International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies

All About the Canadian Journalism Forum on Violence and Trauma

Posted 28 July 2013 in StressPoints by Cliff Lonsdale

“Got shot at – survived – thought it was great! I started smoking when it was over, had a great cigarette--cigarettes had never tasted so good, beer never tasted so good, fresh air was amazing. Life was thrilling!” That is Ian Stewart, a former correspondent and bureau chief for Associated Press, telling journalism students about the addictive quality of his first experience of coming under fire, on the India-Pakistan border. Stewart was later shot in the head by a child soldier in Sierra Leone. The AK-47 bullet entered his forehead and travelled almost to the back of his skull, between the two hemispheres of his brain. Through a mixture of chance (the round seems to have been a bit too lightly packed) and the miracles of medicine, he survived again. It took getting shot in the head to make Stewart realize that he had been affected by undiagnosed posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) for several years before it happened.

This challenge was created as a by-product of witnessing brutality and starvation in parts of the world he felt no one cared about and which he believed he was mostly powerless to help. Thirteen years on, he has completed a PhD degree at the University of Michigan. Stewart, originally from Toronto, is among the founding members of the Canadian Journalism Forum on Violence and Trauma, an educational charity concerned with both the physical and emotional wellbeing of journalists. His story illustrates why the Forum’s founders chose to tackle issues of physical safety and psychological wellbeing together.  

People who put themselves in harm’s way for a cause--and good journalism is a cause--seldom experience stigma as a result. Correspondents and photographers are usually happy enough to tell their war stories, and journalism students and others are equally keen to listen to tales of physical risk with trepidation and respect. Ian Stewart’s example illustrates why the Forum decided, from the outset, that physical and emotional safety should be considered together, not held in separate silos. Its first activity was to launch a program of one-day risk awareness workshops for Canadian journalism students. It quickly became clear that students found talking about physical safety issues helped to bring down some of the barriers to discussing emotional issues as well, in both foreign and domestic contexts.

It was not always so. For decades, those emotional discussions hardly ever took place in newsrooms, whether large or small. Journalists who might have experienced awful events themselves or reported repeatedly on such events as they happened to others, were supposed (somehow) to be immune to the effects--coated in Teflon®, as it were. Reporters, editors, and photographers who discovered otherwise generally suffered in silence or quietly sought other careers.

Indeed, it was not until quite late in the 1980s that leading journalistic organizations gradually started taking physical safety seriously. Some of the senior journalists involved in the Forum’s inaugural conference in 2008 spoke with regret about having been party to a cavalier attitude in sending correspondents and crews off to war zones with minimal protection and no special training. In time, recognition of this workplace safety issue led reporters, editors, and photographers towards a degree of willingness to consider emotional factors as well. This understanding of psychological factors led the Forum founders to welcome, from the outset, mental health professionals into its membership--especially those with an interest in, and experience of the work of journalists. For example, Dr. Anthony Feinstein, a leading expert on PTSD in war journalists, has been on the Forum’s board of directors right from the start.

The Forum membership also determined that the organization would not become fixated on conflict zones alone because the vast majority of journalists never cover war, but they are nonetheless exposed to a wide variety of physical and emotional dangers. For example, a reporter on a small local weekly paper could attend a car crash where some of the people involved may be acquaintances, colleagues, or friends; or a photographer may be sent out to cover the chaos caused by a severe winter storm or any other natural disaster but not be given any instruction or special equipment to move about safely. Additionally, vicarious traumatization has taken an unexpected toll on some experienced journalists covering harrowing trials, such as those of the mass-murderer Robert Picton in Vancouver, British Columbia or the marauding military base commander Col. Russell Williams in Bellville, Ontario. 

Although Canada is far from being the worst example, Canadian reporters and editors have been shot (and one killed) because of stories they had investigated. Worldwide, the vast majority of journalists killed each year are murdered in their own countries. Most of these cases are never solved or even properly investigated, creating a broad and troubling climate of impunity in which killing a journalist becomes a cheap and effective form of censorship.

The Forum’s founders first intended to operate within an academic context, linked to the Graduate Program in Journalism at Western University in London, Ontario. The response of both journalism and mental health participants in the 2008 inaugural conference, however, urged the founders to take a broader approach and the Forum evolved into a federally-registered, independent educational charity in 2009.

The noun “Forum” in the organization’s title was used for two reasons. It conveniently skirted academic restrictions on the use of more commonly-used words such as “institute,” and also captured important principles. The Forum wanted to avoid endorsing any particular line of action to the exclusion of others. It strives to become an entity that encourages debate and discussion between journalists, and between journalists and mental health professionals, without restriction. Thus, the involvement of respected people in Canadian journalism was vital from the start. If we were to encourage open and honest discussion among journalists on subjects that had previously been taboo (such as emotional distress), we had to create an atmosphere free from dogma, and perceived external influences or pressures. These respected journalism professionals lead the way by modeling frank discussions for more reticent new workers in the field. Importantly, the new organization did not seek to become a rival to any other organizations in the field. Overtures were made, for example, to the Dart Centre for Journalism and Trauma and the International News Safety Institute (INSI), that were duly reciprocated. 

The inclusive and varied nature of the Forum is reflected in the range of programs it has already introduced or has coming down the pipeline. The first program introduced was to provide risk awareness workshops for journalism students. These have been provided so far at Western and Carleton universities and are on offer to others. According to INSI, in 2012 a record 152 journalists and media workers were killed worldwide because of their work; 28 of those were killed in Syria. An increasing number of those who lost their lives in conflict zones were freelancers. Thus, for the third year running, the Forum Freelance Fund (FFF) is providing safety-training bursaries to Canadian freelancers now working in conflict situations. Our definition of Canadian freelancers includes not only Canadian citizens, but also any others who work for Canadian media.

The program tries to deal with one of the most pressing physical safety problems facing the news industry today. As economic models crumble, many news organizations have closed foreign bureaus and rely, to a greater extent than ever before, on freelancers to supplement wire service coverage of conflict. Many of these freelancers are young people, putting their lives at risk to try to ‘break in’ to a profession where layoffs are more common than hiring. In all but a few cases, they receive nothing in the way of safety training or equipment from their part-time employers. The burden of safety is being shifted more and more onto the shoulders of those least able to carry it. Many news organizations plead that they cannot undertake to equip and train every freelance who “walks in the door.” Contributing to the FFF gives them a reasonable, third party alternative.

An independent jury that selects each year’s winners (according to need) distributes the fund. The 2012 winners were based in China (but also working in Syria), Afghanistan, Tunisia and Colombia. Finally, in keeping with its ethos of co-operation, the FFF has a working relationship with the larger, UK-based Rory Peck Trust (RPT), which provides safety-training bursaries to freelance camera people. The RPT is represented on the FFF jury, and three quarters of last year’s FFF winners received parallel bursaries from RPT as well. 

While the FFF and the risk awareness workshops for journalism students continue to gain traction, the Forum is also turning its attention to the impact journalism may have on the general public. There is growing recognition in Canada that it is time to bring mental health issues out into the open and to examine how society and the media may be combining to reinforce the stigma that condemns hundreds of thousands of Canadians to suffer unnecessarily. Some excellent, groundbreaking work has been done on this in the media in the last few years.

But there are also cases where coverage, in the context of breaking news, reinforces damaging myths. Often this happens when general news reporters, without warning, have to cover dramatic incidents involving mental health issues. Thus, a third project has begun to create a comprehensive, Canadian guide to mental health reporting called Mindset - Reporting on Mental Health/En-tĂȘte - reportage et SantĂ© Mentale, compiled by journalists for journalists, which will be launched next year.

This bilingual project (English and French) is supported by a grant from the Mental Health Commission of Canada, with funding from the federal Ministry of Health. Editorial control of content is in the hands of the Forum, working in partnership with CBC News. The project will include printed guides containing focused facts and advice, websites that elaborate the guidebook information in greater depth, and a series of webinars to extend participation and discussion across Canada. This project will help general-assignment journalists avoid pitfalls that specialists more easily recognize, adding important perspectives to mental health coverage and reducing collateral damage to those challenged by mental illness.

Finally, another area of concern for the Forum--particularly its co-founder and executive producer, Jane Hawkes--has to do with focusing on emotional support for the families of journalists who suffer physical or emotional injuries (or both) in the course of their work. The Inner Circle Project has been launched in conjunction with a qualified Forum member with the intention of conducting a research project that will help to determine people’s experiences, needs, and practical interventions for support.

Despite this diversity of programs, the Forum operates without any base funding. Members and board members devise and carry the bulk of the work on a volunteer basis. Journalists may be an endangered species, but they are not usually seen as cuddly creatures on whose behalf one can easily rally public support. Yet, good journalism works in the public interest, and sometimes at great cost to its practitioners.

We might not have been able to find a harder cause for which to elicit widespread sympathy, but in the final analysis there may also be none more essential to the preservation of democracy in difficult times.

About the Author

After more than 40-years working as a reporter, editor, producer and news executive around the world, Cliff Lonsdale has been teaching journalism as a lecturer at Western University since 2002. For the past four years he has served as president of the Canadian Journalism Forum on Violence and Trauma. His past work includes the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) as chief news editor (television); news writer/editor (television and radio news), line-up editor; producer and executive producer (The National); head of production (Europe), English services; head of production (news, current affairs and Newsworld); and Rhodesia Broadcasting Corporation as the head of special features; Bristol & West as a reporter and chief reporter, and The Sunday Mail as a reporter and political correspondent.