Close Encounters

In February 1972, I was 18 years old, a couple of months out of high school and beginning a cadetship at the now-dead Sun News Pictorial in Melbourne. It was my first week at the paper and I had been sent for the day to watch police rounds at work.

It was a slow to no-news day at Russell Street so the police reporter suggested we drive up to the Sherbrook Forest where there was a search for a man who'd been missing for a week.

They found his body about the same time we arrived. He had committed suicide and while they waited for the coroners' people, the searchers and police sat and chatted, in a semi-circle metres from his body. Crime scenes mustn't have been as rigorously enforced in those days. As the new kid—and very much a kid—I was allotted the spot nearest to the corpse—a bit of fun to see if I'd puke or bolt.

He'd been dead a week and he wasn't pretty. He was lying on his back, his head thrown back, mouth wide open in a silent scream from rictus and his hands like claws. He'd poisoned himself and washed it down with a can of Courage Crest beer.

Then a photographer leaned across and grinned. ''Hey, we can make a quid out of this,'' he said. ''We'll stick the beer can in his hand and I'll get a photo and we've got a whole new ad campaign—Courage Crest. When you're dying for a drink!''

I laughed too. And for years I used the anecdote as an example of what a bunch of hard-nuts and what a hard-bitten profession I'd somehow stumbled into. We laughed in the face of death.

It was a teenager's introduction to the black humor, deliberate bad taste and practised cynicism that so many journalists adopt when dealing with other people's trauma. In 33 years, I've been as guilty of it as anybody, flaunting the thickness of my skin.

In our more reflective moments we tell each other it's a protective mechanism, like a shield to keep out the hurt. If you don't laugh, you cry or go crazy. Or perhaps we'd say it's about objectivity. We're journalists, we don't get involved. We needed to stand apart from the things we were seeing so we can do our job properly. So we can tell the story.

We try to desensitise ourselves, hiding behind bad jokes or false bravado or simply choosing not to talk about our real feelings or emotions because our peers might see them as signs of weakness or a sort of unprofessionalism.

And in a sense there are good reasons even for bad habits. Those of us who deal with violence or tragedy on a regular basis often construct what's sometimes called ''a needed and appropriate professional wall'' between ourselves and the survivors or victims we interview. But that wall can be a barrier to us as well.

That old approach to covering bad news can do more damage. Not only to the people we're interviewing, who are already suffering from what's now recognised as traumatic stress—but in the long run to ourselves as well.



One of the worst jobs for a reporter is what a lot of young Australian journos these day call the "death knock". I don't like that term: it sounds both flippant and full of bravado. It's the police who have to knock on that door and tell a stranger they've lost a loved one—we have no idea how that feels.

I've always called what we do intrusions because the word is both perfectly accurate and a reminder. We're intruding, going in unwanted—and often unnecessarily—to intrude ourselves on people's private grief. We need to be incredibly careful how we go about that task. It is an awesome responsibility

I remember some old hack from my tabloid days telling me the failproof method to wheedle your way into someone's house in an intrusion was to say that you wanted to do a ''tribute''. As if you weren't going to get some necessary human details about their dear departed but turn them into a hero.

I only tried it once. Two brothers, just little boys, had drowned in a flooded quarry. We'd heard they'd been playing on a raft when one slipped into the water. His brother had jumped in to save him and they'd both died. I knocked on the door that night and when their mother, a sole parent, answered I said I was from the Sun and we wanted to write a tribute to little Johnny who tried to save his brother.

She looked at me through her tears and said ''But they're both dead''.

I wanted to hide under the welcome mat. What a prick I was. My insensitivity had added another layer of pain to her grief.

It was a step towards my realisation that we need to treat such people with dignity, respect and empathy—not only the way we would want to be treated in the same situation, but the way we our better natures would want to treat those people.

The Dart Centre has a number of tips for such interviews. One is that while we can say we're sorry for a person's loss, never say ''I understand'' or ''I know how you feel''.

Another is don't rush in with the hard questions first. Be gentle. Find out just what sort of person little Johnny was. Then listen, pay attention. The worst mistake a reported can make is talk too much.

And when you get back to the keyboard, make sure you get it right. It might be another yarn to a hard-nosed police roundsman on deadline, but for many families it is one of the last artifacts of their loved one, something they want to paste in a scrapbook. Inaccuracies or misspelled names are just one more hurt or insult.

This is not to say we shouldn't do these sort of jobs. In many cases they are necessary to fully tell a story. Often relatives or victims appreciate the chance to tell their loved ones' stories or celebrate their lives. And sometimes they really can be tributes. The New York Times did it with restraint, dignity and great beauty in its Portraits of Grief after September 11. The Age did something similar after the Bali bombing.



In 1996, I did an intrusion that drove home to me what it meant to lose a loved one and the ripple effects of every everyday tragedy like a road death.

The deaths of Rodney Grand-Court, 16, and Nicholas Hayes, 17, both of Monbulk, made for a couple of short paragraphs in the newspapers. In the cold calculus of the road toll, they became Fatalities Number 74 and 75 for 1996. But at the Sunday Age we'd heard there was something strange about the crash that killed them, that they were being chased by another car when they ran off the road.

As part of the story I had to speak to the parents. Bad luck and bad planning meant I turned up at the Grand-Court house on the afternoon of Rodney's wake. I introduced myself to his father and waited to be told to fuck off.

But Paul thought for a while and said he'd do it. He said if he could help prevent one similar death, perhaps some good would come out of Rodney and Nicks'. And perhaps he could achieve that by telling what a day like this one was like. Exactly what it was like. He said. ''I think I owe it to my boy to try.''

But he had a condition, that we do the interview in Rodney's room. So I sat on the edge of his bed in his blue, basketball-decorated bedroom on the day of his funeral and this salt-of-the-earth, working class bloke described, incredibly articulately, what every parent who suddenly lost a child through trauma went through.

He told about having the police knock on his door: "They're standing well away with this look on their face—and you know. You know straight off... and you feel like you want to throw up.'' He said "you get this instant taste—and I've still got it in my mouth today—it's as if you've been chewing grass."

He talked of drowning in a sea of emotions: anger, horror, misery, pain and abject disbelief.

And he talked about going to the morgue to identify his boy. About selfishly thinking as they drove there "God help me, that it's a mistake and it's someone else's boy."

And he talked about going into the room where Rodney lay on a steel trolley. "I went to cuddle him and the back of his head, where he must have collided with the tree was ... was ripped. And I peel his little T-shirt back and he's got ants and leaves and twigs on him from where he's been laying in that forest somewhere.''

I went back to the office and told my editor she wouldn't be getting a yarn about another car crash, though all those details were in there, but something that I felt was more important. I remember sitting at my computer at 2 o'clock the next morning, typing as I listened to Paul on my tape recorder and crying.

What occurred to me later was that I could have written the same story 20 years before and I could have written it a couple of hundred times—because it would have been a lot like all those other people I'd intruded on we're going through.



In April 1996 I covered the Port Arthur massacre. On the Saturday after the murders I went to the re-opening of the historic site. It was called a soft opening but it wasn't. It was hard.

I walked down the hill past yellow painted evidentiary circles and came to the spot where Nannette Mikac and her baby, Madeline were killed. Then I walked to the big gum tree where Allanah fled. Covered in flowers, poems and tributes, it was a massive, regal thing but it gave the little girl no protection. Martin Bryant stalked her round and round it and shot her. Suddenly I found myself sobbing.

Down by the Broad Arrow Cafe, Salvation Army Major Don Woodland was beginning another day of consolation. Relatives and friends of the dead would come up and he'd wrap them in a hug as they salted his shoulders with tears and he'd soak into himself a little of their misery and grief. That was his heroic mission, but I suspect that, unwanted, something similar happens to those of us who see too much death and do too much intruding.

All that elephantine skin we think we've grown is just a cover. Years of covering murders, suicides, road crashes, fires, massacres and natural disasters must work on us like chinese water torture. Drip by drip they do harm.

Research now shows that like firemen or police, the negative effects of dealing with trauma and tragedy can do damage to journalists. A US clinical psychologist surveyed 800 photojournalists and reported ''Witnessing death and injury takes its toll, a toll that increases with exposure.'' The more such work we do the more likely we will experience psychological or emotional consequences.

Putting up walls or pretending bullshit bravado doesn't help but hurts. You need to find ways to cope. Know your limits, don't be afraid to say no if you don't think you can handle one more assignment, talk to someone and don't think it's weak to have counselling. Coppers, ambulancemen, nurses and firefighters are offered debriefings or counselling. Reporters and photographers get sent out on another yarn.

Before he died in 1945 the American war correspondent Ernie Pyle wrote: ''I've been immersed in it too long. My spirit is wobbly and my mind confused. The hurt has become too great.''

We need to be careful it doesn't happen to us. It's no joke.