International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies

MEDIA MATTERS

Posted 1 March 2003 in StressPoints by Philip Castle, Brisbane, Queensland, Australia

A recent Australian trauma study of approximately 40 journalists divulged a startling finding about coverage of trauma-related topics: Most of the journalists said that interviews conducted during the study provided the first occasion for them to discuss their feelings about covering difficult topics. In a profession that constantly probes other people's thoughts and responses about tragedy, many journalists felt neglected in the process of dealing with trauma.

The study was based on interviews with journalists who visited the site of a tsunami in northern Papua New Guinea (PNG) on July 17, 1998. More than 2,500 villagers were killed by the tidal wave and about 4,000 injured; the local high school of 450 lost more than 50 percent of its pupils. Many of the bodies were never recovered because of the rapid decomposition, difficulties in finding them due to the nature of the disaster, and the greater needs of the injured. Many died as a result of problems inherent in providing a rapid response to a natural disaster in a remote area of the world.

The difficulties journalists usually face were exacerbated by communication difficulties, the priority of the injured (as opposed to the news), a severe lack of accommodation, malaria and the enormity of the tragedy.

Journalists were flown to the area by chartered aircraft. The Australian Defense Forces provided the first instance of medical and logistic aid, and within 48 hours they had established an outside world communication system. The PNG government and military wanted the world to know their plight so aid could be provided.

Emotionally drained, some journalists cried in frustration that they could do little except try to get the story out. All were deeply affected afterward and suffered long-term intrusive memories. Many journalists were unable to get their stories and tapes out because helicopter airlifts were used only for the critically injured. One TV crew watched the last helicopters leave at dusk with the dying lined up on the beaches, unable to be moved because of safety concerns of flying at night. Most of the injured died during the night. The journalists slept on the beach within earshot of the dying, feeling guilty that they remained alive. There was little they could do. All of the journalists were affected long afterward and nearly all felt unsupported by their home-based media organizations, receiving little sympathy or assistance when they returned.

Without exception, they said that this climate of nonsupport must change. Most had more than 20 years experience in journalism, with many having covered wars, IRA bombings, East Timor, the Dunblane, Scotland, school massacre and world disasters. Most of the journalists provided first-hand, empathetic reports from PNG clearly indicating their own emotional concern about the disaster. After witnessing carnage and suffering caused by the tsunami, Sean Dorney, an Australian national based in PNG for more than 20 years, broke down live on air at the main airport. Though Dorney continued with a brilliant journalistic report, he sees the need for a professional support system for journalists.

Most recent studies of journalists and trauma have shown that journalists want support from within the profession but have difficulties finding it. Groups such as the police, paramedics and the military have made attempts to provide nominal counseling services, but most media organizations in Australia have been slow to respond to these kinds of services. Many journalists, though they admit they would welcome support, have concerns about the lack of confidentiality, which could cost them future assignments, or even their jobs. Their wish is to be treated humanely and with compassion by their employers.

Many journalists seek support only through family, friends and colleagues away from the office. Nearly all thought that their own organization did not have proper knowledge to deal with journalists troubled by covering trauma stories or journalists suffering from posttraumatic stress disorder--a condition generally misunderstood by management.

Philip Castle is a lecturer in journalism at Queensland University of Technology at Brisbane. His research specialty is journalism and trauma, and he works with Dart Center projects in that area.