Facing the effects of covering trauma
The news culture, says the co-author of a U.S. study of post-traumatic stress suffered by journalists, has always honoured those who rush into danger to get the story. "To admit you have been wounded by that action is seen as a declaration that you aren't a good journalist."
By: Diane Woolley (Now Diane Henry)
Originally Published: Oct. 12, 2003 in theKings Review
|Lisa Taylor: "Misery likes company." Photo: Courtesy CBC|
She dipped her fingers into the icy waters off the coast near Peggy's Cove hoping that someone lived. As she pulled back her hands they were filled with something soft and pink. That's when journalist Lisa Taylor realized she was holding the remains of someone's body.
It was Sept. 2, 1998 when Swiss Air Flight 111 slammed into the Atlantic Ocean near the rocky edge of Nova Scotia. Taylor was there reporting on the crash that had killed 230 passengers and crew.
Floating along in a fishing boat with her cameraman, Taylor admits to losing her journalistic objectivity. She was no longer looking for a story, but a survivor.
"There was a lot of debris from seat cushions, and things like that that had just been sort of shredded up. But there were also a lot of human remains that were shredded up into tiny little pieces, and they were on us and on the boat and on my hands and everywhere.
"And realizing that yeah, that pink stuff wasn't just something else that had sort of broken up on impact but that it was people that had broken up on impact, it was horrible.
"And that was the image that kept on coming back."
But Taylor was lucky: although she suffered stress immediately after covering the crash, her symptoms were not long lasting. Within a couple of weeks she was getting over the traumatic experience. She had gone to see a psychologist and armed herself with the knowledge of a topic many reporters still avoid, post-traumatic stress disorder. She says knowing the symptoms helped her be aware of her own mental situation. That way she knew to seek further professional counselling if it was needed to help her cope. But what really helped her get over the traumatic stress, she says, was going to law school and immersing herself in school work.
Psyschologist: Stress disorders better recognized after Gulf War
Dr. Ann Wetmore, a Halifax psychologist, says people have suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or symptoms of post-traumatic stress for centuries. But it was only after the Vietnam war that many people started to realize that not only soldiers were getting traumatized, reporters were too.
Wetmore says that PTSD became even more widely recognized among journalists during the Gulf War, but even today many journalists don't recognize the symptoms or don't want to acknowledge that they may be suffering from them. She says some journalists see PTSD as a sign of weakness, when suffering from symptoms of post-traumatic stress is a very normal reaction to witnessing extraordinary events.
The Washington based Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma website quotes Chantal McLaughlin in a case study published online by the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism: "The American Psychiatric Association characterizes PTSD as at least three months of recurrent and intrusive recollections of the event, emotional numbing, and avoidance of people and places that are reminders of the event. Another common symptom is hyper arousal, which may include irritability, jittery behaviour, poor concentration, sleep disturbances and feeling a lack of security. Trauma survivors often become depressed and have trouble with work and family relationships. People with the disorder may not understand what is causing their symptoms and may never be diagnosed, suffering in silence, perhaps for years."
According to the American Psychiatric Association, some people may not suffer from PTSD for months or even years after the incident. That's when they may experience flashbacks and other symptoms.
Although many journalists may deny suffering from symptoms of post-traumatic stress, the larger problem is that many may not be aware they are suffering from a disorder. The culture of the news business works to suppress the idea that journalists are vulnerable. In fact, many journalists have reported that they had no idea there could be psychological consequences for doing their job, when they started. Most reporters and psychologists would agree that the best way to deal with these issues is through mutual support within the craft and having editors who have walked the walk and understand what their journalists are doing.
Dr. Diane McIntosh, formerly a psychiatrist for the Canadian Armed Forces in Halifax, says general assignment reporters are at high risk of suffering from PTSD because they are witnesses to the death and injury of others. She says foreign correspondents are also at risk because they are constantly putting themselves in dangerous situations where their own life is at stake.
However, McIntosh says, journalists are better at coping with traumatic situations than members of the armed forces. Journalists can control their situation most of the time, deciding whether to go into a dangerous place or not, whereas soldiers are ordered to go in, whether they think it's a good idea or not.
Dr. Anthony Feinstein, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Toronto, and two colleagues published the first study on war journalists and PTSD. The study, published in the September 2002 issue of the American Journal of Psychiatry, concluded that war correspondents suffer from far greater psychological difficulties than journalists who do not report on war.
This may not come as a big surprise. However, the study also found that a war journalist's lifetime prevalence of PTSD is similar to rates reported for combat veterans, and as much as four times that for police officers, whose rate of PTSD is between 7 and 13 per cent. War journalists are also found to have higher weekly alcohol consumption and higher measures of depression, than other journalists.
Perhaps more disturbing than the statistics is that the study revealed war correspondents were no more likely to seek mental health treatment than their peers who had not reported in war zones.
Puddicombe in Afghanistan: "I was saying goodbye to my friends"
|Stephen Puddicombe: "I don't get scared when I'm there. But when I'm leaving I'm absolutely terrified." Photo Courtesy Stephen Puddicombe|
Stephen Puddicombe, CBC Radio's national reporter for the Maritimes, isn't afraid to admit that he has suffered from symptoms of PTSD, but unlike some reporters he sought counselling. He has done reporting in several dangerous or traumatic environments, most recently Afghanistan and Iraq. He says he doesn't get scared going into dangerous situations, but upon reflection is faced with some bad memories and even some nightmares.
Puddicombe first went to see a psychologist after covering the Swissair crash. He thought he should check in with one after realizing he was remembering the events of the crash differently from how they actually occurred. He remembered cloudy and miserable weather the day after the crash, when in reality it was bright and sunny that day. Since then Puddicombe has been seeing a psychologist after every traumatic experience or dangerous situation, such as in Afghanistan and Iraq. Puddicombe began seeing Dr. Wetmore after he returned from Iraq.
But what bothers him most about those places isn't going there or even being there. "I don't get scared thinking about going in. I don't get scared when I'm there. But when I'm leaving I'm absolutely terrified. That's when it all sinks in."
Puddicombe says you can't help but develop relationships with the people you meet in those places. He considered his translators and his driver to be almost like family, and when he left for home he felt incredible guilt. He honestly believed he was leaving them to die. He also feared for the lives of his colleagues who were left behind as he went on to safety.
"I felt totally useless. I felt hopeless and useless," he says. "I was saying goodbye to my friends. Imagine getting up in the morning and seeing your husband or your fiance, and you know that as you leave that door, you're almost positive that he's going to die before you come home. How do you tell someone what that feels like. I don't know."
"It's very traumatizing," Wetmore says, "when suddenly you get to come out and you don't know if the people you left behind are safe."
Puddicombe left Iraq before the bombing started in March, after being there for eight weeks. He says the CBC brought him home because they didn't want to do his funeral. The CBC has a program to help its employees find counselling if it's necessary and offers support to its reporters. Puddicombe says his employer's biggest concern is for his well-being.
Not all reporters feel that about their employer. Bob Bergen, former military affairs reporter for the Calgary Herald, says that when he came back from reporting in Croatia and Bosnia in 1994 his paper treated him like he had just returned from covering a hockey game. He says he doesn't begrudge the other reporters' lack of compassion, because he understands that they had their own lives, careers, and families and that nothing had changed for them. But he often wondered why he was risking his life, waking up inside a warehouse that was so filthy the military needed tents inside to make it livable for the troops, to put on his flack jacket and helmet just to go to breakfast, and travelling over roads filled with land mines, for a newspaper that he felt didn't appreciate what he was doing.
"How could anybody in a nice comfortable newsroom picture that?" he says. "They can't. And, while the military has post-deployment support and recovery systems, the journalists have nobody."
Bergen went to Bosnia and Croatia before the strike of 1999 at the Calgary Herald. The newspaper was owned by Conrad Black at the time. Peter Menzies, the new general manager of the Calgary Herald, which is now owned by the Aspers, says, "irrespective of ownership, the Calgary Herald has and continues to maintain one of the most comprehensive employee assistance programs in Canada."
Menzies says he can understand where Bergen is coming from and that he himself has experienced feelings about needing more support from colleagues in the past. He says that perhaps Bergen had a manager who failed to express the proper concern or make him aware of what the company had to offer. But that was a few years ago, and Menzies says things are a little different now with different managers in charge.
Bergen doesn't think he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. But he will say that the experience affected him, that his friends saw a "wild look" in his eyes when he returned, and that he wasn't at all sad to leave the Calgary Herald to pursue a Ph.D. at the University of Calgary. "The University of Calgary puts a premium on my knowledge and experience that the Herald under Conrad Black never would."
Menzies says sending reporters overseas is expensive, and that "to indicate the newspaper doesn't appreciate it or doesn't invest in resources to help its journalists in these situations just isn't accurate."
But not enough news organizations have support for journalists who suffer from symptoms of post-traumatic stress, or are returning from potentially traumatic situations, says Robert Frank. Frank is one of two Canadian founders of News Coverage Unlimited, a non-profit organization to help journalists deal with trauma. He became interested in PTSD after witnessing journalists at the Swissair crash demonstrating signs of traumatic stress.
There was a well orchestrated support system for all of the volunteers at the Swissair disaster. "However, the support for journalists was haphazard at best," he says. He did notice that a dozen or so CBC journalists would get together every night and blow off steam over a beer. "They discovered to their surprise that other colleagues were experiencing the same odd feelings," he says, "and by finding that out they discovered they were normal, they were not alone, and that this was a normal reaction to extraordinary and very terrible things."
Since Sept. 11, Frank says, people's attitudes about PTSD have changed. More reporters are talking about it openly and the public is beginning to realize that journalists suffer from witnessing traumatic events the same as firefighters, police officers, and military personnel do. But Frank says the World Trade Center attack also produced an attitude that it takes something of monstrous proportions to create feelings or produce symptoms associated with post-traumatic stress. "It's very unfortunate," he says, "because we already know that all kinds of reporting produces traumatic stress."
A recent study reveals that of all assignments given to photojournalists "covering automobile accidents, fire and murder were the most common; and automobile accidents were most often ranked as the most stressful assignments." The study, conducted by Dart Center research advisor Elana Newman, executive director Roger Simpson, and Dart fellow David Handschuh, appears in the January 2003 issue of Visual Communication Quarterly. The study found that the vast majority of photojournalists have covered traumatic events, and the more traumatic events they cover the more distressed they become.
Roger Simpson, who's also a journalism professor at the University of Washington, says eight to ten per cent of domestic reporters and photographers in the United States have PTSD. Despite exposure to trauma, the study found that only 11 per cent of the photojournalists surveyed said they were warned by their employers of the potential emotional impact of the job, and 34 per cent said they were warned of the physical hazards of the job. Only a quarter of the photographers reported that their employers had offered counselling.
Not only is a lack of support a problem, but Simpson says even with support and counselling many journalists still try to deal with the traumatic effects on their own. "The news culture has always honoured those who rush into danger to get the story. To admit you have been wounded by that action is seen as a declaration that you aren't a good journalist."
Robert Frank, of News Coverage Unlimited, says many reporters don't admit to suffering from symptoms of post-traumatic stress because they fear being reassigned to soft beats. Also, he says, some people feel that expressing a vulnerability will leave them open to ridicule by their peers. "That's where openness, mutual support within the craft is a powerful means of healing. It's not the only one but it's a start," Frank says.
Dr. Diane McIntosh agrees. She says there needs to be support for employees within any company, especially for employees who are at high risk of suffering from symptoms of post-traumatic stress. She cautions, however, against forcing journalists to talk with strangers about their problems, and says it is better to encourage family communication and peer support.
* * *
Lisa Taylor's last day at the CBC was Friday, only two days after the Swiss Air plane crash. She says she wasn't yet ready to move on. She was hoping to see the story through to the end so that the initial experience would feel less surreal for her. Taylor says she needed to recover from what she had seen, by being around other people who'd experienced what she had. "Misery likes company," she says. Taylor wanted peer support.
Instead, she says, the executive producer at the time, Mike Pietrus, told her to go on to law school -- she was to start the following Monday -- and forget about the crash. She says that was one of the most "unfeeling and thoughtless" things he could have done.
|Rob Gordon: "Your job is to allow thousands, maybe millions of other people to share that experience." Photo Diane Woolley|
Told about Taylor's comment, Pietrus says he doesn't remember the conversation. He says the CBC had counselling available to its employees, and that had he known Taylor wanted to stay as a means of coping he would have looked at the decision more carefully.
But for Taylor the lesson was simple: "Institutional policies and directors and HR [human resources] strategies for crisis management are all very important; but on the ground floor you have to have sensible, reasonable, caring managers."
* * *
Journalists deal with witnessing traumatic events in different ways. For Lisa Taylor it was a need for closure, but Rob Gordon, a reporter for CBC Television in Halifax, says that when he is in a dangerous or traumatic situation he focuses on his job and not on what he is feeling.
"Your job is to allow thousands, maybe millions of other people to share that experience, to find out what happened that day, what happened at that event. And that's your job. And it's not to get emotionally attached to anybody, and it's not to get weighed down by an event."
He does admit, however, to having a fear of being taken hostage, a reality for some foreign correspondents. Gordon also admits to having nightmares about what he saw while covering the Swissair crash, the trauma of which led him to seek counselling.
Gordon cannot say what one experience has affected him the most. "Twenty years of being a reporter -- there is in some ways one incident that will stick out, or one story, but it's what the whole business does to you, it's what the whole docket of everything you see does to you."