Reporting that hurts

by Stephanie Kukkonen
It isn’t just war correspondents who suffer from what they see; small town beat reporters are also vulnerable to post traumatic stress disorder.

by Stephanie Kukkonen

Brent Mazerolle heard the wail of sirens speed past his house in the mid-morning. An ambulance and a police car raced down the road, and stopped 150 yards away — at his neighbour’shouse.

“My heart started pounding because I knew the people who lived in the house, and I knew that it was my job to report on it,” said the reporter for the Moncton Times & Transcript. “When I got there, the photographer from the paper was already there and I had a glimpse of how people must feel when they see us (media) at traumatic events because I wanted to punch him in the mouth. I knew if he was there itwas something big and bad.”

It was a murder suicide. An estranged husband had entered his family home the previous evening, shot his ex-wife and then took his own life, leaving two children sitting with their dead parents all night.

Mazerolle said it was the thought of three-year-old Meghan and her three-month-old brother, Vincent, that really horrified him. Since then, he’s realized that dealing with the survivors is much more difficult than dealing with the physical reality of a traumatic event. He considers himself lucky he was able to learn it in the first tragedy he ever covered.

“It took me seven hours to write 1,000 words on the story. I almost asked my editor to take me off the assignment, but I knew I wouldn’t be able to think of anything else that week. I knew that I needed to write out the story to deal with it.”

It is only recently that the psychological damage of a day-to-day, domestic journalism job is being considered. There are no studies that tell how many beat journalists suffer emotionally from what they see, but many people believe simply talking about it is a step in the right direction.

War reporters and foreign correspondents are the inspiration for considering how the media are affected by their experiences. According to a study conducted by Dr. Feinstein, a psychology professor at the University of Toronto, and author of Journalists Under Fire, 22 per cent of war journalists suffer from clinical depression and 29 per cent from a life time of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This number is almost identical to the 30 per cent of combat veterans suffering from PTSD. Compared to the seven to 13 per cent of police and emergency care workers who suffer from PTSD, it seems it’s time to think about the media as human beings closely involved in the tragedies that surround war and homegrown violence.

Considering the feelings of ‘daily grind’ journalists

Toronto based journalist Jane Hawkes, co-founder of the Canadian Journalists Forum on Violence & Trauma, says a major inspiration for developing the forum is journalists who work the daily grind of news beats. They often don’t consider the emotional consequences of covering traffic accidents, murders and child molestation trials — sometimes more than one within the same week.

“Most of us will not be working in combat situations. We will be the person at the desk that has to go to a car accident or sit through a child molestation trial, the day to day challenges of being a journalist,” says Hawkes. “There is an assumption that we’re safe and we think we’re not affected by the things we cover, but we’re not aware of the cumulative affect of dealing with trauma.”

The forum is an annual event where journalists, psychologists, health care professionals and journalism students listen to speakers, including other journalists, talk about their individual experiences in dealing with traumatic situations.

The forum was held for the first time last February. Hawkes believes it was successful because things that have been taboo in many newsrooms were brought out in the open. The Canadian Psychiatric Association’s website states that PTSD symptoms are often worse if the trauma is unexpected. Although journalists are aware they are off to cover a potentially horrific sight, they do not know that very far in advance. Many times, the physical reality of the event is worse than they expect.

Hawkes recognizes not everybody believes that they will be affected by the tragedies they cover. She says that some of her co-workers call the forum “psychobabble.” Many skeptics believe that the camera lens provides enough of a buffer between themselves and the event that they are covering. Hawkes thinks this could be because many journalists fear being put on a “lighter beat” if they show emotional involvement.

“One of the challenges is how to increase awareness of these issues when the newsroom environment is so competitive,” says Hawkes.”I just believe it’s important to talk about it and take the negative stigma away from mental health issues.”

Fortunately, Mazerolle says that he has never been diagnosed with PTSD or symptoms from the many tragic stories he’s written, although he does admit to being most upset by some images and interviews long after the day is over.

“We had a horrible string of accidents last year. After the Bathurst bus accident last year, I went up the next morning and it wasn’t cleaned up yet,” says Mazerolle. “There were shoes and even a gas station burrito that hadn’t been eaten on the side of the road. Little pieces of life interrupted. Part of the trauma is the extreme raw grief. It took me two weeks to shake that experience from me.”Mazerolle says he is able to deal with traumatic situations because his first was such a personal experience. He also takes time to understand that he is experiencing the situation as a human being. He is honest about the fact that the circumstances are traumatic and emotional. His response is often to simply do his job.

“I am very aware that my behavior is being constantly watched and I never forget that this is the worst day of somebody’s life,” says Mazerolle. “Sometimes I worry that I don’t have enough objectivity, and I get a little too involved. I always express my deep sympathy toward the situation.”

Hawkes agrees with Mazerolle’s approach to traumatic situations. She says she’s seen reporters demonstrate time and time again an air of professionalism in the face of trauma.

“Your way of coping will often be to be the best journalist that you can be,” she says. “Kind of innoculate yourself by recognizing you’re doing something for a higher purpose. The more together you are, the more people you can help.”

Journalists should seek help

Not all journalists are fortunate enough to have the ability to displace the emotions brought on by tragedy. Many suffer from PTSD or at least symptoms of it due to the emotional trials of the job. Few people consider the media when they think of people who witness tragedies as part of their careers, but war journalists see as many horrors as soldiers.

The more shocking information, according to Dr. Feinstein’s study, is that the journalists are not as likely as combat veterans to seek psychological help.

The American Psychiatric Association characterizes PTSD as “at least three months of recurrent and intrusive recollections of the event, emotional numbing, and avoidance of people and places that are reminders of the event. Another common symptom is hyper arousal, which may include irritability, jittery behavior, poor concentration, sleep disturbances and feeling a lack of security..”

A tragedy in itself is when a journalist succumbs to the horror of the things seen. Kevin Carter, a photojournalist who won the Pulitzer Prize in 1994 for a photo he took of a starving girl in Sudan being stalked by a vulture, committed suicide only two months after receiving his prize.

An article published on September 12, 1994 in Time Magazine quoted from the suicide note that Carter had left in his truck where he died through asphyxiation.

“I am haunted by the vivid memories of killings & corpses & anger & pain . . . of starving or wounded children, of trigger-happy madmen, often police, of killer executioners . . . ”

More recently, Richard Mills, a photojournalist for London Times newspaper, hanged himself in a Zimbabwe hotel room. His family was reluctant to accept that Mills had taken his own life, but in an article published August 2, 2008 on, Mills’ family concluded that he couldn’t live with the things he’d seen.

“We acknowledge that the amount of suffering and extreme hardship he witnessed at first hand in many harrowing situations throughout the world proved too much for him to bear.”

It is instances like the suicides of Kevin Carter and Richard Mills that have lead to growing concern for the emotional health of journalists who travel to war torn and disaster stricken areas of the world.

The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s national reporter in Halifax, Stephen Puddicombe, knows the horrors of these places all too well. The veteran reporter says he’s been fortunate to have covered the biggest stories in the world for the last 10 years, but he admits that the emotional toll is too much for anybody to handle on their own.

CBC provides its employees with the opportunity to speak to psychologists about their experiences. While he isn’t sure if he’s ever had full blown PTSD, he does know that sometimes his experiences make him behave in a way that is unlike himself.

“I won’t be able to sleep, I’ll have nightmares and be afraid of everything,” he says. “That’s not like me. Normally I’m out as soon as I lie down.”

Puddicombe credits his psychologist for helping him understand what is really bothering him. He says that many times he’s irritable and completely put off by peoples’ complaints that do not even compare to the things that people in devastation are experiencing. He does admit that he’s learned that everybody’s problems are relative to the situation they’re in. His home life also causes him an overwhelming amount of guilt when he gets on the plane.

“You never want to leave,” he says. “I develop relationships with the people I interview and spend time with and then I get to get on a plane and return to my safe home. I don’t have to worry about getting shot on the way to my car, I can get bread on the way home from work if I need to. These people don’t even know if they’re going to have a house from one day to the next. I always get to go home.”

Puddicombe says it’s never until the day’s work is over that the horror of what he sees really hits him. Somehow he manages to get through a work day, seeing and hearing the world’s worst circumstances withstood by human beings, but when he finishes his assignments he is haunted by images and sounds and stories. That’s the reason he doesn’t believe that anybody who says they are unaffected is telling the truth.

“I think they’re (people who say they are unaffected) stupid. Sorry, but I believe that,” he says. “There is no way that the things most of us see can simply roll of the backs of any human being.”

Puddicombe praises CBC for encouraging its journalists to speak to psychologists.

The 120 media members who went to the forum in February show that journalists of all kinds are affected by covering trauma and that many want to talk about it. They also want to hear experts tell them how to help prevent emotional damage.

“The old mental picture of the journalist, with a glass of liquor and a cigarette, banging away at a typewriter could be gone for good eventually,” says Hawkes. “I think that speaking about it allows us to be a little more human and a little more accessible to the public. Being horrified by horrific things and allowing ourselves to be makes us all the more relatable and makes our stories all the more true and real.”

Need help?

The following links are websites where journalists can seek help in preventing or managing PTSD symptoms from which they may be suffering.

(A webpage where journalists can gather tips on how to take care of themselves emotionally while on the job).

(This web site provides a self-assessment program for journalists to assess their psychological well-being.)

(The papers and studies presented at the first annual Canadian Journalist Forum on Violence and Trauma).
(The Frontline Club is the premiere gathering place in London (UK) for journalists, camera operators and photographers, providing a venue for discussion, debate and screenings, as well as training courses. The Frontline Club exists to promote freedom of expression and support those who risk their lives in their work).