At some point in their careers, most journalists have to cover violent or psychologically distressing events. For years, we presumed this left no scars. Foreign correspondents could travel to brutal war zones and feel no emotion, reporters could sit in court and listen to minute details about a savage rape and leave unscathed. We were detached observers, emotionally untouched by what we have seen.
Not true, according to ex-foreign correspondent Mark Brayne, who retrained as a psychotherapist and until recently worked at the Dart Centre, which works to promote greater awareness of journalism and trauma. The fact is, says Brayne, ‘When you are dealing with extreme psychological distress, you have to enter into the story, and by being a normal sentient human being, you are being wounded. The question is, what do you do with it then?”
This ’emotional wounding’can result in depression and addiction or, at its most extreme, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (with symptoms include flashbacks, emotional numbing, avoidance, irritability, poor concentration and sleep, stomach cramps and/or an exaggerated startle response). ‘It is important to note that PTSD is an injury and not a madness or a sickness,’says Brayne. ‘Firefighters can get burnt and policemen can be attacked, but working with extreme human distress can knock you more powerfully than a physical injury. The difference is you can’t see it and it’s hard for journalists to say this hurts.”
The fact that PTSD is common is shown in the statistics: About one in four journalists and camera operators who make a living out of reporting tragedy and violence will, over a 15-year career, develop the symptoms of full-blown PTSD. The issues are particularly acute for freelances, who often lack the back up and support now offered by some news organisations, particularly broadcasters.
It’s not just wars that can traumatise but everyday ‘mundane’ things too, from traffic accidents to street attacks. ‘When I ask journalists what their most traumatic experience was many mention the ‘death knock’ – knocking on the door of a mother, for example, who has lost a son, and asking for a photo and quote,’says Brayne.
So how can we prepare ourselves? ‘Journalists shouldn’t pretend that they are anything other than sentient human
beings and they are going to be affected by what they see”, says Brayne. ‘It’s common to experience emotional distress in the weeks after witnessing a traumatic event or story.’
The Dart Centre for Journalism and Trauma advises good self-care to get through an emotionally draining assignment: Eat well, get good sleep and exercise (a 30-minute walk a day) and watch your alcohol intake. It also suggests finding a way to relax within a day or two after, through any favourite stress-reduction technique such as yoga, exercise, visualisations or music.
The good news, says Brayne, is it doesn’t take much to safeguard our wellbeing. ‘If you acknowledge and talk about your feelings, you are three-quarters of the way there. ‘
It’s also crucial to have a support network and be prepared to offer support to freelances you know who have been on a difficult assignment. ‘Maybe take them for coffee and say, ‘How was it?’ and listen. Ultimately, it’s about removing the stigma of being a normal human being.”