Trauma is defined by The Centre for Treatment of Anxiety and Mood Disorders as “a psychological, emotional response to an event or an experience that is deeply distressing or disturbing.”
As journalists, we are often warned about reporting on trauma – be sensitive, be respectful, and consider the well-being of the individuals involved. Though we are consistently reminded about the importance of reporting on traumatic situations appropriately, we are rarely reminded of the effects that these experiences may have on journalists.
What is trauma for journalists?
Journalists are made subject to a wide range of stories, not all of which are positive. Stories of crime, death, murder, car accidents, and sexual assault (among other things) are reported on every day. Often times, journalists are some of the first to the scene. They see mass tragedies first-hand and interact with victims, witnesses, and emergency workers.
According to the Dart Center, in the short-term, one may feel depressed, confused or flat. In the long-term though, most people who encounter trauma cope well. However, everyone experiences trauma differently. After experiencing a traumatic event, it is possible (and common) to develop Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), where memories and flashbacks of the event happen consistently causing feelings of anger, sadness, and nausea.
Al Tompkins for Poynter explains that:
“Journalists’ symptoms of traumatic stress are remarkably similar to those of police officers and firefighters who work in the immediate aftermath of tragedy, yet journalists typically receive little support after they file their stories. While public-safety workers are offered debriefings and counselling after a trauma, journalists are merely assigned another story.”
Dealing with trauma for journalists
Whether journalists experience short-term trauma or long-term trauma, their experiences and feelings should always be considered as serious. The Australian Associated Press (AAP)’s Standards and Ethics state that “Approaches to people suffering trauma or grief should be undertaken with care and sensitivity.” Not only does this refer to handling the public, but it extends further to handling trauma for journalists too.
The ABC and the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma have developed a three tier plan to handle trauma and stress:
- Peer support group training,
- Manager awareness, and
- Staff awareness.
The Dart Center goes further in their Journalism Trauma Handbook, developing an extensive strategy to combat trauma and stress. The following lists are summarised from the handbook.
For the individual:
- Take time for self care – showering, eating, drinking water, and exercising are very important to maintain a healthy lifestyle.
- Take breaks – stepping away from the story for a few hours allows your body to handle the issues in a healthier way.
- Know your limits – don’t be afraid to say no if you’re not certain about something.
- Talk – talk about emotions and issues. Communication isn’t a sign of weakness, but it is very important when dealing with trauma.
For the other staff:
- Trauma awareness briefings – staff, leaders, and managers should speak openly about stress and trauma.
- Thanking, acknowledging, and appreciating – staff should be thanked before reporting on potentially traumatic stories. It’s important to feel valued, appreciated, and trusted.
- Say what’s involved – allow the journalists to be the most prepared as possible, acknowledging the potential risks.
- Communicate and connect – ensure that staff and managers speak consistently, communicating any concerns or issues that may arise.
- Encourage self-care – make sure that time is taken to eat, sleep, drink water, and exercise. Physical needs still need to be met.
- Keep in touch!
- Be careful of timing and criticism – people dealing with emotional distress may be sensitive or on-edge.
- Speaking to family – managers should encourage (and possibly pay for) staff to keep in contact with their family during these difficult times.
- Show appreciation – emails, phone calls, cards, and public acknowledgements can help someone feel like their difficult time was worth it.
- Share information – keep staff updated on any events that may have occurred. Avoid rumours spreading by being honest.
- Talk – give individuals who have been through a traumatic time a chance to talk. Set aside time to listen.
The Age v YZ
A Melbourne-based journalist (known in court as ‘YZ’) worked for The Age from 2003-2013. She reported on 32 murders, and several more stories as a court reporter. She reported on Melbourne’s ‘gangland wars’ which resulted in her receiving threatening phone calls. She also reported on the death of four-year-old Darcey Freeman in 2009 who had been thrown into the water below West Gate Bridge. YZ arrived at the scene, witnessing ambulances trying to revive Darcey. She did not survive. YZ said it was “the worst day of my life.”
After complaining about the trauma she had experienced, YZ was moved to the sports desk but was soon pressured to cover the Supreme Court. She witnessed several trials which included graphic images and accounts before taking voluntary redundancy in 2013.
In her Statement of Claim dated July 2017, YZ alleged that The Age breached their duty of care, resulting in her suffering with PTSD. She claimed that she was “repeatedly exposed to traumatic events and traumatic stress,” exposing her to homicides, fire scenes, and death of young children and young adults (among others). The first court hearing was in November 2018. In her time in court, she alleged that there was no system for her to deal with her trauma, and that The Age failed to offer her support or training to deal with her trauma.
On February 22nd, 2019, YZ was awarded $180,000 in damages for psychological injury which had been caused by her time at The Age. This is the first case (globally) where a journalist successfully sued a news company for the trauma that they faced while employed there.
In his closing statement, Judge O’Neill stated that “While there indeed has been a significant improvement in the symptoms over recent years … there are many symptoms which are still present and she remains vulnerable to flare ups of the condition [PTSD] indefinitely.”
Trauma should always be handled seriously, and all concerns should be viewed as important, as shown in this case. The trauma that YZ faced (and still faces) is not a one-off. Journalists across the globe consistently deal with trauma from the stories they report on and the images they see. In order to practice ethically, journalists and people in the industry should follow the codes and guidelines as explained above.