Trauma as a daily reality

7 October 2009

Written by:

Imagine this: you are a television news reporter for a commercial network. It’s a typical Monday morning, and you’re just walking back to the office from your usual coffee break with your colleagues. Waiting at the traffic lights to cross the intersection, you hear a loud cry from a short distance. From the street behind you, a woman comes running out yelling ‘help, help!’  She fears her child has just been abducted.

Your immediate reaction is to yell out to a bystander to call the police and to start running with your workmates, following the terrified mother to the nearby river.  The closer you get to the river, the slower the woman’s footsteps become. You look ahead and see a police officer pulling a baby out from the water. The mother, her hands now covering her face, yells out in agony, and runs to the side of the river.  Her baby is dripping wet and quite clearly unconscious. The baby is not breathing.

Your colleague, a cameraman, pulls out his camera and begins filming the incident.

You’re paralysed and in a state of confusion. You hear police sirens all around you. You’re not qualified to do anything. All you can do is stand by and watch a mother say goodbye to a child she’s known for only a few months.

An hour later, the area has become a restricted space. Paramedics are taking the deceased’s tiny body away. Journalists have come to the scene. Police are questioning anybody who had been in the area. The woman’s husband has arrived — both mother and father are trying to deal with their shock.

Meanwhile, you are looking down the barrel of the camera doing a live cross for the afternoon news, still horrified by what you’ve just witnessed.

Seven news reporter Jessica Adamson experienced this situation. She and her camera crew were first on the scene of this horrific event in 2006 at Adelaide’s Torrens River.

“It was the worst story I’ve ever had to cover as a news reporter,” says Adamson, speaking to the Dart Centre for Journalism and Trauma.

“I would have given anything to not have been there that day,” she says. “It was the first time in my life that I hated what I did for a living. I just wish I was a trained paramedic then and there, and not a journalist.”

For the reporters, the cameramen, the photographers and any media personnel who have the job of reporting news, events like what Jessica Adamson experienced are difficult to deal with. But it’s all part and parcel of the job. Bad news is news, and trauma is a daily reality.

It’s not uncommon for journalists to be the first on the scene of a tragic event — either purposefully, or by mere coincidence.

* * *

That was the first part of a feature I wrote for a university assignment last year. It wasn’t until I was on the front line myself covering traumatic events that I realised the true extent of what journalists are exposed to on the job.

At the start of the year, I completed a four-week internship at The Age. I was placed in the newsroom, where I would be sent out to various stories I’d cover for the newspaper.

On one of the final days of Victoria’s searing January heatwave, a call came through on the police media line, saying that a child had fallen off the West Gate Bridge in Melbourne.  It was still early morning, and many reporters were already on other stories. The duty editor asked me to head out to the area, and file an update for The Age Online as soon as I had enough information on what had happened.

Travelling from The Age headquarters to the West Gate Bridge, the only thing I could think of was how important it was that I got the facts of this story ‘right’. It wasn’t until I arrived on the scene that I realised the enormity of what had just happened.

The four-year-old girl was taken away in an ambulance after paramedics worked for some time on the scene to revive her.  She died in hospital. Later in the day, her father would be charged with her murder after he allegedly threw her off the bridge.

Once my shift was over, I was approached by the duty editor who advised that I, and the rest of the team who covered the story, receive trauma counselling. I refused. I thought I was OK.

The next week Victoria burned.

I returned to my normal job as a broadcast journalist for SBS and within hours of my first day back at work, I was out on the road heading towards the bushfire relief centre at Whittlesea, after the deadly Black Saturday fires destroyed homes and killed hundreds across the state. For the next fortnight, I would cover for SBS what became known as the Victorian bushfire crisis.

In retrospect,  it’s clear that this was one of the most trying of circumstances I’ve ever had to deal with.

From then on every night after my shift ended, I would struggle switching off from work – switching off  from the stories I had heard, from the little kids who had just lost a mate, from the parents who were not giving up hope that their children would still be alive, buried somewhere under the rubble and ashes.

But I knew I wasn’t alone. I would often talk with friends from various media institutions who were also reporting on the bushfires, which helped to try to make sense of the biggest natural disaster our nation had encountered.

I kept telling myself that I wasn’t the first journalist to experience trauma. And that this certainly wasn’t going to be the last time that I would encounter it in my career.

But I also kept telling myself that journalists are just like any human beings. And like any human being, encountering trauma is not a pleasant experience.

Mark Brayne, director of London’s Dart Centre for Journalism and Trauma, was a correspondent for Reuters and the BBC for two decades, reporting on events like the uprising at Tiananmen Square.

“Just because we have a professional function of being a journalist, it doesn’t mean to say that we as journalists are armoured against the emotional experience of observing and then witnessing and reporting on trauma,” he told the ABC’s Media Report.

Philip Williams agrees.  A veteran reporter for the ABC, he covered the 2004 Beslan massacre in Russia, where hundreds of people – including children – were murdered.

“Why would a journalist going to cover a war or traumatic event be any less affected by that event than the soldiers or the emergency workers? Or perhaps even, to a degree, the victims themselves.   We’re in there. We’re seeing it all. We’re recording it. We’re reliving it. We’re editing it. Of course we’re going to feel it. And we do,” he says.

A recent study by the University of Washington found that after reporting on a traumatic story, nine of out 10 journalists experience nightmares and intrusive thoughts. The study also found that 35 per cent of journalists who’ve had traumatic experiences reporting on a story, continue to have feelings of distress for up to two years.  And 43 per cent suffer from symptoms of depression.

Following the bushfires, I remember speaking to my mum who had been overseas at the time, and saying ‘I’m so new in this job, and yet I feel like I’ve already been exposed to so much’.

Professor Anthony Feinstein from the University of Toronto says management contributes to the problem. He says that despite journalists’ deeply troubling recollections of events witnessed, they were constantly required to return to the scenes of old or new traumas.

Many journalists were in the bushfire areas for weeks following Black Saturday. Some were there by choice, but many remained because they were assigned to the story. This of course is the reality of the industry. But what happens when a journalist feels they can’t go on with the story?

Some journalists were told by their editors that this was the nature of the industry. One journalist (who has asked not to be named) was even told that if he wanted to start feeling sorry for people, he should find another job.

This raises the question: why aren’t journalists professionally trained to deal with trauma? One in two reporters believes that trauma training ought to be provided to journalists from early on. In the United States, there are several universities that have incorporated such training into their curricula.   The University of Washington, for example, has a curriculum which trains students to cover traumatic incidents. The program, financially supported by the Dart Centre for Journalism and Trauma, provides guidance for journalism students in how to deal with, and approach people who have encountered, trauma.

Michigan State University also has a similar program.  The syllabus of the subject ‘Victims and the Media Program’ trains both journalism and public relations students.

In Australia, no such programs exist at a tertiary level. However, training in various newsrooms around the country has been introduced. Cratis Hippocrates from the Dart Centre for Journalism and Trauma told the ABC that a peer support program is one of their initiatives.

“We train not only the journalists and cameraman, but the editors as well, in being able to be a first point-of-call where they can sit down, talk about their feelings and match their feelings at a professional level with their peers,” he says.

Quite different to the traditional form of counselling — according to crime writer and journalist for Fairfax media, John Silvester — which was six pots of beer at the local pub.

Freelance journalist and executive director of the Dart Centre, Bruce Shapiro, told the ABC that the most important aspect of dealing with trauma is developing understanding among management.

“I think news organisations like the BBC and Reuters are coming around to the idea that reporters and their managers need to be trained in psychological training,” he says.

Many journalists I’ve spoken to about this say they agree, and also believe the emphasis of the training should be directed to senior staff, particularly news editors.

But it is also up to the individual journalist to remember that they’re not bullet-proof.

The repercussions for journalists who have experienced trauma while reporting on a story have been enormous, particularly those of the older generation.

Many drank.  Many took drugs.  Many had broken relationships.

And at least some of this could have been prevented with a simple cry for help.

Erdem Koc is the editor of upstart.

The Dart Centre for Journalism and Trauma has an extensive website where online training in dealing with trauma is provided free of charge. Its Australasian chapter is based in Melbourne.