A Call for Emotional Literacy

Journalists, editors and trauma specialists meeting for Germany’s first-ever conference on trauma and journalism have called for the universal training of journalists in the skills of emotional literacy and trauma awareness.

Journalists, editors and trauma specialists meeting for Germany’s first-ever conference on trauma and journalism have called for the universal training of journalists in the skills of emotional literacy and trauma awareness.

The conference in Hannover on January 27, 2006, was organised by ZFP, the training department of Germany’s two leading public service broadcasters ARD and ZDF, in partnership with the Dart Centre Europe, and it brought together nearly 60 leading trainers, correspondents and psychologists from Germany, Switzerland and Austria.

“We’re very excited by what we heard,” said conference’s German organiser Fee Rojas, who like the Dart Centre Europe’s Director Mark Brayne has moved from active journalism to psychotherapy and training.

“With the multiple natural catastrophes of the past year,” said Rojas, “from the Tsunami via Katrina to the Pakistan earthquake, many reporters and even some foreign news chiefs in Germany are now getting the message.”

The day-long conference heard from the Dart Centre’s Brayne how important it now was for journalists to understand the psychology of the trauma they report.

“Sports journalists have to understand the rules of the games they report,” he said, “and financial journalists have to understand the jargon of the stock exchanges. How many journalists understand the rules of trauma before being sent off to cover people killed and injured in a sports stadium collapse or a war?”

German trauma expert Andreas Maercker briefed the conference on the natural biological defence mechanisms that protect people from the impact of trauma – sometimes disrupting their ability to perceive and remember correctly what they are experiencing.

Former German Balkans correspondent Pit Schnitzler spoke of how he had coped with being detained or a long period by Serbian forces during the Yugoslav wars of the early 1990s, while WDR’s Arnim Stauth, a  veteran of countless wars and campaigns and also a Dart Ochberg Fellow, spoke of how reporters, unlike camera operators, can describe their experiences and work them through by creating narrative.

“That helps,” he said.

Stefan Pauli, another German war correspondent with experience of being imprisoned in Angola, had a different story to tell.

“When I was safely back from assignment,” he said, “I was told by Finance that since I’d been in prison and hadn’t needed to spend money on accommodation or food, my expenses would be correspondingly reduced. Needless to say, I fought that one very hard.”

To nods of recognition and approval from those in the audience, Pauli described how employers in Germany would sometimes refuse to tell partners what was happening to their loved-ones hurt on assignment because the two had no marriage certificate, and spoke of how bosses would refuse to endorse the cost of telephone calls back to partners and loved-ones from the middle of a war.

“These things often cause more trauma,” added Pauli, ”than what the colleagues are actually witnessing on the ground. That’s why bosses need just as much training as reporters."

As at many Dart Centre workshops in recent years, the Hannover conference heard many stories of local reporting that was just as distressing, if not more so, than covering war and major foreign disaster.

“Whether it’s a road accident of a house fire,” said Claudia Fischer, reporter from the German regional city of Bielefeld, "a local reporter can come up against pictures or experiences which can seriously damage their psychological wellbeing.“

Fischer had asked around before the conference among her local Bielefeld colleagues, and found extensive experience of trauma, and not just the severed limbs or pools of blood of classic trauma stories.

“One of my colleagues had an extremely distressing experience,“ said Fischer. "She went to cover a suicide, where an old lady had jumped off a motorway bridge under a lorry. There, by the railings on the bridge, were a small stool from which the lady had jumped and her shoes nearly placed beside it. That was an image that stayed with her for a long time.“

Berlin-based trauma psychologist Norbert Gurris called for a change of culture in newsrooms around the country, and an acceptance that feelings generated by trauma need to be talked about.

“Especially at the beginning,” said Gurris, “it can really help to have colleagues within the organisation trained up in recognising trauma symptoms as a kind of early-warning system.”

The Hannover conference also discussed the implications of trauma knowledge for the practice of interviewing survivors and victims – including what Gurris suggested might be a way of encouraging interviewees to signal clearly, as at the dentist for example, when they’re in pain and want a break.

“Digging away for an expssion of emotion should be an absolute taboo for journalists,“ said Gurris. “And neither should journalists ever cause their interviewees to feel guilty just as a way of provoking provocative statements.”

The head of ZFP training Ruth Blaes concluded the conference by noting how knowledge of trauma and an open exchange of experience can help journalists build effective systems for coping with trauma. She looked forward to her department working with the Dart Centre to provide further events and courses on the theme of Trauma and Journalism.