The Emotional Toll of Disaster Reporting

Nine years ago, soon after I joined The Australian, I was sent to Port Arthur to cover the massacre of 35 people by gunman Martin Bryant.

Nine years ago, soon after I joined The Australian, I was sent to Port Arthur to cover the massacre of 35 people by gunman Martin Bryant. The trip there—which included a gruesome tour of the crime scene—was distressing enough. But when I got back to Melbourne four days later, I was asked to contact each of the 35 families in an attempt to piece together the fateful decisions that had led to the victims being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

I conducted this assignment to the best of my ability. But I had a handicap. After four auto-pilot days in Tasmania, I had burst into tears on the plane on the way home, and I simply couldn’t stop crying. Before and after—sometimes even during—each phone call, each interview with as many of the 35 families as I could contact, I sat at my desk and cried.

At the end of the week, my bureau chief, Stuart Rintoul, who was also a friend, took me for a drink, and quietly suggested that, as a journalist, I needed to learn to cope with tough situations. I remember saying to him: “This is me coping. This is how I do it”.

Little has changed, for me at least. But almost a decade after Port Arthur, there appears to be more acceptance of the feelings journalists experience while doing our work.

This is one area where I am and cannot be an impartial observer. When the tsunami hit on Boxing Day, I was on a weekend break at a Thai beach resort. What happened to me that day is now a matter of public record—I filed stories as we awaited rescue, and later as I reflected on the week that changed my life.

The fact that I was part of the tsunami story did not alter my responsibility as the Southeast Asia correspondent for The Australian. Within hours of the wave hitting, the acting editor was on the phone, checking to see if I was OK to get on the reporting task. I answered yes, and truthfully, I could not imagine missing the story of a lifetime, but I— and, to be fair, she—had no idea that I would be hampered by grief and shock.

So I spent the next few days in a daze, barely able to concentrate, let alone comprehend. At one stage, right on deadline one day, I called a friend, our Beijing correspondent, Catherine Armitage, and said: “I simply cannot write one more word on this subject. There is nothing left. I cannot describe it again”. Her guidance and support in those terrible moments, helping me through my notebook long-distance, is a true sign of her awareness that I needed not words of sympathy at that moment, but practical help to get the job done.

In that respect, I guess journalists are similar to police, hospital staff, embassy consular officials and other rescue workers. Somehow, we must find a way to put our personal feelings to one side and find the necessary detachment to do our work.

But unlike those professionals, we receive almost no pre-situation training in how to deal with traumatic situations. Also, our exposure to terror, grief and devastation, for most of us at least, is an intermittent affair, unlike police officers who unfortunately expect it—though not to this scale—every day.

Another difference, perhaps, is the fact that on this assignment, everything was difficult. In the week I covered the tsunami story from the affected Thai provinces, I did not read a single newspaper, listen to a radio report in English, connect to the internet or see international television coverage. I knew nothing about the story beyond what was written in my own notebook. In a story this size, that produced a lot of gaps.

The ground I needed to cover included hundreds of kilometres, dozens of morgues and perhaps ten hospitals. Whereas five reporters from The Australian hit the ground in Bali within 24 hours of the bombing, in this story I was alone with a single photographer for four days (though other journalists, were of course, dispatched to other countries) and only then was joined by one other person (another arrived to replace me when I finally returned to Bangkok).

Without a laptop (it had been carried off in the wave), I was writing longhand and filing by telephone. But phone connections were rare and usually cut off after 3 minutes and one second. It is impossible for those staffing news desks thousands of kilometres away to completely comprehend these stresses, and how they compounded trauma.

In traumatic events, we are dealing, by definition, with big news stories, and that means big competition. Much as we like to sanctify this to laypeople, the reality is that often the greatest stress in stories like this is simply the pressure to deliver, preferably exclusives or a dramatic new angle. This pressure, often added to by the inbuilt aggressiveness of the hungriest reporters, is always delivered by the news desk.

These stories are career makers or breakers for journalists —and we know it.

This is why we, as a group, cling to an outdated culture that values toughness over sympathy, cynicism over understanding, and a fight-to-the-end attitude to a news assignment.

We all fear that any sign of weakness (and let’s face it, that’s what tears are) is an indication that we shouldn’t have been sent on the assignment, that we aren’t coping with it and that ultimately, that we ought not be given such a task again. In other words a career-breaker.

But does it need to be so? Being tough, gruff and disconnected from the story might work well in political reporting, but those attributes don’t serve a story of such widespread despair as the tsunami. For my money, the best journalism from the tsunami came from reporters that allowed themselves to “feel” inside and outside of their copy.

That doesn’t mean that we should all resort to the “perpendicular pronoun”. Although I did file first-person accounts of the Tsunami, I am not a fan of “I” reporting in general. But I believe I could tell the difference between an article written by someone who had allowed themselves to feel, and someone who had tried to retain a tough exterior.

Perhaps the tsunami changed journalism. Chris Cramer, CNN International's managing director, suggested as much in an article published in The Australian’s Media section on January 27:

What has been different about much of the reporting, particularly on TV, has been that the emotional attachment between reporter and victim has been obvious. Gone is the professional, some might say artificial, detachment ... Now, for the first time, media professionals are starting to tell us how they feel about some stories. And it will probably make them better journalists.

As far as peer support goes, I was lucky. Because I was a “victim” of the tsunami, rather than just an observer, I was given an enormous amount of support by my news desk, not to mention colleagues in the field. One competitor, who shall remain nameless for obvious reasons, quietly approached me one morning and gently said: “Should you be here?” before offering to feed me quotes from a temple morgue destination we were both planning to head to that day, so that I didn’t need to experience yet another tour of decay. “Just between you and me,” the other reporter said. I declined, but the heartfelt motive behind the offer touched me more than the idea itself.

I don’t know if other journalists were offered the same support, but I do know that many felt close to despair during those early days.

Longer-term, the effects seem to be mixed. Many of the colleagues I have spoken to at my own newspaper appear to have emerged from the event with little signs of personal trauma.

Similarly, I don’t remember suffering any exceptional emotional fallout after covering the Bali bombing. It seems post-traumatic stress can be as random as natural catastrophes in the people it afflicts. It affects some of us, some of the time. It is as important that journalists don’t feel any more that they “should” be suffering post-traumatic-stress symptoms as that they “shouldn’t” be.

But perhaps there was a greater toll this time. Many journalists and photographers I have spoken to tell of turbulent dreams, irrational anger, and difficulties in making decisions in the wake of their reporting on the tsunami.

This seems particularly true of those reporters who were sent to Aceh, where working and living conditions—and technology difficulties leading to filing stresses— compounded the emotional impact of the event. As they tried to sleep at night, they also felt after-shocks from the earthquake, in moments that must have created immense personal and collective terror.

I was one who took up the option of post-situation counselling. But I fear other journalists still feel hesitant to do so, fearing it reflects a sign of weakness, a lack of that steely resolve so prized in newsrooms.

The counselling helped, but not as much as peer experience. One day, as I toured Khao Lak, where hundreds of bodies still lay where they had been purged by the sea, I heard from a friend who had been chatting with reporters and photographers who were veterans of reporting the Vietnam War. They had all observed that nothing they saw in that terrible conflict compared to the horror of the tsunami’s aftermath.

That was just the kind of peer support and perspective I needed. I thank those guys for being both tough—and honest.