you were first diagnosed in 2009 with PTSD. The thing that stood out to me about your post about it was the details. You talked about November 6, 2009, when you had to go to Bolingbrook to talk to the brother of a soldier who was killed in a mass shooting at a military base in Texas. I’m guessing that it had to be a buildup of stories and not just that specific story that caused it?
RAYMOND) It was.
CA) You were covering general assignment stories?
RAYMOND) Well, typically mornings would be just crime because most crime happens overnight. Now the morning reporters start at 2 or 3:30 a.m., so if something happens at 11 or 12, the scene is still active and the police are still there, so that’s what is covered a lot. It was a buildup for me, I’d go, go, go and then one day I’d sit in my living room and cry. So, it was like everything was building. I remember some so specifically and others sort of blend because it was like one murder one day, one murder the next day, a fire one day and a fire the next day. You can interchange or take out the names and places and it’s sad and I didn’t want to do that. It gets robotic and I didn’t want to be robotic. I knew I was unhappy but I wasn’t realizing how much it was affecting me. My son was young and I’d come home and take a nap and I’d wake and think, ‘Oh my God, is he ok? Should I go to his school, should I call the school?’ I’d wake up in a sweat and my heart was racing and I’d have to calm myself down. I always had this fear.
CA) And you think that was because of what you saw during the day?
RAYMOND) Yeah. My biggest fear is that my son is going to suffer a violent death, because that’s my life. I don’t have a normal life.
We were vigilant with him to the point where I think I’ve scarred the poor kid because he watches everything. I always tell him to know where your exits are, always be aware of your surroundings, don’t ever drink too much to where you don’t know what you’re doing. It’s all this stuff that I’ve instilled in him. I gave him a tourniquet and this stuff called quick-clot to bring with him to school. I carry it. He asked, ‘Why do I need this?’ and I said, ‘You never know.’
CA) To go back to 2009 when you were first diagnosed, what led you to get treatment or be seen about it?
RAYMOND) I was a mess.
CA) But it was ongoing?
RAYMOND) I kept wondering about how I was going to leave.
CA) Leave the business?
CA) Bear with me, as I’ll have to play devil’s advocate with some of my questions. But going into the business, you were aware that this was the type of stuff you would have to cover?
RAYMOND) Going into the business I wanted to. But it’s like, be careful what you wish for. When I was in Rockford, this is going to sound horrible, but I was like ‘I need a murder for my tape’ or ‘I need a fire’ because it was boring, but now I’d go back there in a heartbeat to not have to do that. You have all these goals when you’re younger. My goal was to get to Chicago. I love it here, I love my job, to an extent [Laughs], I love the people I work with but I never imagined this would happen. So, I tell young interns that come out with me that you have to know that this is a possibility and I know you don’t think about it when you are young. A lot of people have told me things like ‘I was covering my first murder and I knew I couldn’t do it so I got out of the business.’ I remember the first story that really affected me in Rockford and I was talking to a friend about it and I was crying. She was like, ‘just get over it. Move on, what’s wrong with you?’
CA) Speaking from my experience, that seems to be the attitude. Then of course, there are moments when you realize that this is real, these are not just statistics.
RAYMOND) Back then, all the newspaper guys would go sit at Billy Goat and drink, that’s how they would squash it down. I didn’t want to be doing that.
CA) There’s that image of the hard-drinking reporters at the Goat drinking and smoking.
RAYMOND) Right, it all looks so glamorous. That’s what people think about me. They think being on TV is glamorous.
I think this is bringing more awareness to a profession that isn’t talked about much.
CA) Yes, because you do hear about police and first responders —
RAYMOND) And military personnel, nursers and doctors. I can’t imagine how they do it at Christ or Stroger.
CA) Yeah. It’s every day. It never stops.
RAYMOND) How do you reconcile? They see different things than what I see.
CA) That’s one thing I noticed. You seem apologetic in a way. Why? Why do you think you have to compare yourself or qualify things by saying ’I understand this is nothing compared to what a victim of violence feels’ — Do you really think that’s necessary?
RAYMOND) Yeah. [Crying]. Look at me, I’m a mess.
CA) You’re human.
RAYMOND) But I think if I lost my son I’d have to be scooped up off the floor. Sometimes you see a person in the military whose best friend is shot and killed in front of them or a firefighter on a crash scene where a kid’s head is cut off and I think, how does my pain compare to theirs? And I keep comparing it.
CA) Maybe it’s human nature to do that, but I don’t think it makes your experience any less valid or real.
RAYMOND) That’s what my psychologist tells me. Like I said in the blog post, there’s no quantifier. Some soldiers or cops, things don’t bother them. It’s an individual thing. [Starts to cry]. I’m sorry-
CA) Don’t worry about it. Like I said, you are human.
RAYMOND) I think that’s what I want people to see, that we are not these vultures who don’t care. We don’t shove microphones in people’s faces. If someone doesn’t want to talk to me, I don’t push. I’ve stopped gaggles of reporters before. I remember a man who didn’t speak English who had just lost his family in a fire and they kept pushing because they wanted that sound bite from him. I said, ‘That’s it, we are done. Everybody leave.’ You can’t keep bothering this man who just lost everything. That’s what I kept thinking. He’s never going to get over that, never.
CA) Do you think there’s a difference between the TV reporters and the print reporters?
RAYMOND) No. They see and hear the same stuff. No.
CA) But as far as being in someone’s face?
RAYMOND) It’s the same. They think you have to put on this tough exterior — at least I felt like I had to a long time ago, but I don’t do it anymore, just because. I’ve almost cried on the air a few times.
CA) We see people at the worst moments of their lives.
RAYMOND) Or the people who do horrible, horrible things. I think that’s good for people to know also.
CA) So, in 2009 when you were first diagnosed — were you a freelancer or staffer?
RAYMOND) I was on staff.
CA) And that’s when you took 2 1/2 months off?
RAYMOND) Yes. I had disability, which I don’t have now because I’m a freelancer.
CA) When you came back did you discuss these issues with WGN?
RAYMOND) I did.
CA) Did you try to get a different beat?
RAYMOND) Yeah, I wanted to do features and my boss at the time said they didn’t have anything open for features. I said, ‘Can you change my shift?’ and he said they didn’t have anything open. Then I tried desperately to find another job but no one was hiring. I had to feed my son, I’m the main provider. I had to come back because I needed money and I thought that going to freelance would give me more opportunity to say no [to certain stories] and take time off if I needed it and I said I would never work the morning show again. They said okay.
CA) Do you think working those hours made you more susceptible?
RAYMOND) I think so, that’s what I was thinking because I was so sleep deprived.
CA) That, combined with the plethora of crime stories that happen overnight –
RAYMOND) Right. And everyone is covering it, it’s not like my [experience] is any different than anyone else. That’s part of my job and I get that, but some days and some stories are a lot harder than others.
CA) So, as a freelancer, were there times when you turned down stories?
RAYMOND) No. As a freelancer I lost $50,000 of my salary. I thought it was worth it for my sanity and I thought, ok, everyday it won’t be crime and there will be other reporters there too. In the morning I’d be the only one, but in the afternoon it’s different. We kind of shared the load and I remember being in editorial meetings, looking at some reporters and knowing that some were bothered by particular stories. Seeing that they had covered so much crime for so many days [in a row], we would say what we were covering and I’d say, ‘I’ll take that’ because so and so has covered enough of them [crime stories]
CA) So you tried to alleviate someone else’s load?
RAYMOND) Yes, because I knew how hard it was for them.
CA) You sensed they were being overwhelmed? Did they tell you that?
RAYMOND) Yes, some told me. Some of my friends were pregnant, so their emotions were higher anyway and they had a baby coming and were thinking about ‘How does a person kill a baby?’ I think after you become a parent it kind of changes your outlook on everything. That’s probably what happened to me too because I have so many fears about my son.
CA) Not to go off on a tangent, but I covered a lot of bad stuff over the years. Most of it didn’t affect me so much because it was gangbangers shooting gangbangers and I dealt with it by telling myself they signed up for it. But every once in awhile there would be something. I remember covering the Ryan Harris murder. It was frustrating and —
CA) Yes. Then there were stories that I didn’t even cover that affected me more, like Sandy Hook, because those kids were 7 and 8 years old, that’s how old my kids were at the time. That still gets to me.
RAYMOND) I remember it was my day off and I was going to a store when I heard it on the radio and I just started sobbing.
CA) To go back to 2009 again, you didn’t come out publicly, but you told your employer. Between then and now, were you talking to a professional?
RAYMOND) Yes. I’ve always talked to my therapist. I was on some anti-depressant medication and was at Central DuPage Hospital on an outpatient basis….This last thing, this was worse than what happened in 2009. [Raymond explained that she is now seeing a different therapist that focuses more on PTSD]. At this point, I thought I needed to see someone who had really been in the trenches and got it and his sole thing is dealing with PTSD because I didn’t have to go back to my childhood, I’ve dealt with all that.
CA) Talking to a victim’s relative, do you think it adds to a story or is a way to humanize a story?
RAYMOND) Oh, absolutely.
CA) There is a need for it?
CA) It’s not just being voyeuristic?
RAYMOND) No. And it’s not being a vulture. People say, ‘I don’t like when you put a microphone in someone’s face’ but I don’t do that. I ask and am compassionate and if they don’t want to talk, I don’t push it. It’s amazing how many people do want to talk. I think at that moment in time they really need to and so, I give them that voice.
CA) Now I suppose the question is, what is going on with you, work-wise?
RAYMOND) They have been putting me doing weekend morning features on WGN and anchoring at CLTV [WGN sister station] and they have tried to put me where it’s not crazy. There are a couple incidents that happened when I went into my executive producer’s office and just started sobbing. I told them what happened and what was going on and what led to it and my news director came in and told me that they care about me and want to make sure I’m okay. The thing is, as a freelancer you fill different spots, so if they need a reporter on the street from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., I still have to support my child and myself, so I can’t say no, I’ll only do features. So that’s why I’m also trying to deal with this. Just like a firefighter, they try to deal with it but do they get anxiety when they are going out to another car crash and don’t know what to expect? They keep doing their job.
CA) This is something that’s broader than your story and it may be something that’s better for me to ask a labor lawyer about, but if a reporter is diagnosed with PTSD and wasn’t allowed to change his beat, would he have a legitimate lawsuit against his employer?
CA) Is that something that you would ever consider?
RAYMOND) No, no.
CA) This is a hypothetical, but would it change the way news organizations cover things? Would they not cover things because they may feel like they have a liability?
CA) Should they not cover things?
CA) Do you think the way things are covered should change?
RAYMOND) I think it’s an individual decision. I understand that some things need to be covered. I mean, how do you ignore the A.J. Freund story? That’s the one that broke me the second time. You can’t. I get it, I understand. But there could be a little more understanding in knowing and seeing. I would try to take the burden off someone else. All the bosses were trying to decide what to cover and who to assign that day based on their schedule — not on ‘Oh wow, you’ve covered five murders this week.’ I think that can change because it would help alleviate some of that. I think news organizations have to be more aware of their reporters and the emotional toll it can take on them because that’s where I think it needs to change.
CA) I wasn’t aware of this until yesterday, but Reuters and some of the large organizations offer counseling.
RAYMOND) We have an EAP [employee assistance program] where you can go four times for free and I have good insurance.
CA) Reuters made me go to conflict reporting training for covering war zones and riots. Should there be something like that for covering crime and keeping yourself mentally safe?
RAYMOND) Yes, absolutely. And I think my bringing this story out gives more awareness to news organizations that we suffer too and it’s much different than being an anchor. I would never say that an anchor doesn’t get affected by this stuff, everyone does, but when you are actually there it’s different. I’ve been out on those stories and people are just wailing, falling to the ground.
CA) Yeah. That’s what I always remember, the mothers just screaming. It’s horrible.
RAYMOND) I jump in because I want to tell their story, I want to make sure that it’s good and people understand that this was a person that people loved. I want to do it justice..[pauses because she’s crying] But look at the cost and what it does to me. It’s just changed my life.
CA) When you were first diagnosed you had to take 2 1/2 months off. This time, you are still working. Have your doctors advised you to take a break? Would you if you could?
RAYMOND) You mean, if I had disability or vacation? If I had that kind of stuff I think I would. I think because it came back, I don’t think it ever left. But because it affected me so much this time, I have to really deal with it. I don’t think I really dealt with it before. I was diagnosed and given some medication and told I’ll be fine.
CA) You didn’t stay in therapy?
RAYMOND) I did, but it wasn’t really focused on PTSD. This time my therapy is focused specifically on that.
CA) Did you have any fear about coming out publicly about it?
RAYMOND) No. I just felt compelled, I felt like it was necessary for people to not think my life is perfect, because no one’s life is perfect. We all have something.
CA) We all have problems or challenges —
RAYMOND) Everyone. And I knew that there were a lot of others in the business like me so I guess it was for them also. Sometimes I’m a little embarrassed, I walk into my newsroom and am a little embarrassed because sometimes my coworkers don’t say anything, not because they don’t care but because I think they don’t want to bother me, if that makes sense. Or they don’t know what to say.
CA) Do you think they look at you differently?
CA) Well, that’s good.
RAYMOND) You know what, I don’t care.
CA) But they know you, it’s not like you’ve been there for just a few months.
RAYMOND) Yes, I’ve been there 20 years. I feel supported, I feel loved. I hope everyone gets that
CA) Did you think about it before you put up the Facebook page and went public, or did you just do it? And what’s the goal?
RAYMOND) I thought about it. I guess my goals are two-fold. I wanted to tell people that they are not alone. People think my life is so wonderful and glamorous and it’s not. My motto when people say ‘Oh my God, how’s your job?’ I say, every day I step in shit when I get out of the live truck. Whether it’s literally dog shit or just a shit-show. I think that they think it’s all glamor. They say, ‘Who does your makeup and hair?’ I do. I sit in a live truck, pull down the visor and put my makeup on. There is no glamor to it. I hope that this helps people. And I don’t want sympathy. I’m not a hero, the heroes are the ones who save lives. I’m not saving a life, I’m just telling a story, so please don’t call me a hero. I just want to make sure people know they aren’t alone and maybe some of it is therapeutic for me to tell it, but I don’t want to be a Debbie Downer. I think people are fascinated with TV reporters and think our jobs are glamorous so I wanted to show how them how hard it is and how un-glamorous it is. And if you’re in the business you understand. I’ve had so many reporters send me messages about their own hardships covering violent stories….
Did you see the movie ‘A Private War’?
CA) Yes, it was really good.
RAYMOND) I understood why she was so compelled to keep going back. I ask myself, ‘Why do I keep doing it? Why don’t I just quit?’
CA) Why not go into PR or media coaching?
RAYMOND) I tried media coaching, no one wants to pay for it. I think PR would bore me. You have to think of something else. I don’t want to sit in an office, I don’t want to write press releases. I still get that adrenaline rush when something happens.
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[…] on her Facebook blog, Raymond elaborated on her ordeal in a lengthy and revealing interview with Chicago Ambassador blogger Bob Chiarito. (Here is the link.) “I just want to make sure people know they aren’t […]