Trauma and the Tipping Point

On the latest edition of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation's "Correspondents Report," host Elizabeth Jackson asks senior journalist (and Ochberg Fellow) Lisa Millar and foreign affairs editor Peter Cave about their most fearful reporting experiences. But the stories that they tell of threatening soldiers and beheaded suicide bombers aren't necessarily the ones that most moved them.

Lisa Millar says "the story that made me start rethinking 20 years of journalism" was the execution of the Australian man Nguyen Tuong Van in Singapore.

"... with my situation with Van Nguyen, I was able to get through the two weeks in Singapore reporting and working 20 hours a day, perfectly fine. It wasn't until I actually came back to Australia and I was happily in my car driving along the freeway, heading into work in Brisbane, that a little news story came on about his funeral in Melbourne and they played Ave Maria, which is what he sang as he walked to the gallows.

And I started crying, listening to that radio news story about his funeral, and I cried so hard I had to pull the car over on the freeway - and that was the moment that was the tipping point. So even though I'd thought while I was in Singapore, 'This was not a fabulous, happy story to be covering,' I didn't think it was having any great impact on me at all. And I think that was probably, probably in 20 years, the first time I've actually lost my emotional well being, that I just burst into tears and sobbed and sobbed."

Peter Cave, picks up on the cumulative effect of trauma, which he has sees frequently in the peer support work he does with the ABC.

"I'm amazed how many reporters who've been to a horrible story, their first reaction isn't how they've been affected by the horror, it's 'there must be something wrong with me because I've been able to do my job and I haven't felt that horror, I haven't felt that pity and I haven't felt that empathy.' And they start worrying about it. That's generally the first reaction to a horrific story - is why don't I feel upset and affected by that?

But the fact is, and research by people like Cait McMahon from the Dart Center have proven that these things are cumulative and they do build up, they do affect you, and eventually it can be something very small, a long time later, that will actually tip you over the edge. Something seemingly, completely innocuous."

Read the full transcript here.

UPDATE: Lisa Millar passed on the full online listing, which allows you to download audio of this episode as an mp3, rm or wma file. Thanks, Lisa!