Ignorance Is Not Bliss: Impacts of Trauma on Journalists
by Mahmood Ahmadi –Afzadi June 16, 2008
“It was a cool Tuesday in December 2005 and I almost got on board a C-130 plane, which was bound for a war-game zone on the northern coast of the Persian Gulf,” remembers 38-year-old Iranian TV journalist, Behrouz Tashakkor.
He was almost at the airport when the newsroom decided to replace him with another reporter. As Tashakkor was going to the scene of another news event, he saw the same plane crash into a residential complex near Tehran’s Mehrabad Airport, and he was the only journalist at the scene who could report live on the incident. To be more precise, he was the only journalist left alive at the airport – the 64 other journalists were on board that plane to cover the war-game.
“I had reported on plane crashes before, but this time I had to report on the deaths of my own colleagues,” says the war journalist who, more than two years after the tragedy, is still suffering from that “never-ending nightmare.”
“I think recalling those harsh moments is natural, because it was one-of-a-kind. That incident aside I feel unaffected by the other tragedies I have reported on. I think of each story as being separate,” says Tashakkor.
Putting feelings into compartments
Director of the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, Roger Simpson, challenges those who repress such feelings. “Journalists often talk about compartmentalizing the experience. The experience happens and then as soon as they are away from it and the story is reported, the walls of the compartments close and then they’re onto something else and try to forget it. That’s a false explanation,” he says.
“I do not call into question journalists’ reasons for adopting personal coping strategies,” he says. “If you’re going to continue in a challenging, risky job like this, you have to survive.” He emphasizes, however, that some of the strategies that journalists adopt, like compartmentalizing memories or repressing emotions, might not favour them in the long run.
Of such strategies, repressing emotions is apparently more popular among journalists. According to Charles Figley, director of the Florida State University Traumatology Institute, “Many journalists tend to repress their emotions in times of trauma and they do that by detaching themselves from the tragic event they are reporting on to the extent that they go some place psychologically in which they can be objective and focus.”
The Iranian Radio and Television’s Bureau Chief in Turkey, Hassan Mirbaha, remembers how he struggled to put a lid on his own emotions when he arrived in the northern Iranian city of Manjil on June 20, 1990, two hours after a 7.3-magnitude earthquake leveled the city and killed 40,000 people. “Everyone was either trying to rescue family members trapped under the debris or was screaming in grief. I wasn’t prepared for this. Then I told myself that I was not there to mourn. I told myself that I had come all that way to report and inform others of what had happened there, what the survivors desperately needed.”
Naeemeh Namjoo, an Iranian journalist who covered another killer quake in the central Iranian city of Zarand in February 2005, says, “In those terrible conditions you should learn how to circumvent the impacts of the tragedy by not recounting the traumatic moments you have gone through during the day.”
And still others come up with different tactics of confronting the trauma they report on. Ensiyeh Sameni, the first female TV journalist to arrive in the southeastern Iranian city of Bam after it was shaken by a 6.7-magnitude earthquake on December 26, 2003, explains how she got around the problem: “Before arriving at the scene I was only focused on how to handle the job professionally but once we landed in the area and were exposed to the tragedy, I fell apart emotionally.” With only two hours before her first live report from the destroyed city, she knew that she had to overcome the emotional part and prepare for the professional part. “I had spent almost all of the two hours crying, hugging surviving kids, and sympathizing with bereaved families, and then all of a sudden it was the airing time,” she says.
One chief editor at the Iranian television’s satellite channel for which she was reporting refers to that first report as “absolutely amazing,” saying that, “She clearly had the impression of grief on her face, and even nearly choked on the air but that made it all the more natural. She kept doing the job perfectly, for more than 10 minutes.” While this journalist had not been able to avert the immediate emotional effects of the trauma on her own spirit, she had managed to survive professionally by immersing herself in the tragedy.
But is surviving professionally equal to surviving the impacts of trauma? Simpson answers, “No. We as journalists do have the means to repress the emotions associated with awful events for a time, but if we don’t adequately deal with the problem, the likelihood is that those repressed emotions surface to trouble us sometimes. So you might experience something terrible today and the compartmentalization factor comes in. But six months from now something will trigger those memories of the experience and it’ll be a very unpleasant recollection.”
Figley also believes that trauma memories can hardly be circumvented. The trauma psychologist compares concealing those memories to trying to store food in a container “which is not airtight.” He argues, “If it’s not airtight then it’s not going to be effective in storing the food. It’s the same way with these memories.”
Many journalists might be carrying disorders from as early as their first traumatizing assignment without even being aware of them. Many even go into denial. A documentary about reporters titled Deadline Iraq: The Uncensored Stories of the War shows how, in their early accounts of reporting on the war, the journalists interviewed deny the impacts of trauma with one of them, a grizzled veteran, even speaking of how absolutely emotionless he was as he witnessed deaths and destruction from close range.
But as Figley puts it, “Whether or not journalists deny that such a thing as trauma [among journalists] exists does not change the fact of the matter; it’s really how they go about conceiving or processing the experience that is the most important thing.”
When trauma overrides journalists
The C-130 plane crash and how it was reported on is still talked about by many Iranian journalists who are grappling with the effects of trauma on themselves. Behzad Tahmasbi, the Iranian News Network’s trauma reporter, comments, “There is no way that I can detach myself from that incident. We were all close friends. And what worsens things is that there is no positive side to it. When reporting on an earthquake you speak of survivors or reconstruction; here you become speechless. It’s a disaster all over.”
Figley explains that the strong difference in impact is because deaths of the people we work with as journalists might change our perception of the profession. “When you are a journalist, there is a certain degree of separation from the people that have been affected,” he says. “There is this veneer, this thin layer between yourself and the people that you are reporting on.” Based on his logic, when we hear or see the death of a colleague, that thin layer disappears all of a sudden. There is more of a sense of our own mortality because “it reminds us more dramatically of how vulnerable we are to death.”
Simpson, however, believes that fear of death or self-mortality might not be the sole reason for journalists’ different view of colleagues’ death as compared to other fatalities. “Each of us has a sense of what the world is like,” he says. “So if I’m a journalist, I have an understanding of what journalists face, what I face. And those other journalists are also a part of my life. When I witness a journalist’s death my sense of my mortality has changed, not because I’ve been intact but because people I’ve counted on being in my world are no longer there.”
Despite extensive research on trauma and its impacts on various working communities, it seems that journalism has not yet received enough attention from the trauma experts and even the news organizations. Studies by the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma show that while emergency workers have recognized the need for self-care and organizational safeguards, particularly in the last decade, journalists may not yet have been recognized as potential candidates for employee safeguards and increased support.
Major news networks such as Reuters, BBC and AP have begun holding trauma training programs and counseling sessions for their journalists, but the trend is far from common at the international level. As Stephen Ward, professor of journalism at the University of British Columbia says, “The myth still exists that journalists shouldn’t need trauma programs because journalists are supposed to be ‘tough as nails.’”
Nevertheless, it seems that it is journalists themselves who can take that most important first step in reducing the adverse effects of trauma on them by increasing their level of awareness of the disorder. They will be better prepared once they know the psychological hazards of the job. And once they know them they can handle them much more easily than before, sometimes as easily as talking about the effects that covering violence and other traumatic events has had on them.
But if they do not have a knowledge of the impact trauma can have, coupled with a supportive environment to deal with its effects, it will be difficult to begin to address their emotional challenges.