Managing Traumatic Incidents and the Media

Guidance on working with emergency services from Dr. Anne Eyre, specialist in trauma and disaster management.

It is now generally recognised that the media are an integral part of the response generated by large scale emergencies or 'major incidents'.

This latter definition of disasters is used by the emergency services and others to refer to events which demand special arrangements for meeting the traumatic impact and aftermath of social disruption, chaos and loss. In the 1980s the so-called 'decade of disasters' included sudden traumatic events such as transport incidents (involving planes, trains and boats) and tragedies at events which were already being filmed live, such as at the Bradford and Hillsborough football stadia. These events and their aftermath were experienced as sudden and unexpected by all who participated in them either directly or vicariously through watching media images of their unfolding and/or the recovery efforts by the emergency services at the scene. Since then the media coverage of disasters has become more sophisticated in terms of both the numbers and speed with which journalists are able to transmit images around the world. The live images of the tragedies unfolding in New York in September 2001 are a vivid example of this.

At the end of the 1980s, a number of lessons started to be acted upon and incorporated in UK guidelines for future planning and management. Today government guidelines such as 'Dealing with Disaster' and the manuals of the emergency services for responding to major incidents acknowledge the role of the media as being present and broadcasting from the early stages of incident management. 'Major disasters generate intense media interest and representatives of the press, radio and television may be at the scene of an incident as quickly as the emergency services' (ACPO Emergency Procedures Manual 1999). So how do the emergency services view the media and how can they work together most effectively in terms of serving their mutual interests in what are potentially traumatic circumstances for all concerned?


The Media & Emergency Workers
The police are an example of an emergency service taking a proactive approach to working with the media before and during disaster. It is recommended that Chief Officers, Contingency Planners and Media/Public Relations Officers incorporate media handling aspects in Emergency Plans, in particular with reference to liaising with other emergency services and other organisations. As well as turning to the media to disseminate details of casualty bureau telephone numbers, they may look to establish a Media Briefing Point at the scene and a Media Briefing Centre. In these ways the emphasis is on co-operation rather than exclusion, with an appreciation that, if handled appropriately, the media can be an invaluable asset in disaster management.

Having said this, the presence of the media can be an unwelcome intrusion to those working at the forefront of a disaster in traumatic and stressful conditions. The police and others are aware that the overall portrayal of the scene and reporting of an incident can affect public opinion on the effectiveness, or otherwise, of the emergency services' handling of a disaster (ACPO 1999). Therefore it could be said that the presence of the media can potentially add to the stress experienced by frontline response teams, such as body recovery workers, for whom the protection of police cordons separating the site from the media and other prying eyes might serve a psychological as well as practical function. Attempts to shield the details of this work from outsiders is also done with a view to respecting the dignity of the dead and the feelings of the bereaved from the additional trauma caused by media images both in the short and longer term.


The Media & Incident Management
Away from the scene itself, the emergency services set up command structures for meeting the strategic, tactical and operational tasks of incident management, referred to as Gold Silver and Bronze functions. In control rooms away from the scene a CCTV link to the incident site may be established while monitoring public TV broadcasts is also regarded as potentially advantageous, especially when an incident is protracted. This demonstrates the role played by the media in communicating both to professionals and the public and the fact that it is the media's construction and interpretation of events that may effectively become the managed reality.

It is this fact too, which impels the emergency services to work actively with the media in constructing and influencing an ongoing account of major incident management. They are aware that their decisions and activities will be the subject of public scrutiny via the media for months and years to come. The procedures and outcomes of inquests, inquiries, trials and other investigations, including analyses by investigative journalists, will all be news items of immense public interest.


The Media & Trauma Management
From the perspective of trauma management, the role of the media in facilitating outreach with affected populations has long been recognised. In the immediate and longer term aftermath of events helping professionals may tap into daily press conferences and other briefings to publicise details of helplines, the signs and symptoms of traumatic stress and the availability of support services within the community for those affected.

An issue for further reflection and research is the impact of media portrayals of the emergency services and journalists at disaster sites on their own internal cultures and expectations of psychological resilience in the relation to disaster work. The abiding images of the 'heroes' from 911 has undoubtedly influenced the way in which the public and professionals themselves will make sense of that tragedy and its psychological consequences. In previous events those held up by the media as 'heroes' have often found it difficult to accept and work through their inevitable feelings of vulnerability and other symptoms of traumatic stress in the longer term. Similarly, those portrayed as 'villains', the target of questions of blame and accountability from the earliest onset of disaster, are likely to be influenced by the media analyses of their omissions and commissions, as are their family members who may suffer guilt by association in the eyes of the public.

These are some examples of the ways in which the emergency services, journalists and the media can influence the process and outcomes of disaster management. As awareness of the ripple effect of major incident trauma increases, both within the emergency services, the public and amongst journalists themselves, so does the potential for more collaborative research, policy-making and practice in this important area of work.