Are journalists today molly-coddled?

Paul Callan of the Daily Express was not impressed with a short item in the Knowledge section of last week’s Press Gazette magazine that highlighted the work of Mark Brayne and the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, which helps journalists who have experienced addiction, depression, or even post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as a result of stories they have covered.

Here’s the letter he sent in and which is published in this week’s magazine:

Would that some of the great war correspondents of Fleet Street – men like James Cameron, Noel Barber, Rene McColl, Alan Moorehead and the BBC’s Wynford Vaughan-Thomas – had been around to read Rebecca Hardy’s astonishing feature on dealing with trauma ‘suffered’by reporters.

Doubtless, they would have laughed all the way to El Vino at this latest example of molly-coddling. According to Ms Hardy and Mark Brayne, an ‘ex-foreign correspondent”-turned-psychotherapist, reporters at the hard end can suffer ’emotional wounding’and trauma.

The answer to that is simple: If they do, they are not doing their job properly and the newsdesk should not have assigned them in the first place. Reporters on tough assignments – anything from war zones and toddlers’ funerals to horrendous inquests and ‘death knocks’– should possess a dispassionate ability to handle the work. If not, they can ask to work on the diary, write soft features or become royal correspondent. No chance of trauma in any of those.

Either I am particularly insensitive or just (I hope) a good professional, but in a 40-year-plus Fleet Street career, I have never suffered from ’emotional wounding”, trauma, depression, or even bed wetting, after covering a particularly tough story. Like many colleagues over the years, I just got on with the job (however unspeakable the details) wrote it, sent it over – and then switched off, went to the pub, or returned home and slept easily.

For the record, I have covered some real stomach-churners, particularly in Northern Ireland where I frequently saw what a bomb does to the human body. But I, and all the others covering such horrors, simply observed and then filed our copy. It was, of course, extremely tragic. But we would not have been covering the story properly and, I stress again, professionally, if we allowed our personal feelings to intrude.

Quite frankly, any shakiness experienced by what we saw was soon soothed by a few large whiskies.

And I can easily imagine the reaction of some of my old news editors – Arthur Brennard and Bob McWilliams on the Sunday Express, Ronnie Hyde of the Evening Standard, and Dan Ferrari and Al Shillum on The Daily Mirror – if I had returned from a tough job and whinged about suffering from trauma. They would, quite rightly, have told me where to stick my trauma.

Journalism is damaged by the likes of Ms Hardy and Mr Brayne with their softly softly, unprotected approach to what should, by its very nature, be strong reporting. Good reporters are not inhuman, but they should be in charge of their own emotions – and know when to switch off.

Incidentally, the only time I ever saw a fellow hack traumatised was when my old friend, John Edwards of the Daily Mail, lost a blank bill when it was blown out his hand by a stiff breeze. Oh dear – talk about ’emotional wounding”!

Paul Callan
Daily Express

Brayne, a former correspondent with the BBC and Reuters, is probably very familiar with this point of view.

His Master’s thesis in transpersonal psychotherapy, which was written in 2000 and is available online (PDF), begins with the observation that “the wider emotional culture within English-language journalism is one of what might be termed macho self-sufficiency.”

Unlike other professions, journalism had not yet abandoned the taboo of talking about emotional distress, he noted before mentioning research that had found cases of “reporters who have covered gruesome stories fear that admitting to any mental distress may be viewed as weakness”. He goes on to write that there is “a deep-seated scepticism among most in the profession towards psychotherapy and counselling”.

He goes on to argue that “a journalist who is not self-aware risks misrepresenting what he or she observes”.

So what is it? “Macho self-sufficiency” or “a dispassionate ability to handle the work”? Molly-coddling or self-aware emotional consciousness?

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