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What I learned telling the stories of survivors of San Bernardino terror attack

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What I learned telling the stories of survivors of San Bernardino terror attack

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Julie Swann-Paez, a survivor of the San Bernardino shooting, works with a Pilates instructor to strengthen muscles during her re
Julie Swann-Paez, a survivor of the San Bernardino shooting, works with a Pilates instructor to strengthen muscles during her recovery. Swann-Paez was shot twice in the pelvis during the terror attack. (Photo: Watchara Phomicinda/The Press-Enterprise/SCNG)

On Dec. 2, 2015, a masked San Bernardino County employee and his wife unleashed the deadliest terrorist attack in the U.S. since Sept. 11, 2001 when they attacked his coworkers after pledging allegiance to the Islamic State.

Fourteen people were killed in the mass shooting and attempted bombing at a rented conference center in the city of San Bernardino, California. The attackers were killed in a shootout with police later that day, leaving behind their six-month-old baby, unanswered questions and dozens of people who must live with the fallout.

In Southern California’s Inland region, which was ground zero for the attack, the date remains etched on countless minds — starting with the police and firefighters who responded to the attack at the Inland Regional Center; ambulance drivers, helicopter crews, hospital personnel, chaplains and counselors who sought to help; school teachers and children put on lockdown; neighbors living or working near the attack or shootout; journalists who covered the attack as the day unfolded in San Bernardino; and the community at large, which includes our print and online readers who lived and worked near the scene and sometimes knew people directly involved.

For my 2017 National Fellowship project, I produced a series that took a closer look at the survivors’ struggles to recover physically, mentally and emotionally, and how their plight with treatment denials and delays has thrown a spotlight on San Bernardino County, which was their employer, and a broken California workers’ compensation system.

The series took a deep dive into survivors’ mental health recovery and how medical treatment denials were impacting them; explored the recoveries of survivors from other attacks including 9/11 and the Oklahoma City bombing; offered recovery tips from those survivors and experts; and investigated why the workers’ comp system wasn’t designed for terrorist attack survivors and whether that system can be reformed.

The Press-Enterprise newsroom, where I was working that morning, was about 25 minutes from the attack. We were the closest big news organization. The reporters willing to go out in the field fanned out to cover the IRC, hospitals and the shootout.

I was stationed with other journalists outside a hospital’s emergency room entrance. From the sidewalk on the far side of a parking lot, we watched survivors get rushed inside and learned the hospital was put on high alert following a bomb threat. Once, police ran out of the hospital toward us, then disappeared in vehicles to join the shootout nearby.

With terror attack taking place in our coverage area, the paper was devoted to covering the event and the ensuing investigation for months afterward. Law enforcement investigators soon learned the male attacker and his former neighbor had planned an even bigger, earlier attack on Riverside City College and the nearby 91 freeway that was never carried out. The campus was right behind the Press-Enterprise’s building; the freeway was a block away.

The attack and investigation rocked the community. Yet clearly, those most profoundly impacted by the attack were the 57 people who survived the carnage in that building. More than 20 were injured by gunfire. Yet experts say recovering from the trauma may be even more difficult than recovering from gunshot wounds.

As a journalist, I produce stories based on information the public has a right to know or needs to know, or that I hope will enhance lives or right wrongs. It’s my job to give a voice to the voiceless and throw a spotlight on injustice — to illuminate what’s happening in the world so people can take action and make change if they so choose.

After I discovered that the survivors were being denied surgeries and other medical treatments, as well as trauma counseling and medicine for anxiety, depression and sleep disturbances, I knew that was the most important health issue facing our community and the issue I needed to tackle in more depth for the USC fellowship.

I had a question: If terrorist attack survivors weren’t getting the medical treatment they needed to recover, who else was being denied help through the state’s workers’ comp system, and could anything be done about it?

I also wondered: If county and state officials read an in-depth series about the issue, would they eventually address the problems? The Dec. 2 survivors had had a hard time getting help when they needed it, so another goal for the project was to create a series to provide information for survivors of future attacks.

For this project, I produced a four-part series of stories, sidebars, infographics and video interviews of the survivors, along with photographer Stan Lim’s photos.

My goal was to produce at least two narrative stories, which require more access and research to do well. From my initial work reporting on obstacles facing the survivors, I knew getting access to their lives, hardships, emotions, perspectives and harsh realities would be my biggest challenge.

Before starting the project, I thought I had this covered by asking several key survivors if they were willing to take part and hearing that they would. What I didn’t understand was they’d all be reluctant or unable to talk at various points for reasons that were beyond my control, and sometimes theirs.

Some challenges were rooted in the very post-traumatic stress disorder I wanted to write about.

I approached more survivors than the initial group who’d agreed to have their lives documented. I found some were overwhelmed trying to survive or navigate hurdles the county and state put in their paths. Others had been so badly burned by other journalists that they wouldn’t trust another. Some simply couldn’t handle talking or thinking about the attack and their recovery. They “just wanted to move on.”

Nearly all needed attorneys to appeal their employers’ and the state’s treatment denials and delays. Some attorneys advised clients not to discuss their workers’ comp cases. Some survivors couldn’t talk because their case and employment status hadn’t been settled. Some didn’t want to jeopardize their work situation or alienate new coworkers.

I was able to finish the project but had to reduce its scope. It was especially hard to break new ground in the story on survivors’ physical recovery, because only one gunshot wound survivor, , was willing to tell her story.

Even so, the survivors I worked with provided critical access and insights into their lives and recovery efforts and their experiences with their county employer and workers’ comp in such a way that the project succeeded — and is now out in cyberspace to potentially help other survivors. 

Here are a few tips for journalists tackling projects with similar challenges:

1. Establish your credibility early and often with all of your potential sources. Do this by respecting their feelings, needs and perspectives, and writing fair, balanced, thorough and accurate stories.

2. If they’re not comfortable with something, respect that. If they say “No,” hear no.

3. That doesn’t mean you give up, though. Ask what they are comfortable with. Offer alternatives. Be understanding and willing to work with them.

4. When covering or writing about a sensitive issue, such as mental health challenges, be as sensitive and respectful as you’d want someone to be to you and your friends and family in that situation.

5. Many people don’t want to share their fears, hurts, struggles or physical and mental health challenges — with anyone. It’s even scarier to do it in print. Recognize that you need to spend more time with someone you’re asking a lot from to establish the level of trust needed for them to feel comfortable opening up.

6. There’s a tricky balance you’ll have to navigate between respecting your sources’ needs, giving them time to get comfortable working with you, and moving forward on the project. Keep the communication open with them and your editors to work through delays.

7. Reporting on the impacts of terrorism, health challenges and traumatized people can be difficult and stressful. It helps to balance such work with less-demanding assignments and to have a good editor or colleagues to talk things over with.

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