A woman at the centre of media attention following a terrorist attack has spoken of the long-term pain it has caused her and warned journalists against intrusive questioning of Manchester bomb survivors.
Writing anonymously as DrEm_79 on Twitter this week she urged news organisations to be aware of the role they can have in creating post-traumatic stress disordern (PTSD) through their actions.
She then shared some of her own experiences of media intrusion after being caught up in a terrorist attack overseas four years ago.
Her tweets were widely read after being shared by the author JK Rowling.
‘Emma’ has shared her identity with Press Gazette for verification purposes but we have agreed to respect her anonymity.
Although not physically harmed by the high-profile terrorist attack, she was close enough to it to be traumatised.
In the hours after the incident she was unable to use a mobile phone or contact her family. In the mean time a journalist from a red-top UK national newspaper called at the home of her mother.
Emma said: “She told me a journalist had doorstepped her and said there has been a bombing and I was there and how did she feel about it?
“She hadn’t seen the news at the time so it was the first she had heard about it.
“Doorstepping my mum when it was obvious she wouldn’t know where I was – what are you going to get from her other than a frightened person?”
When she tried to go on Facebook later to seek support from her friends she said found she had been locked out – apparently because someone had made repeated attempts to guess her password.
She said: “I needed support and I couldn’t get it.”
She also found a number of friend requests from journalists who wanted to make contact with her and also fake friend requests from people who had made copies of images of her real friends.
She said there were so many messages and contact requests from journalists on her phone that she felt forced to turn it off.
A charity she worked at was inundated with calls from journalists asking after her on an emergency number. And she said a hospital she worked at also received a number of calls on an emergency number.
When someone who answered the phone said: “She does not want to talk to you, it was horrific”, Emma said this was itself turned into a news story with a headline which said she had spoken out about the horror.
She said that elderly relatives who did not know she was caught up in the terror attack were also asked for comment by journalists.
And she said that seeing UK newspapers on a flight home after the incident added to her distress.
“It was pages and pages of graphic photos, when you’ve been through something like that it’s very traumatic to see all that again. It wasn’t just one picture on the front page, but pages and pages of detail.”
When Emma arrived home she found cards through the door from different newspapers. Various calls also came in from TV stations asking for interviews, which she asked the charity she volunteers for to deal with.
She eventually agreed to a BBC TV interview which she said was handled sensitively and she does not regret and to speak to a local newspaper.
She said that although the media calls stopped abruptly after a week, the coverage it generated has stayed with her to this day.
“It comes up a lot, in job interviews and so on. You only have to Google my name. Once that footprint has been created it is very difficult to get away from.
“Reading the press coverage it seemed like I had done something to seek it out when I had not. I wanted privacy, but couldn’t negotiate it. It felt disrespectful to those who had suffered much more.
“I couldn’t talk to anybody for a week. I couldn’t answer the front door because journalists kept coming to my house and I couldn’t answer the phone.
“I was told if I did one interview it would stop, so I did one interview [with the local newspaper]. When you’re traumatised you can’t make decisions under extreme pressure.
“I had over 150 missed calls on my phone. It is a lot of pressure to be going back to and I wanted it to stop.
“Now I am rather I just said no because I didn’t want to do an interview.”
Asked what advice she would give to journalists dealing with people who have been caught up in a traumatic incident she said: “Don’t ask them detailed questions about what happened, things that are likely to increase the risk of them developing PTSD.”
Emma, who works in the field of mental health herself, said: “There have been quite a lot of studies about ‘single incident debriefing’. It used to be that counselors would debrief people straight after events, but there is a lot of evidence this can make it worse. Better to let people decide if, and when, they want to talk, and not to put pressure on them.”
She also warned that repeated explicit media coverage of a terror event can increase the risk of PTSD.
She added: “Don’t ask people for graphic detail. It’s not helpful and it doesn’t benefit anybody. And when somebody says ‘no’ respect that and give people the time to consider it. Don’t put pressure on people.
“You may need a story but it’s peoples’ lives. The impact that story has could be for the rest of that person’s life.”
She added: “It is fine if people want to talk, but if they say no respect that because it can cause real harm and it certainly did for me.”
Emma said she contacted the Press Complaints Commission in the weeks after the coverage but she was told she could not complain about intrusion into grief because she was not a family member of someone who had died.
Talking about media coverage of the Manchester attack, she said: “It has been really disturbing seeing some of the interviews, especially with children who are obviously traumatised.
“What are you going to learn from talking to that child other than the fact that a child who has seen people blown up in front of them is traumatised?
“You need to think about the long-term impact that can have on them. After being involved in something like this you don’t want to become defined by it. When you are the subject of media attention it can be difficult to escape from.”
Those who are concerned about unwanted press attention can contact press regulator IPSO on and it will circulate a desist notice to all media warning them against making further contact – 0300 123 22 20.