International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies

Media Matters

Posted 1 July 2005 in StressPoints by Meg Spratt, Seattle, Washington, USA, Mark Brayne, London, England

Dart Centre Europe Director Mark Brayne, a former BBC and Reuters foreign correspondent, now works as an educator and trainer in trauma and its coverage. He has a private psychotherapy practice, and he lectures and writes on issues of emotional literacy and journalism. Here, in an interview with Meg Spratt of Dart Center US, Brayne talks about the media’s responsibilities in constructing accurate narratives of trauma and healing.

Spratt: Objectivity has been a longtime tenet of Western, particularly American/Anglo-Saxon, journalistic standards. You maintain, though, that it’s becoming harder for good journalists to remain in the role of dispassionate outsider. Why is this?

Brayne: Journalism can no longer afford to be a spectator sport. With its central role in the construction of collective narrative in a dramatically more interconnected world, journalism has responsibilities for the survival of the human species, and this challenges the profession to take adult responsibility for its power.

Journalism in the Western world is rather like an adolescent who has been given powerful new toys (or perhaps weapons), in the form of technology and audience, but who does not fully understand how to use these responsibly. For example, the core business of perhaps 70 percent to 80 percent of Western journalism—trauma and extreme human distress—is now much better understood scientifically and sociologically than it was 20 or even 10 years ago, in the way it affects individuals, how it affects the human brain and body, and how it ricochets down through the generations. By reporting trauma, journalists become what anthropologists have long called the “participant observer”—where the mere fact of telling the story affects and changes what is being reported. Yet most journalists in the Western world still cling to outdated 1960s concepts of distance and “objectivity” and have only the vaguest understanding of what trauma is and does.

Journalists are central players in determining the nature of the world our children and grandchildren will inherit and inhabit. In a multichannel, Internet-connected, digitalized world of instant information and communication, journalists no longer can pretend that the future is none of their business.

Spratt: What is the responsibility of the journalist, if not to present objective, factual information? Do media workers have responsibilities to victims and survivors, as well as the public as a whole?

Brayne: There is no such thing as purely objective, factual information—apart perhaps from the barest fact, for example, that “someone died” or “a plane crashed.” The instant that journalists choose one story over another, one fact over another fact, one narrative over another narrative, one explanation over another explanation, and the instant they apply any of their own understanding or judgment to that story, their work ceases to become either objective or purely factual.

Different journalists will always write different stories about the same event. It is impossible for two distinct, different and unique human beings to see the same event in exactly the same way—however closely tuned their understandings are. That is not necessarily a problem. But journalists need to be conscious of this. They must do their best to convey an authentic, factually accurate, impartial account of what they witness. But they need also to be humble—not a quality immediately associated with journalism. They are more likely to be authentic and impartial (much better qualities in journalism than “truth” or “objectivity”) if they, and their editors, have an understanding of their own psychology and blind spots, and of the psychology of the story and its players. In other words, the media must become much more “emotionally literate.”

Spratt:Journalists often are criticized for concentrating on graphic details, possibly doing further harm to those who have been emotionally injured by tragic events. Can journalism also play a role in encouraging coping and healing, and if so, how?

Brayne: It’s my belief that journalists share a responsibility for the outcome of conflicts and tragedies on which they report. One consequence is that journalists—and, again, their team colleagues and editors, as no one works in a vacuum—always should consider the wider implications of what they choose to report and how, and not just in terms of whether it’s a good story or a good lead or a good piece of professional craftsmanship, but in terms of their work’s likely social and human impact. It’s fair to argue that journalists are not specifically tasked to rescue and to heal. In that sense, they are not in the same position as emergency workers or doctors/medical workers. But by constructing a narrative that is either respectful and accurate, or exaggerated and imbalanced, they do in fact contribute to—or impede—the process of healing in a profound way.

Healing from trauma takes place when individuals, families, communities or nations can make sense of what has happened, come to terms with it, put it safely in the past and move on. That can take time. Trauma fragments the human understanding of safety and identity. By constructing narrative, journalists, in telling the story of trauma, have a direct impact on how the individuals involved in that trauma understand themselves and their connection with the wider world. A journalist who, for the sake of ratings or sales, indulges in blood and gore for primarily commercial reasons is profoundly irresponsible.

This is emphatically not an argument for sanitizing stories of conflict, violence, war and tragedy. It is essential that journalists convey the reality of the world we live in, warts and all. War and crime kill, destroy and hurt, and news consumers need to be told and shown what violence and tragedy do. But each story, each description, each image and each video sequence needs to be chosen with respect for those whose story is being told.

Spratt: Has your work as a psychotherapist affected your view of journalistic storytelling as a healing tool, and if so, how?

Brayne: Yes, it has, quite profoundly. There aren’t all that many foreign correspondents in our cultures who have crossed the species barrier from “hack” to “shrink.” In the early days, many of my former journalistic colleagues were very skeptical about the path I have chosen. Some still are. But to my surprise, when I started exploring the parallels between psychotherapy and journalism (thinking I needed to turn my back on one to become a practitioner of the other), I began to understand how strong the parallels are between these two listening professions. Both the hack and the shrink ask questions and listen to answers; seek to construct a coherent narrative; aim to piece fragments together to give a story a beginning, a middle, an end and a purpose.

The difference is that the therapist “tells” the story back to the client—using the pieces of disjointed experience conveyed in the therapy and putting them together in a way that seems to make sense. Often, even though all the material has come from the client, this can be a profound “aha” moment for the listener—attributed to both by the experience of being heard and seen by another human being, and by that other human being’s care, insights and intuitions.

A journalist does—or should do—something very similar, with the essential difference being that the audience is not the client sitting opposite, but a wider public. The “client” in the journalist’s case might be seen as the story itself—fragmented and confused as clients often are. The journalist’s involvement in that story in turn, as with therapy, opens the way for healing, but also for distortion and abuse. The individual “client” is not there in weekly sessions to correct, guide and share the journey. Unlike a therapist, a journalist has no personal supervision, no formal code of ethics and accountability to a professional accrediting body. But, like a therapist, a journalist who imposes his or her own unconscious projections and (mis)understandings on what he or she is hearing risks failing to reflect the deeper truths within the story and further damaging those who already have been deeply hurt by their experience.

Like therapists, journalists ought to have professional supervision—not just for the editorial quality of what they produce, but to support them in their personal experience and help them toward greater self-awareness. Journalists also need something that is taken for granted in most other professions—continuing professional development, or CPD. Journalism is an enormously responsible profession, and as yet has far too little awareness of how complex that responsibility is.

Spratt: What advice do you have for both journalists and therapists in working together to tell public stories of tragedy and trauma in a way that might promote, rather than interfere with, healing?

Brayne: What’s needed is profound culture change. Journalists—and, again, I stress their editors and managers—need to be engaged in a constructive and broad debate about the ethics and personal challenges of their craft. Journalists need help in understanding how they can draw on the wisdom, knowledge and expertise of the mental health professions in developing and maintaining the highest standards of personal responsibility and ethical engagement. Workers in the mental health field in turn need to learn how to talk and listen to journalists without alienating them with jargon and rigid ideology. There is much work to be done.