EBU: Covering traumatic stories

I asked Suw about blogging this session, and she said that it was an important transparency exercise. It might help humanise journalists and help people understand what we do.

As Mark Brayne, with the Dart Center for Journalism & Trauma, points out, you wouldn’t send a journalist to cover finance in London without knowing the difference between FTSE and the NASDAQ. You wouldn’t send someone to cover the English premiership without knowing the difference between the rules of American football and the sport the rest of the world calls football. However, journalists are sent into life-threatening situations without knowing anything about dealing with trauma.

How do you sit with somebody in extreme stress? How do you handle violent images? This was especially difficult with the picture of the beheadings. (We warned staff in Washington when those images were coming over the satellite feeds.)

Mark singled out some personal stories. Don McCullin, one of great war photographers of latter 20th century, said:

When I went to war, I came back with enormous guilt. I was a confused person. If I hadn’t kept this very fine balance in check, I think I would have gone made

Now he photographs landscapes.

Nael Shyoukhri, Reuters, West Bank,

What you shoot, what you film and see can’t just be forgotten easily. These pictures go home with you, stay in your mind, in your dreams.

Jonathan Charles, BBC, said:

During more than sixteen years as a BBC foreign correspondent, I’ve covered conflict after conflict, catastrophe after catastrophe. I thought that I’d seen death in all of its possible forms but the ending of the school siege in Beslan, in which hundreds of children and adults died amidst a cacophany of gunfire and explosions, had burned disturbing images in to my mind — images which were proving hard to shake-off.

If there was a bomb in central Warsaw, most sensible people would run away. Journalists, police, firefighters would run toward it. we are with the first response, Mr Brayne pointed out.

Most of my experience with trauma in covering news has been minor or one step removed.

Not more than a year into my first journalism assignment, I was called out to a car accident. It was relatively minor. A driver had lost control of her car on an icy road in town. The passenger was pinned in the front of the car. She sat there moaning in pain. She was in no real danger, but there is a real difference between seeing this unmediated and seeing this on television. That screen is a buffer. Hearing moans of your pain with your own ears is different than hearing them on a TV, watching them wrapped in LIVE logos.

I have never been sent to war, but because of the possibility and the number of large scale protests that I covered in Washington, I was sent to hostile environments training. One of the people I trained with was Stuart Hughes. I can remember us being trained how to search for mines with a ballpoint pen or a piece of wire.

I travelled across the US during the war in Iraq. I joke that I was ’embedded with the American people’. I was in New Mexico when I heard of the report of the death of a BBC cameraman when he and his team stumbled into an unmarked minefield. The correspondent was injured, but the report did not mention Stuart. It was only until the next year when Stuart came into the Washington bureau with a prosthetic lower leg that I put two and two together.

I’ve been fortunate. Apart from a little tear gas during a World Bank protest, I’ve never been in a conflict. On September 11, I was ironically not in Washington, not across the river from the Pentagon. I was in London having lunch with a friend. Like so many others, I experienced it on television. I remember rushing up to the newsroom. I watched the second plane hit, and then I remember something odd that still chills my blood. The pictures changed, and I could tell that someone was speaking to the presenter explaining what the pictures meant. But before the presenter could tell the world what we were seeing, I knew. This was a shot from our camera position above the White House. Smoke was billowing into the sky. “That’s Washington.” That’s home.

My friend Steve Evans was closer. He was at a press conference at the World Trade Centre. I interviewed him a year later. For a long time he said he used to jump at loud noises. I can’t imagine what it would be like to be that close.

It is difficult. I don’t like when journalists get in the way of the story. But I also know that we’re human.
Stuart wrote through his experience. I wrote a piece when I got back to the US after September 11.

It was important just to say very publicly that I was mourning. Was it slightly self-indulgent? Possibly. But I would argue that I wasn’t making myself the story. I was just telling my story. Maybe a distinction without a difference. After that, I put my head down and worked for the next three months, almost without break.

My story was just one of thousands, possibly millions. Tools like weblogs and podcasts allow people to tell their own stories. But this session reminded me that while we’re not the story, the stories we cover impact us.

UPDATE: Having read this post after a few days, I have to admit that I’m like Michael Mullane of the EBU who writes in this post that he has led a pretty safe existence as a journalist. I’m not going to compare my experience to my colleagues who have been to Iraq.