Talk to any seasoned journalist, and there are never any shortage of stories about trauma.
Canadian journalist Matt McClure recalls a critical incident in Afghanistan in 2005 when he was working as a South Asia correspondent for CTV.
“We were returning from this week-long mission and our convoy hit a roadside bomb and the vehicle right in front of me went like boom right up in the air, several stories up in the air. It went from sunny daytime to full night with all the dust and dirt and you couldn’t hear. We were pretty shook up,” said McClure.
McClure’s story demonstrates the stark reality that comes with reporting in conflict zones. Now back in Calgary as a senior investigative reporter with Star Metro, he recognizes trauma can also be part of the local reporting scene.
“What I have learnt over the years is that traumatic events can affect people and we need to be cognizant of that and make sure that there are resources for them there and that there is someone to talk to.”
Ottawa journalist and researcher Matthew Pearson explained a reporter does not have to be in Iraq or Syria to experience trauma.
Covering courtroom cases, car accidents, house fires and natural disasters are all things that expose journalists to trauma, which can have serious effects.
“Many of the folks who I have talked to, have said I didn’t want to speak up because I didn’t want to be pigeonholed as someone who couldn’t take it, But that doesn’t mean I did not need support for what I was dealing with.”- Matthew Pearson
Pearson, a Michener-Deacon Fellow for Journalism Education, spoke on April 18 at Mount Royal University to journalists and journalism educators about his research findings.
“What I hear is that there is a patchwork of support,” said Pearson. “No journalist has told me that in their newsroom, they received any kind of training on how to cover a traumatic incident or report on people who have experienced trauma.”
“All of that happens informally so some people get really great coaching and other people just get sent to something and it’s sink or swim,” said Pearson.
McClure said that one event that stuck with him is the ensuing aftermath of the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004.
“There was this woman who had not only her own children, but two orphans from another family where the parents had been killed and she came to me with this baby that wasn’t hers and she wanted me to take the baby and care for it because she said she couldn’t.
“Anyway, in the moment I decided to help her to find some help for herself and these children through an aid organization that was there and I put down my camera and went to help.
“For some reason that experience in that moment kinda lingered with me and stuck with me and I don’t know, kinda bothered me for a while. In the aftermath of the tsunami, my employer at the time had a psychologist do a debrief with us but I must confess that was the only time in my 10 years that there was ever any kind of service that was specifically proactively offered,” said McClure.
The anatomy of trauma
Patricia Kostouros, associate professor at Mount Royal University and psychologist said people shouldn’t underestimate the impact of witnessing trauma.
Kostouros explained that journalists can experience vicarious trauma or compassion fatigue. Everyone experiences trauma differently and for some, it can dramatically change their life.
Pearson says he’s witnessed journalists struggle with the aftermath of trauma.
“I have heard of stories and I have seen it with my own eyes, people running to the bathroom to cry or hiding under their desk to cry after or during a difficult story because they have intuited that it’s not ok to do that in the newsroom,” said Pearson.
The after-effects are sometimes harmful and can include drinking and drug abuse, sleeplessness, nightmares, anxiety, feelings of fear or helplessness and a desire to not cover a certain story — in some cases, giving up on reporting all together, Pearson explained.
Mitigate harm and reduce trauma
Kostouros explained that one way to reduce trauma in journalism is to make sure one person does not do all of the really difficult stories.
“Too many stories in a row can have an accumulation and therefore impact somebody,” said Kostouros.
“What I would like to see in newsrooms is some more knowledge about what trauma is and how it affects the people we cover as well as ourselves as journalists,” said Pearson.
One thing newsrooms can do to help resolve this problem is to have a more open discussion about personal feelings and experiences.
“To me questions like ‘Are you ok?’ from an editor is an invitation for me to respond, ‘Yes I am fine’ but they didn’t ask me how I am actually feeling based on what I saw. They didn’t acknowledge that I saw something difficult,” said Pearson.
Now a newsroom manager with Metro Calgary, McClure said new journalists need to be able to talk to people, “who have been in situations like that so that they are prepared for what they are about to see and experience.”
- By Matt Hull