Newsdesks and picture desks must be prepared for trauma
By John Szemerey
CIOJ member of the Board of the International News Safety Institute
We hear a lot about thuggery and threats to journalists on the job. But we hear little about the effect of violence and of seeing gruesome scenes on journalists and photographers. To suffer from trauma after such an experience is not abnormal. Even well-balanced and well prepared individuals can crack up after being in a life-threatening situation or seeing sights that would curdle the composure of an angel.
Trauma is an injury, but it is an injury of the mind. So we cannot see it. Like most injuries it will cure by itself, if it is allowed to do so. With sympathy and support from family, friends and colleagues it will heal much more quickly and with less pain. And if it does not get better, if the post-traumatic stress continues, it can usually be cured very effectively.
But how many editors, newsdesks or picture desks look out for psychological trauma and are prepared with the names of nearby specialists who can help?
Very few. Without support and in some cases specialist treatment, the injury can fester and get worse. This can lead to even the best of journalists losing his grip. He (or she) can miss deadlines. He (she) can suddenly write nonsense. He can forget facts and appointments. He and his colleagues may even think he (she) is going mad.
He or she is not mad. He/she is wounded – injured when doing his/her job.
Editors and newsdesks must be aware of what trauma can do and of post-traumatic stress. They must help and support colleagues in this condition and not fire them. If they send them on leave, they should keep in touch and see how the wounded colleagues are getting on. Don’t let them think they have been abandoned or that they are shunned..
Firing a wounded man may well cause the injury to get worse. Sometimes, tragically, it may even lead to suicide … as a direct result of editors’ and colleagues’ lack of understanding of the wound and its symptoms.
A great help to get journalists to cope is proper safety training – something that should be given automatically to all journos and support staff who go out to cover live news. Today anyone can find themselves faced with a ghastly and perhaps gruesome accident or event – and often it is the young local reporter and photographer who are first on the scene. If they are not prepared, and if they do not receive sympathetic support afterwards, they could fall apart psychologically, or worse.
Being unexpectedly attacked with a knife or a broken bottle can happen to anyone. Seeing the explosion of a double-decker bus and then bleeding body parts all over the road has happened in England and could happen again.
As the CIoJ has been telling managements, it is their job to ensure that all journalists and photographers – or for the audio-visual media soundpersons, cameramen and the other technical staff sent out to cover major events – are prepared for possible violence and that they do not send journalists naked into battle. This means safety training and proper safety equipment for all.
But it also means watching out for trauma.
Journalists are a tough lot. Often they do not want to admit anything is wrong after a ghastly experience. They act macho and carry on. They should be encouraged not to bottle up their experiences but to talk (or if they’d rather not talk, to write) about them and allow others to hear and support them..
With a bit of luck and a bit of support they will get over it. But if the condition gets worse, sufferers should be sent to a trauma specialist who will in most cases be able to help heal the trauma and its aftereffects.
Editor, newsdesks and picture desks should everywhere know who are the local specialists who can help with post traumatic stress. If there is no-one in the vicinity, they should contact the Dart Centre, London, the top specialists in this field.