Trauma in journalism: What every freelancer at risk needs to know
is director of Dart Centre Europe
Dart Centre Europe - part think tank, part network for reporters who cover trauma - is one of the organisations taking part. Its director Gavin Rees says that taking account of trauma is essential - not only for the well-being of journalists but for the integrity of their journalism:
Ever since 9/11 journalists have been directly targeted by militias, states, criminal gangs and terror organisations. In the global internet age, killing a reporter has become a fast way of making a point, and then watching it speed around the world.
According to Reporters Without Borders, at least 60 journalists, 16 of them foreign, and mostly freelancers, are being held hostage or detained in Syria at the moment. Psychologically speaking, the modern battlefield is a highly corrosive environment.
Over the past decade news organisations such as the BBC, ABC in Australia and AP, and journalists themselves, have recognised that psychological injury is a real occupational risk for combat journalists. PSTD (post-traumatic stress disorder) is singularly disabling for journalists: not only does it have a direct health impact, it also impairs capacities that are vital to producing quality journalism, such as the ability to concentrate, meet deadlines and relate to sources and colleagues.
At the Dart Centre, we are contacted almost every week by freelancers seeking help because they have been shot, kidnapped, sexually assaulted, held hostage or have lost their bearings after witnessing atrocity after atrocity.
The good news is that the current generation of freelances are less likely to shrug off the psychological risks in the same way that many reporters did 20 years ago. The bad news is that greater awareness does not necessarily translate into any clear understanding of what trauma exposure is and what to do about it.
Normal short-term trauma reactions - which may be essential for functioning safely in a war zone - are often confused with PTSD, which is a problem of a different magnitude, and one that is likely to need treatment. Recognising that difference is important: journalists who fear they are going crazy may just be experiencing normal reactions to an extreme experience.
The Dart Centre provides information both on self-care as well as trauma craft reporting issues. Our materials emerge from a decade of dialogue between journalists - those working on violent crime, child protection issues, domestic violence, and environmental and transport disasters as well as armed conflict - and trauma experts including clinicians, research scientists and military specialists.
Much of our recent work, often in association with the Rory Peck Trust, INSI (International News Safety Institute) and RISC (Reporters Instructed in Saving Colleagues) has been focused directly on training freelance conflict reporters. Here are a few starting points that come up regularly in those workshops:
1. Journalists are a resilient tribe.
Notwithstanding the risks listed above, journalists are surprisingly resilient. Scientific research suggests that journalists cope better with traumatic stress than the general population. Civilians in conflict have things done to them which they have no say over; journalists have a purpose and a job to be getting on with. This seems to be a protective factor.
Aftermath of the Sandy Hook shooting, 2012
You might imagine that concrete experiences - witnessing death and mutilation, or being shot at - are the only ones reporters need to contend with. But often it is what is heard rather than seen that burrows away. It could be that one detail in that one interview is so appalling that it refuses to stay out of your head. And it can be more abstract than that. Often it is the enormity of it all, the pointlessness of so much destruction, the ‘how could people do this to others?’ question which seeps into other areas of your life. Cruelty involving children (as in the 2012 Sandy Hook shootings, pictured above) is notoriously corrosive.
Thinking the issues through intellectually can really help, but at some stage you just need to get away from the material to dilute your exposure to trauma. Activities that take you out of the story, such as exercise, hobbies, time in nature, hanging out with people who understand you and meditation, are all important weapons against the toxicity of such material.
Sometimes reporters say there is no time to do this; that the story is too pressing; or that their proper focus should solely be on civilian victims, not on themselves.
But failure to take self-care seriously ultimately damages the journalism. If over-work and trauma exposure leads to burn-out, then that is another journalist censored and taken out of the picture.
3. Ethics in interviewing is part of self-care.
Journalists often feel guilty for not knowing how to manage conversations with victims and survivors well, and sometimes a journalist’s own sense of what is right gets eroded by editorial pressure from afar. Recent trauma research suggests that guilt is a significant risk factor for trauma trouble. Being ethical is just the right thing to do - it’s also protective.
The solution lies in steeping yourself in guidance on trauma-appropriate interviewing techniques. The more you understand how somebody affected by trauma experiences an interview the better for both parties. (The Dart Centre has specific resources.)
4. Know when to ask yourself: is this the trauma talking?
TV dramas love to lump conflict reporters into two stereotypical categories: the adrenalin junky and the apathetic, cynical hack. The implication that there are ingrained character dispositions may well be true for some, but usually they are better described as trauma reactions. Psychologists call them hyper-arousal and numbing. They may be short or longer term but can have serious implications for making sound safety decisions.
Journalists may become consistently pumped with adrenaline to the extent that big risks become indistinguishable from small ones. Alternately, they may shut down emotionally and become indifferent to whatever happens. Recognising these signs is helpful.
5. Community action makes the biggest difference.
Trauma fragments and isolates people. Study after study reveals that social support significantly boosts social resilience. We do best when we know people are looking after our backs; and research shows that colleagues who support peers may boost their own resilience by helping others.
We need to think much more about how to adapt these so that freelancers can also get access to ‘before, during and after’ training, clinical help if needed, and other kinds of support from the industry that buys their work.
Being a freelancer in a war zone is hardly the easiest profession. There is a daunting range of things to think through. Apart from the first-order questions - how does one build a career, get noticed and pay the bills? - there are the little details: mastering kit, briefing oneself on the politics of culture X, learning first aid, digital security, and so on. Trauma awareness can get pushed down the list, but that would be a mistake.
Two main points need extracting from all this. Firstly, every freelancer needs to craft their own personal self-care plan. It is important to know when psychological stress risks becoming overwhelming and how to ratchet down that pressure. And secondly news organisations need to do far more themselves in offering training, mentoring and appropriate support. The fact that so many organisations are coming together at the BBC this Thursday is a step in the right direction.