The ghost of “Precious Doe” haunted her dreams. To then 24-year-old journalist Jana Shortal (2007), working for WDAF in Kansas City, it began as just another day and a fairly routine story. April 28, 2001, the headless body of a 3-year-old African-American girl had been discovered. Authorities dubbed the unidentiﬁed child “Precious Doe.” On day three Jana’s assignment was to cover what local citizens were doing to help in the search. She and videographer J.W. Edwards chanced on an older man searching a small wooded area. Billy Stegall, a retired post oﬃce worker and army sergeant, allowed them to put a wireless mic on him as he searched. Back in the woods, not far from where Precious Doe’s body had been found, he found a bag. He reached out with his walking stick and touched a lump in that bag. The tip of his cane traced the outline of a forehead, nose and chin. Stegall turned to J.W. and asked, “Have you ever smelled death?” They had found the remains of Precious Doe. Jana thought that was the end of the story. But three months later, she went into
a tailspin. Jana says she “couldn’t calm down, couldn’t go to sleep and didn’t know why.” Then she began having the same nightmare. “I was walking, breaking sticks, but the smell was there this time. So I immediately knew where I was.” After three or four days of trying to deal with it herself, the stress became too much. Jana ﬁnally asked for help and it took her more than a year of therapy and counseling to regain her equilibrium and resume her career.* In May of 2005 a tip helped authorities identify Precious Doe as Erica Michelle Maria Green. Once caught, her mother Michelle Johnson and stepfather, Harrell Johnson were each charged with seconddegree felony murder and with endangering the welfare of a child. Authorities allege Harrell kicked almost four-year-old Erica in the head, then disposed of her body two days later after using hedge clippers to sever her head. In October 2008, the then 33-year-old Michelle Johnson pleaded guilty to
second-degree murder for her role in the killing of her daughter Erica Green.
Johnson’s boyfriend at the time, Harrell Johnson, whom Michelle later married, was convicted of ﬁrst-degree murder that same month and was given a life sentence along with four years for child endangerment and 25 years for abuse, which are running consecutively. Trial testimony revealed that Harrell kicked Erica in the head when she wouldn’t go to sleep. Fearing being arrested for child abuse, the couple didn’t take the toddler to a hospital; pathologists testiﬁed that Erica died from her injuries. Shortal was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Studies show
PTSD may aﬄict far more journalists than news managers might suspect. Anthony Feinstein of the University of Toronto examined journalists covering
the US invasion of Iraq (2006). He found that nearly a third were psychologically distressed. This reinforces a ground breaking 2002 study published in the American Journal of Psychiatry titled “A Hazardous Profession: War, Journalists and Psychopathology” (Feinstein, Owen, & Blair, 2002). That study found that of 140 combat journalists, nearly 30 percent “showed serious signs of post-traumatic stress” and were unlikely to get help. PTSD aﬀects many more than just journalists in war zones. Back in the spring of
1999, Simpson and Boggs reported on their study in Journalism & Communication Monographs. They found that reporters routinely covering death and destruction had emotional responses similar to the scores of a group of ﬁreﬁghters and avalanche victims. They found that the longer reporters and photographers worked, especially those covering large-scale disasters, the greater the chance of displaying signs of post traumatic stress. BBC reporter Ben Brown wrote in The Observer (2005) about the horror of
covering the Indonesian tsunami. He’d just interviewed Rohati, an Indonesian woman who had just lost her husband, four children and their home when she lost control and began to wail hysterically.