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Trauma: a little-understood hazard of the media trade

How many times have you heard someone say, “I don’t pay attention to the news, it’s too depressing”?

Vancouver researcher and trauma counsellor Patrice Keats took a different approach. Looking at the tragic images that fill our newspapers, web and TV news, she began to wonder about the effects of capturing those images on the photojournalists themselves. Her inquiry has led to a full-blown research project with some early findings that should interest journalists and their employers.

For one thing, the extent to which photographers, videojournalists and reporters regularly experience trauma is not well understood in Canada, let alone discussed openly, particularly in newsrooms.

“In general, people underreport the impact of their experiences photographing trauma,” writes Keats, an assistant professor in the faculty of education at Simon Fraser University. Her pilot study, which focused on photojournalists, including videographers, found that participants experienced many of the same symptoms. They often reported difficulty sleeping, flashbacks, anxiety, hyper vigilance, depression and obsessive behaviour. There were also physical manifestations, such as stomach and heart problems and fainting.

And the stereotype of the journalist as a big drinking, chain smoking, hardboiled bachelor clearly has a basis in fact. The other common effects of trauma Keats identified during her interviews were alcohol use, smoking and relationship problems.

After the initial pilot study, Keats expanded her project to examine the impact of trauma on all journalists. By the end of August, she had held confidential interviews with nearly 30 photojournalists, reporters and editors. All but one were, or had been, drinkers.

“Journalists aren’t always aware that they way they are doing their work and living their lives is actually shaped by their trauma response,” Keats told G-Force.

“One of the journalists I talked to just collapsed on the street,” Keats said. It became clear that the person had experienced “many, many situations where he was dealing with trauma.”

Once it gets to that point, she added, it’s very difficult to recover. And yet that’s sometimes the first journalists realize or acknowledge they may need help or support because of the things they’ve witnessed or experienced on the job.

The effects of trauma are more likely acknowledged when it comes to big ticket incidents, such as natural disasters, wars, and major accidents.

The issue was driven home to CMG members this summer when colleagues from Radio-Canada, videographer Charles Dubois and reporter Patrice Roy, were injured in a bomb blast while embedded with the Canadian army in Afghanistan. It is expected that they will get all the help they need to fully recover from the tragedy and CBC/Radio-Canada has taken steps to do its part.

Charles and Patrice experienced what Keats calls a primary trauma: their own lives and safety were in danger. Secondary, sometimes known as vicarious, trauma is also real and it comes from experiencing or witnessing someone else’s suffering, something identified in Keats’ pilot study as a key trigger for experiencing trauma.

Interviewing victims of crime, reporting on trials, arriving on the scene of traffic accidents and house fires are sources of secondary trauma. And it’s all in a day’s work for many journalists who too often don’t have the time to digest what they have witnessed or experienced before they have to focus on a deadline or another assignment.

“It takes about six weeks to get your feet back on the ground after experiencing a trauma,” she says. But the experience and its effects can get buried among other things that have to get done in a busy day.

Stephanie Levitz, a CMG member and reporter at The Canadian Press in Vancouver, has had a challenging year. She covered a bit of the trial of Robert Pickton, who is accused of murdering 26 women in the Vancouver area, and wrote profiles of the women. She then prepared for and left on a rotation in Afghanistan. She returned to Canada about a month before Patrice and Charles were injured and, a couple of days before the incident, thought she was back to her old self.

“It just sent me into a total tailspin,” Stephanie said of hearing the news. She told G-Force that writing about the women who were murdered in Vancouver and going to Afghanistan made her face serious questions, including about why she does her job.

“There’s a frustration that you’re shouting into the wind,” she said. “Is anybody listening” to what I’m writing about?

Former APTN reporter Karyn Pugliese says that she had to come to grips with the fact that her reports were usually not going to make much of a difference in the lives of the people whose stories she was covering. When she reported on the horrendous housing situation on the Gull River Reserve in Northern Ontario, she felt the need to warn the people she interviewed of that reality so as not to offer false hope. APTN news doesn’t command the same audience as the big outlets and, in any case, it’s very difficult to get Canadians to pay attention to issues affecting Aborigional people. The reality made it even more difficult for Karyn to witness what she did.

CMG members interviewed for this article indicated that support from their employers in dealing with the effects of covering traumatic events is uneven. Karyn said it depended on the person she was reporting to at the time. Stephanie has been dealing with the year’s experiences by talking with colleagues who have been through the same thing. During the experiences themselves, she said there were a lot of inappropriate jokes and humour to release tension.

When Keats asked journalists what might help them cope with and recover from their experiences, she heard that a break between assignments, even a shift off, would help. Keats also thinks that journalists and employers have to start talking about the effects as a normal, natural response to trauma instead of the pervasive sense that people who can’t cope are weaklings. That would open the door to more informal, peer-to-peer support and ultimately to more proactive support from employers.

Keats’ research continues and she plans to propose guidelines and a protocol for editors and employers on how to approach trauma among journalists “so that there can be some assistance that isn’t there now.”

Here are some tips on how to cope with and recover from trauma:

  • Talk to a trusted friend or colleague, particularly someone who may have had the same or similar experiences.
  • Take care of your body by eating and sleeping well, and getting exercise.
  • Avoid over-use of nicotine, caffeine and sugar.
  • Maintain a normal schedule, or return to a normal schedule as soon as possible, and avoid making big life changes until you have recovered.
  • Do things you enjoy. Laughing, relaxing, spending time with loved ones, journal writing, hobbies, prayer or meditation all can help with healing.
  • Get help. If you’re not feeling better on your own, call your Employee Assistance Program, your family doctor, your supervisor. Tell them what’s going on.

Source: Shepell-fgi

If you would like to share your experiences in confidence with Patrice Keats in the context of her continuing research, she can be reached at pkeats@sfu.ca or at 778-782-7604.

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