Talking Trauma in the Newsroom at ABC

Kala Lampard has worked as a news and current affairs editor at the ABC for 12 years. It’s a job she finds immensely fulfilling, but earlier this year she wondered whether she might need a change. After several months of cutting a series of distressing stories, she noticed she was becoming deeply affected by the stories she edited and was having trouble switching off at the end of the day.

“I would think about the story constantly, I was having trouble sleeping, I would dream about it. I have a really nice life, but I felt like there was no good in the world, I could only see negative things,” says Kala Lampard. “A couple of times after editing stories about child abuse, I went home and would look at my sleeping three year old daughter and imagine what it would be like if something happened to her, what if a man was touching her. When I was editing a story, I would feel it consume my body. I’d feel nervous and anxious cutting or I would cry with the people in the story. I was no longer watching as an outsider, I was taking it on and thinking ‘what if I was there’. I was no longer telling a story, I was part of it.”

Kala Lampard decided to seek professional help after editing a 7.30 story about bicycle safety, following the death of Italian cyclist Alberto Paulon, who was run over by a truck in inner Melbourne when he was knocked off his bike by a parked motorist opening their car door. CCTV footage of the accident was too graphic to put to air, and Kala Lampard had been warned by a thoughtful colleague not to watch it, but she had to select images showing the lead-up to the accident and the story featured an interview with the dead man’s grieving fiancé, Cristina Canedda.

“After watching the interview a few times and listening to his fiancé crying while telling the story of what happened, I was imagining myself in her scenario. Normally, I can remain empathetic, but also detached to get the story done, but I was imagining that was my husband in front of me, dying in front of me. I knew then I was taking way too much on board and needed to get perspective back on how to separate from the stories I was cutting,” says Kala Lampard.

Working in News Exchange in Melbourne, Emma Williams spends her day monitoring a bank of television screens showing a variety of different news feeds. It’s her responsibility to send out locally shot news footage and record vision coming in from all over Australia and overseas. Over a decade in the job, she’s seen some shocking images.

“When (Pakistani President) Benazir Bhutto’s car blew up in 2007, I was recording the raw feeds coming in for Australia Network. I was watching one feed and the pictures came up really fast. There were shots of clouds of dust which slowly cleared and there was a man hopping through the dust. I couldn’t understand why he was hopping and then I saw that his leg had been blown off. The look of terror on his face really stuck with me,” recalls Emma Williams. “We see a lot of raw vision before other news people look at it, bushfires and car crashes, international feeds are really uncensored. Our job is to look carefully at a feed and make sure there are no technical issues or break-up in vision and you can’t really record something without watching it, so you often see some horrific images and once you’ve seen them, they’re burned into your brain.“

While it was a combination of personal and professional stress that prompted Emma Williams to also seek professional counselling earlier this year, she wants to raise awareness of how newsroom based staff like her can be affected by so called ‘second hand’ exposure to trauma.

“I think it can be a really big issue for some newsroom staff. Maybe traditionally people didn’t think of us being affected and have tended to focus on journos and crews out in the field. Also, because it’s so hectic in here, particularly in a breaking news situation, maybe people think it doesn’t affect us as much.  I think it does have an impact because we often don’t get warnings about traumatic stuff coming in, the feed just pops up and you hit record, there’s no time to prepare for the possibility of seeing something bad like a journo or crew might as they’re heading to a bushfire or something like that.”

While most news staff cope well, Cait McMahon, Manager of the ABC’s Trauma and Resilience Programs and Managing Director of the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma Asia Pacific, says the potential for psychological harm is being recognised by mental health experts internationally. The latest edition of the international psychiatric disorders manual, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders published by the American Psychiatric Association, now acknowledges that someone can experience post traumatic stress disorder from repeated exposure to distressing material via electronic means if it is part of their job. While PTSD is at the extreme end and rare, Cait McMahon says exposure to traumatic content, especially on a repetitive basis, can have an impact on someone’s well being and their ability to do their job.

“There have only been two studies on the impact of electronic exposure to traumatic content for media professionals, but both showed real effects. Now, the reality is more studies need to be done and on whether primary exposure is worse than electronic exposure. The brain often doesn’t distinguish between an image on a screen and the real thing, but then you don’t get the smell, or the full gamut of exposure from seeing something on a monitor as opposed to in the field.  But that doesn’t mean the impact from electronic means isn’t real, it clearly is,” says Cait McMahon. 

Whether out on the road or back in the newsroom, Cait McMahon says staff should not feel ashamed or embarrassed if they experience mental stress and need to understand that people react differently to exposure to trauma. One person might be upset by something that another shrugs off. People also react differently at different times – one day they might not be affected by disturbing material which, another day, they can’t bear to watch.   

“People think they are weak if they break down and start crying, but it’s not weakness. If I put up a brain scan of someone who has been affected by trauma it shows a physiological impact on the brain. The brain has a reaction that’s different to normal stress. This has affected their brain more than something else. Why it affects one person’s brain more than someone else is to do with personality, experience, and other stressors in their lives at the time.” 

Exposure to traumatic content is a necessary part of the job for many staff working in news and current affairs.  As well as journalists and crews deployed to distressing stories, newsroom based producers, digital editors and social media account managers are often assessing vision, photos, audio and even comments which are ultimately deemed too graphic or distressing to broadcast or publish. Avoidance isn’t an option, it’s about managing exposure and trying to minimise the impact.

“Managers need to rotate staff off distressing stories, but staff also need to speak up if they’re struggling,” says Cait McMahon. “You need to become trauma literate, know your own threshold and be aware of particular stories that trigger you. Anytime it reminds you of a personal experience can affect you. The catching you unawares, the shock of ‘I didn’t expect to see that’, is a big part of trauma, as is repetition, going over and over distressing material. Taking breaks is very important, just go for a walk or a coffee, that nanosecond break does make a difference. Looking at stuff in 20 minute chunks, or turning the sound down, switching to black and white can also help. It’s important, particularly in a breaking news situation, that once the event is over, or you’ve knocked off work, to separate from it. Don’t keep watching the news or get on the computer and trawl through more horror. You need to disconnect and get back into normal activities, reconnecting with people you love, having fun, laughing.” 

While Emma Williams and Kala Lampard both benefitted from professional counselling, they believe support from colleagues and managers makes a big difference in dealing with traumatic content.  Earlier this year, Emma Williams was in the awful situation of working in news exchange on the day of the Germanwings plane crash and then discovering, via a text from her mother, that she knew two people who were on board.

“It was on every monitor in front of me and I lasted two seconds, before breaking down. I was immediately sent home and had some time off. Everyone was really supportive. I think you have to keep an open dialogue between colleagues and supervisors about how you are going. Our managers Tanja Curtis and Brenton Dowling are really good at noticing, even before we do, that maybe we need a break,” says Emma Williams.

Both Emma Williams and Kala Lampard, who is now a peer supporter, believe creating a workplace culture of looking out for each other is important.  

“I find it’s really good to de-brief with other editors and say ‘wow, that was intense’.  We check in with each other,” says Kala Lampard. “We are going to continue to cut some horrific stuff sometimes, so we pop in on each other and say  ‘I know that’s a tough edit, can I get you a drink, do you need a break’? If something big is happening, I often go into news exchange and just ask ‘how are you?’ “.

“If we see something awful on a feed we try to give our colleagues warnings’, says Emma Williams. “Sometimes the journos or crews or links operators will warn us too. That really helps, because then  you don’t get the shock and are a bit prepared.”

To her great relief, Kala Lampard is now back enjoying her job and feeling better equipped to deal with the tough stories.

“I figured out I wasn’t broken, I’d just had a concentrated period of distressing stories. I recently cut some Child Abuse Royal Commission stories and I was really proud that I was able to sit through all the testimony and I was fine. I didn’t take it on board. Now, instead of getting caught up in a moment, I see it more like a movie and can let it wash over me. If I catch myself thinking ‘what if that was me’, I remind myself it’s not me, this is not my story, I’m helping someone tell a story. I love my job and I love telling people’s stories, even if they are horrific, so that’s why I wanted to get it sorted.”

This piece was originally published by ABC Backstory.