Nice, FRANCE: A journalist films the wreck of a black Ferrari driven by a member of the Russian parliament, Suleyman Kerimov after the car hit a tree and burst into flames (VALERY HACHE/AFP/Getty Images)

The trauma of news journalism is finally being acknowledged

A landmark court ruling in Australia reexamines journalism’s weight on its practitioners, writes former AUT professor Lyn Barnes.

At last, it’s finally being acknowledged – secondary trauma encountered on the job as a journalist can do psychological damage. The $180,000 awarded to the Australian woman in a Melbourne court case last month may not be a lot of money, considering the years of misery she’s endured, but it’s a warning to media companies to up their game. Whether things will change in New Zealand though is another matter.

It’s long been recognized that it’s not just war correspondents who can suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder – hearing the gruesome details in a chilling court case or listening to grieving people recount the loss of their loved one can be just as debilitating, especially when it’s time and time again. The symptoms of secondary trauma, sometimes called vicarious trauma because it involves witnessing the effects on victims, can be identical. (Any symptoms such as anxiety, depression, disturbed sleep and flashbacks for example that last more than a month are considered to be PTSD).

My research focuses on those day-to-day tasks young journalists carry out and includes death-knocks and court reporting. In journalists’ jargon, ‘death knock’ is the term used to describe chasing up the family of a victim for an interview. One young woman told me how she would throw up before she went to do a death-knock; another had dreams of swimming amongst the wreckage and clothes from the victims of the MH370 aircraft crash because she had written so many stories about it.

The Australian case is not the first to seek recognition of psychological injury related to employment in the media but it’s a landmark decision. The young woman had covered 32 murders in Melbourne for The Age newspaper and had asked to be taken off crime reporting. In an earlier case in 2013, a photographer, also at The Age, suffered from debilitating post-traumatic stress and major depression after interviewing survivors of the Bali bombings but he was unsuccessful.

So what will happen in New Zealand? Because of ACC, our wonderful no-blame scheme, it’s difficult to hold a company accountable. My research suggests that is the reason for the complacency, and tokenism, when it comes to trauma training for journalists in New Zealand. Fairfax Media in Australia, which owns The Age, has been far more proactive, regularly running workshops with the Dart Centre for Journalism and Trauma.

I was inspired to look closer at trauma reporting after meeting up with a young graduate working on a Sunday paper. We were talking about her classmates, three months out from graduation, who covered the Christchurch earthquake. She raised a question that stuck with me: “I feel for those journalists, but what about the run-of-the-mill trauma we deal with every day?”

As with many other young journalists, eager to please and desperate to keep her job, she persevered until she couldn’t handle it anymore. She resigned and moved into public relations, like many journalists do after a couple of years in the industry. “It’s funny how people call PR ‘the dark side’ when journalists are doing much, much darker stuff on a day-to-day basis. Switching to PR was like taking a walk in the sunshine for the first time in years,” she wrote to me later.

The cynic in me began to think it was cheaper for media companies to have fresh (cheaper) faces than bother supporting staff with expensive trauma training sessions. My thinking was endorsed when the Dart Centre’s Pacific branch organised a support workshop in Wellington some years ago. Although all the major New Zealand news outlets were advised, not all sent staff. But I will never forget the responses from some of those who came.

Those journalists, photographers and videographers who did attend were so relieved to understand they were not alone; many had experienced the effects of secondary trauma. Several realized that their anxiety levels, broken sleep and short tempers were related to their work. Dealing with images is a whole study in itself. A recent Verge story about Facebook content moderators, who constantly screen incredibly harmful material, discusses the implications of secondary trauma.

Harden up

It’s not about toughening up or ‘developing a thick skin’. In fact, my research indicates that those people who became desensitised, or dissociated, developed unhealthy habits to survive. Journalists have long been associated with heavy drinking and gallows humour, but some behavior I noted was manic.

Gary Tippet, a multi-award winning Australasian journalists who spoke on RNZ’s MediaWatch programme last weekend about the outcome of the Melbourne court case, describes the effects of secondary trauma as similar to water torture: drip by drip, it takes it toll. He did not see his burnout coming, and no one could accuse Tippet of being overly sensitive, considering all the disasters and murders he had covered.

And forget about saying no to covering death knocks. One media manager I interviewed said that was not an option, plus there’s the peer pressure, or more subtle punishment, such as being sidelined or being given even shittier jobs.

The demand for stories related to death and dying are not likely to decrease either, with the demand for news content 24/7. Such stories are cheap and easy to source. That’s because, for some reason, we’re fascinated with anything to do with mortality. Plus, when you can get five stories out of one death, be it a murder or car accident, then makes economic sense in tough times for the media industry. There’s the initial announcement of the death, the ‘death-knock’ interviews with family, the funeral (few journalists enjoy that task), the court case and, of course, the anniversary.

Counselling and support

Sure, most of the companies provide three free counselling sessions a year under the Employment Assistance Programme, but as some of my interviewees said, three sessions were never enough and most couldn’t afford private follow-up counselling. What’s more, no one ever wants to admit they’re not coping and no way would they seek counselling through their company in case someone found out. Also, research suggests trauma counselling is specialised so not any old counsellor understands PTSD.

As Tippet said on Mediawatch, it’s up to media companies to provide training before and during trauma work. My research shows that editorial managers play a vital support role. Firstly, their attitude. If they’re old-school’, and there are still some of them around, they don’t really buy into trauma training. There’s still the odd bully around: one of the young women I interviewed was sent back to do a death-knock at least 10 times.

The old adage, ‘if you don’t come back with a story, don’t come back’ still subtly permeates some newsrooms. Newsroom culture is hard to change. “Learning on the job is the only way” is what one media manager said to me: throw them in at the deep end. Ethically, this is not only unacceptable for the journalist, but also the victim and their families.

For a number of years at AUT University, as part of the journalism programme, we have had professional actors perform trauma role plays with students, to avoid them practising on the public. The scenarios are based on real-life experiences, for example, a child drowning. Not only do journalists risk re-traumatising people who are already traumatised, if they don’t treat grieving people appropriately, but they are unlikely to get a good story because they are so distracted by their emotions and feelings.

Time out was one key factor that stood out as a coping strategy in my study, the opportunity for journalists to take time away from the job. This is not easy to do, as many who covered the Christchurch earthquake admitted. They considered themselves weak, even though some media managers were genuine in their offers of support. It may be the duty of care for media companies to monitor their staff for stress, but my research suggests that self-care – being aware of your own warning signals – and peer support are more dependable. And that will most certainly be the case in New Zealand.


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