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Ignorance Is Not Bliss: Impacts of Trauma on Journalists

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“It was a cool Tuesday in December 2005 and I almost got on board a C-130 plane, which was bound for a war-game zone on the northern coast of the Persian Gulf,” remembers 38-year-old Iranian TV journalist, Behrouz Tashakkor.

He was almost at the airport when the newsroom decided to replace him with another reporter. As Tashakkor was going to the scene of another news event, he saw the same plane crash into a residential complex near Tehran’s Mehrabad Airport, and he was the only journalist at the scene who could report live on the incident. To be more precise, he was the only journalist left alive at the airport – the 64 other journalists were on board that plane to cover the war-game.

“I had reported on plane crashes before, but this time I had to report on the deaths of my own colleagues,” says the war journalist who, more than two years after the tragedy, is still suffering from that “never-ending nightmare.”

“I think recalling those harsh moments is natural, because it was one-of-a-kind. That incident aside I feel unaffected by the other tragedies I have reported on. I think of each story as being separate,” says Tashakkor.

Putting feelings into compartments

Director of the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, Roger Simpson, challenges those who repress such feelings. “Journalists often talk about compartmentalizing the experience. The experience happens and then as soon as they are away from it and the story is reported, the walls of the compartments close and then they’re onto something else and try to forget it. That’s a false explanation,” he says.

“I do not call into question journalists’ reasons for adopting personal coping strategies,” he says. “If you’re going to continue in a challenging, risky job like this, you have to survive.” He emphasizes, however, that some of the strategies that journalists adopt, like compartmentalizing memories or repressing emotions, might not favour them in the long run.

Of such strategies, repressing emotions is apparently more popular among journalists. According to Charles Figley, director of the Florida State University Traumatology Institute, “Many journalists tend to repress their emotions in times of trauma and they do that by detaching themselves from the tragic event they are reporting on to the extent that they go some place psychologically in which they can be objective and focus.”

The Iranian Radio and Television’s Bureau Chief in Turkey, Hassan Mirbaha, remembers how he struggled to put a lid on his own emotions when he arrived in the northern Iranian city of Manjil on June 20, 1990, two hours after a 7.3-magnitude earthquake leveled the city and killed 40,000 people. “Everyone was either trying to rescue family members trapped under the debris or was screaming in grief. I wasn’t prepared for this. Then I told myself that I was not there to mourn. I told myself that I had come all that way to report and inform others of what had happened there, what the survivors desperately needed.”

Naeemeh Namjoo, an Iranian journalist who covered another killer quake in the central Iranian city of Zarand in February 2005, says, “In those terrible conditions you should learn how to circumvent the impacts of the tragedy by not recounting the traumatic moments you have gone through during the day.”

And still others come up with different tactics of confronting the trauma they report on. Ensiyeh Sameni, the first female TV journalist to arrive in the southeastern Iranian city of Bam after it was shaken by a 6.7-magnitude earthquake on December 26, 2003, explains how she got around the problem: “Before arriving at the scene I was only focused on how to handle the job professionally but once we landed in the area and were exposed to the tragedy, I fell apart emotionally.” With only two hours before her first live report from the destroyed city, she knew that she had to overcome the emotional part and prepare for the professional part. “I had spent almost all of the two hours crying, hugging surviving kids, and sympathizing with bereaved families, and then all of a sudden it was the airing time,” she says.

One chief editor at the Iranian television’s satellite channel for which she was reporting refers to that first report as “absolutely amazing,” saying that, “She clearly had the impression of grief on her face, and even nearly choked on the air but that made it all the more natural. She kept doing the job perfectly, for more than 10 minutes.” While this journalist had not been able to avert the immediate emotional effects of the trauma on her own spirit, she had managed to survive professionally by immersing herself in the tragedy.

But is surviving professionally equal to surviving the impacts of trauma? Simpson answers, “No. We as journalists do have the means to repress the emotions associated with awful events for a time, but if we don’t adequately deal with the problem, the likelihood is that those repressed emotions surface to trouble us sometimes. So you might experience something terrible today and the compartmentalization factor comes in. But six months from now something will trigger those memories of the experience and it’ll be a very unpleasant recollection.”

Figley also believes that trauma memories can hardly be circumvented. The trauma psychologist compares concealing those memories to trying to store food in a container “which is not airtight.” He argues, “If it’s not airtight then it’s not going to be effective in storing the food. It’s the same way with these memories.”

Many journalists might be carrying disorders from as early as their first traumatizing assignment without even being aware of them. Many even go into denial. A documentary about reporters titled Deadline Iraq: The Uncensored Stories of the War shows how, in their early accounts of reporting on the war, the journalists interviewed deny the impacts of trauma with one of them, a grizzled veteran, even speaking of how absolutely emotionless he was as he witnessed deaths and destruction from close range.

But as Figley puts it, “Whether or not journalists deny that such a thing as trauma [among journalists] exists does not change the fact of the matter; it’s really how they go about conceiving or processing the experience that is the most important thing.”

When trauma overrides journalists

The C-130 plane crash and how it was reported on is still talked about by many Iranian journalists who are grappling with the effects of trauma on themselves. Behzad Tahmasbi, the Iranian News Network’s trauma reporter, comments, “There is no way that I can detach myself from that incident. We were all close friends. And what worsens things is that there is no positive side to it. When reporting on an earthquake you speak of survivors or reconstruction; here you become speechless. It’s a disaster all over.”

Figley explains that the strong difference in impact is because deaths of the people we work with as journalists might change our perception of the profession. “When you are a journalist, there is a certain degree of separation from the people that have been affected,” he says. “There is this veneer, this thin layer between yourself and the people that you are reporting on.” Based on his logic, when we hear or see the death of a colleague, that thin layer disappears all of a sudden. There is more of a sense of our own mortality because “it reminds us more dramatically of how vulnerable we are to death.”

Simpson, however, believes that fear of death or self-mortality might not be the sole reason for journalists’ different view of colleagues’ death as compared to other fatalities. “Each of us has a sense of what the world is like,” he says. “So if I’m a journalist, I have an understanding of what journalists face, what I face. And those other journalists are also a part of my life. When I witness a journalist’s death my sense of my mortality has changed, not because I’ve been intact but because people I’ve counted on being in my world are no longer there.”
Some progress

Despite extensive research on trauma and its impacts on various working communities, it seems that journalism has not yet received enough attention from the trauma experts and even the news organizations. Studies by the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma show that while emergency workers have recognized the need for self-care and organizational safeguards, particularly in the last decade, journalists may not yet have been recognized as potential candidates for employee safeguards and increased support.

Major news networks such as Reuters, BBC and AP have begun holding trauma training programs and counseling sessions for their journalists, but the trend is far from common at the international level. As Stephen Ward, professor of journalism at the University of British Columbia says, “The myth still exists that journalists shouldn’t need trauma programs because journalists are supposed to be ‘tough as nails.’”

Nevertheless, it seems that it is journalists themselves who can take that most important first step in reducing the adverse effects of trauma on them by increasing their level of awareness of the disorder. They will be better prepared once they know the psychological hazards of the job. And once they know them they can handle them much more easily than before, sometimes as easily as talking about the effects that covering violence and other traumatic events has had on them.

But if they do not have a knowledge of the impact trauma can have, coupled with a supportive environment to deal with its effects, it will be difficult to begin to address their emotional challenges.

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February 3rd, 2020 at 9:18 am

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Journalists who retell violence relive trauma, too

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When he was sent to cover the war ravaging Sierra Leone, reporter Ian Stewart had little knowledge or interest in the conflict – until he saw it unfold before his eyes.

On November 10, 1999 a child soldier shot Stewart in the head.

The bullet left him with paralysis and some brain damage. It was then that Stewart, former West African Bureau Chief for the Associated Press, realized that journalists are not passive observers. They are active participants who impact their surroundings and whose surroundings impact them.

In February, the University of Western Ontario hosted the Canadian Journalism Forum’s inaugural conference, Journalism in a Violent World.

The conference welcomed reporters, producers, news managers, media analysts, journalism instructors, students, and mental health professionals. They discussed the impact of violence and emotional trauma on journalists and their audience.

“It is emotionally taxing to relive violence through our notebook, our lens or our darkroom,” says Stewart.

Stewart faced violence every day he reported in Africa. He says he felt a sense of failure as he wrote stories about rebels who killed and raped innocent people daily, while his articles were never picked up by any of the 1600 North American newspapers that subscribed to the Associated Press wire service at the time.

He read from a journal entry he wrote while in Sierra Leone, “Why should God care if we don’t?” he asked. It was not until Stewart was shot that the world paid attention to the stories. This added to his sadness and distress.

Stewart was later diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

According to Dr. Anthony Feinstein, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Toronto, rates of PTSD among reporters are 25 to 28 percent compared to the general population who experiences PTSD at rates closer to four or five percent.

Feinstein explained that for many years there was a “culture of silence” about how covering crime, war, and accidents impacts journalists.

“Journalism is not a profession that is governed by a professional body or code like the medical profession,” says Cliff Lonsdale conference co-organizer and television journalism instructor at UWO. As a result, questions on how to deal with traumatized journalists have flown below the radar and, subsequently, journalists have often been left to fend for themselves.

“For years we didn’t pay nearly enough attention to what these violent situations were doing to our journalists short of getting them killed. Similarly, we haven’t paid much attention to how we extract these stories from victims who have survived traumatic situations,” Lonsdale says.

Documentary filmmaker, Giselle Portenier agrees. She shared her views on the ethics of interviewing the victims of social cleansing, rape and violent regimes. She emphasized the importance of sensitivity toward victims during the interview process and ensuring that they will not become more vulnerable as a result of speaking publicly about their story.

She followed death around the world, producing documentaries about violence against women in Guatemala, social cleansing in Colombia and honour killings in Pakistan but Portenier says she is most haunted by her memories of the survivors.

The conference served as an illuminating experience for journalism students who may find themselves in similar situations one day soon.

“I think that the awareness factor has been left out of the equation for many years,” says Anna Drahovzal, journalism student at Western. “We got to understand the impact of trauma first-hand. You can see it in them, on their faces, in their stories,” she says. Awareness that journalists need to look out for themselves and their colleagues is something Drahovzal believes students learned from the conference.

Unlike soldiers and first response teams, journalists are not formally schooled in dealing with the violence they may witness or endure. As such, journalists who have been traumatized often ignore or hide how much they have been impacted by what they have seen.

CBC cameraman Brian Kelly shared the story of how his co-worker Clark Todd was wounded and killed during heavy crossfire in Lebanon in 1983. Kelly and the rest of the crew had to leave Todd behind.

For a long time, Kelly thought he was fine and continued with his life and his career. One day in an edit suite, moments before he was set to shoot an interview, Kelly broke down and cried for hours. It was then that he realized the profound impacts of all that he had witnessed. For a long time he could not utter a word about Lebanon without crying.

Kelly recently went back to Lebanon to the scene of the incident for the first time since Todd’s death. The trip he said, did not offer him closure.

“Closure implies that it ends,” says Kelly. “But you never leave it behind.”

Now, Kelly participates in various simulation exercises with other journalists to prepare them for the field and the possibility of a traumatic or dangerous situation.

Since he was shot in 1999, Stewart left his job as a reporter for the Associated Press. He is now a PhD student at the University of Michigan where he studies the impacts of trauma on journalists.

“It’s time we do something to make people realize how our jobs impact us,” says Stewart.

As a result of the conference, the Canadian Journalism Forum plans to expand its reach, making it capable of gathering resources for news managers, journalism instructors and journalists. Conference co-organizer, Lonsdale plans to establish a board of trustees to ensure that the forum remains sustainable.

“I think there is a responsibility for the leaders in the profession to take an interest in what we do and encourage more responsible practices surrounding the impact of violence and trauma on journalists,” says Lonsdale.

“We especially have a responsibility to the younger generation to make things better in our profession.”

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February 1st, 2020 at 9:07 am

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Digging Deeper: A Canadian Reporter’s Research Guide

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Digging Deeper: A Canadian Reporter’s Research Guide was co-written by four award-winning journalists who also teach journalism. Between reporting and teaching, clearly they grasped how insufficient American investigative reporting guides are for students north of the 49th Parallel. Digging Deeper is the first and only investigative reporting guide written with Canadian systems, policies and infrastructure in mind. That alone should guarantee its success across the country, but it’s not just the only Canadian investigative guide — it’s also a very good one.

Authors Cribb, Jobb, McKie and Vallance-Jones touch on all the bases for good reporting in the first half of the text, then they shift their focus in the second half to the very specific tools and techniques that will help journalists break through bureaucratic barriers and organizational holdups.

The general information — including a review of different primary and secondary sources and a summary of “twelve keys,” like tenacity, skepticism, and curiosity, to give a journalist the mentality for success — resembled many how-to journalism texts that preceded Digging Deeper. While law, interviewing techniques and information gathering are necessary elements to any report (and hence any reporting text), the information is sometimes too general to be valuable and too cursory to be informative. ‘Public records,’ for example, occupies almost 30 pages, but it needs triple that space to actually address the dozens of types of records mentioned and URLs listed. Young B.C. journalists scrolling through web address lists might be disappointed to learn that BC Online, listed as a great resource for land titles, is a pricey, subscription-only tool. And reporters looking for in-depth information about labour disputes will find that Ontario’s Ministry of Labour offers frequent online updates, whereas B.C.’s Labour Ministry only posts about one report a year. Digging Deeper’s authors all live and work east of the Canadian Rockies, and their oversight of B.C.-oriented issues is notable.

The media law section also suffers from a wealth of information condensed into a recap. The reader is introduced to the justice system, not shown how to approach it. The chapter’s concluding anecdote is a microcosm of the chapter itself, rehashing a 1992 Montreal Gazette story on judicial scandal without mentioning how the investigation was accomplished.

A research guide can only be so long, though, and elaborating on courts and records could easily have spun the compact 260-page book into a 1000-page tome.

Digging Deeper really shines when it moves away from the basics of good reporting and hones in on specific techniques. The text’s coverage of Freedom of Information, Computer-Assisted Reporting, and financial reporting make it truly invaluable.

Aptly, the authors note that journalists shy away from numbers. Then, they take the reader step by step through sample finance reports, excel spreadsheets and database managers, highlighting the most vital tools and info that each provides. The text offers tips, including what numbers should catch a journalist’s eye on a 10-K and what steps are necessary to sort spreadsheet data into chronological order.

The FOI section provides clear and encompassing guidance for facing reticent Information Officers who use fees and delays to waylay an information request. Digging Deeper’s links to sites like CAIRS — for past Access to Information requests — and provincial and federal ATI sites also make the FOI process more accessible to starting journalists.

Probably the most useful section of the book begins after the text ends. Appendices A, B, and C are guides to spreadsheets, databases and financial information, respectively. With bullet points, diagrams, and web links, book lays plain all the basics of three extremely valuable, rarely used tools that new journalists should embrace. The explanations are so methodical that following them is astoundingly easy.

A guide to Canadian investigative reporting and researching has been much-needed for years now, and Digging Deeper fills the void extremely well.

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February 1st, 2020 at 12:08 am

Posted in News