Reckoning with Aftershock

Journalists must confront the psychological aftershocks of traumatic events both as news and as occupational hazards.

Dart Center Executive Director Bruce Shapiro made these remarks in Melbourne, Australia on March 10, 2010, at the Melbourne Press Club's annual ceremony for the Quill Awards for Excellence in Victorian Journalism. Shapiro had recently returned from an ongoing Dart Center mission in Haiti.

It is a particularly deep honor to be with you tonight because during the bushfires of 2009, the news professionals of Victoria set such a high standard for reporting catastrophe in your own community. I say this as an American journalist for whom 9/11 was in my own backyard, and who closely watched how local news professionals responded to Hurricane Katrina; as someone who just returned from Haiti and a week of conversations with journalists whose studios and newsrooms were pulverized on January 12; and as a regular visitor to Australia who watched the spreading Black Saturday fires with horror and the work of my friends and colleagues with concern and admiration, as you contended with an emergency for which so few of us are ever prepared.

I know from my own experience that for some of you tonight is a challenging evening, a mixed celebration, evoking a moment when the crafts of journalism and the power of media organizations could not save the lives of many people. I know that for some of you there are moments of great pride as well as enduring, deep frustration that you, individually or collectively, could not do more or did not avoid mistakes. I can only say that while there are undoubtedly lessons to be learned — and it is critical to learn them — it is also important to remember that in this moment of deepest crisis the people of Victoria turned to you, and they did it because you long ago earned the people’s trust.

So what should we talk about tonight? After a year which brought such challenge to Victoria’s and Australia’s journalists, but a year which has also been marked in Australia, as it has in the U.S., by a continuing crisis in the news industry? Let me start by saying what I will not talk about: "citizen journalism." I hate this term, not because the craft of journalism can’t be learned and spread more broadly, but because “citizen journalism” implies the obverse: that journalists — The Media, capital M capital T — are a non-citizen tribe. I wish those who have hitched their wagons to the destruction of professional journalism could be nailed to a bar stool here at this year’s Quills.  

In February 2009, the citizens in this room — many of you with your own families, property or friends at risk — put all your skill to informing your neighbors and the world of what was happening, to channeling emergency calls, to connecting displaced families.  No one else could do it. Whether you were cops reporters or wine critics or sports photographers you knew your job. I remember, shortly after Hurricane Katrina, walking into a little house in ruined New Orleans where a few reporters from the New Orleans Times-Picayune had camped out amid still-high floodwaters. I was greeted not by some adrenaline-addicted war correspondent but by the paper’s art critic and sports editor, part of a small band of colleagues who as New Orleans was evacuated headed back into the heart of the storm. What they showed, and what all of you showed in the Black Saturday crisis: practicing journalism is the fullest expression of citizenship.

I also am not going to talk about revenue models. That’s an important conversation. But journalism has always been an innovative craft, beginning when the technological innovation of the printing press collided with the political innovation of free speech. Today, if the only innovations we talk about are revenue models, we’ll miss an enormous opportunity to refresh our sense of news and our ability to tell stories that defy cliché. So tonight, let’s not go there.

Let’s talk instead about something I witnessed in Haiti among journalists still trying to get back on their feet: Aftershocks.  You all know that following a great quake, the earth continues to release energy — in Haiti the aftershocks come every few days and may continue for a year. But just as evident in Port au Prince — and just as profound for Haitians — are the psychic aftershocks that trouble sleep and waking: searing memories that come unbidden. Reporter after reporter spoke to us of the roar of the earth. The cry of the people. The sharp stench of the unburied dead.  Anxiety so profound that six weeks after the January 12 quake, many Haitians even with intact homes or offices find it impossible to sleep or work inside. A sense for many that the world as they know it has ended and may never return, that the wounds of January 12 will never heal.

Traditionally, journalism has had little to say about these aftershocks. We race to the earthquake or bush fire, the murder scene or the war, and know how to report it, how to ascertain facts and get quotes and make pictures. We do a good job. But then we move on to the next story, even as the aftershocks are just beginning to be felt, playing out in the lives of individuals, families, communities, nations for months or years.

When a mass shooting occurs at a university, how long is the shooter’s self-photographed image newsworthy — and when does it become instead a source of injury to survivors and families outweighing any news value?

Over the last four decades scientific evidence has begun illuminating a fact of fundamental importance to journalism: People sustain psychological injury from life-threatening violence or cruelty. Individuals and communities can be changed, sometimes in fundamental ways, by the intimate violence of sexual assault or child abuse, or the world-scale catastrophe of war or tsunami. 

As journalists, our route to reckoning with aftershock is often deeply personal. It may follow covering a mass-scale disaster like the bush fires, or a single interview with a single rape victim that goes awry. It may be an assignment that leaves us feeling depleted or damaged — or for that matter inspired in unusual ways that are hard to explain to non-journalists. In my own case, my journey down this road began 15 years ago when I was covering American prisons and criminal justice policy for The Nation magazine. On a summer night I became one of seven people stabbed in a random attack by a mentally ill man sitting a few feet away in a café near my home. I went from being crime reporter to crime victim, and that forced a reckoning with my own craft which continues to this day.

I know many of you in this room had similar moments of reckoning, many over the last year.  You are part of an important conversation in Australia about how to cover violence and tragedy better. I am very proud that Dart Centre Australasia, led by my friend and colleague Cait McMahon, has provided a forum for this ongoing reckoning.

As journalists, we need to understand that aftershocks are news, and find fresh ways of reporting so that the public can understand that tragedy does not end when mourners shovel earth into a grave and the cameras move on. 

This is not just a matter of writing more sensitive stories about individual’s psychological injury, resilience or recovery, though that is valuable. It is also about trauma-aware news judgment, trauma-informed ethics, a trauma-sensitive news agenda. When a mass shooting occurs at a university, how long is the shooter’s self-photographed image newsworthy — and when does it become instead a source of injury to survivors and families outweighing any news value?  When a region is devastated by bush fires, what lessons — conscious and unconscious — do residents and government learn? When a country is preparing to go to war, how relevant are the massive rates of post-traumatic stress disorder among a generation of American soldiers on repeat deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan? The most important decisions our democratic societies make — whether about crime, public safety, human rights, war — are shaped by the public’s understanding of violence and its consequences. As news professionals it is our job to illuminate the landscape of trauma as fully and accurately as how a bill becomes law or how prosperity turns to recession.

Journalism’s reckoning with aftershock also means confronting the blunt facts of what covering these difficult stories can mean in on our own lives. Thanks to a handful of pioneering clinicians and researchers  around the globe, we now know what should have been obvious: Journalists are a resilient tribe, but we are also vulnerable to psychological injury, no less so than firefighters, police officers, paramedics or soldiers — and we need training, psychological support and leadership aware of these issues. The particular psychological injuries which can be inflicted by trauma — preventable injuries affecting memory, concentration, anger, empathy — have a particular signficance for news professionals, at times undermining our basic zones of competence, isolating us from colleagues and family, driving some to unnecessary risk and poor judgment.

Let me speak bluntly to anyone in this room who remains a skeptic: I am not talking here about creating a  therapy-dependent newsroom in place of sharp-edged debate and frontline reporting. We are talking about smart, evidence-informed training; solid peer support so no one feels isolated or stigmatized by an accumulation of toxic assignments; and a culture of awareness among journalists and managers alike ensuring  that good journalists are able to keep doing the most difficult stories. Let’s be honest: We all know colleagues whose careers have been derailed not by some inherent weakness but by an overload of images, sounds and smells no human can easily metabolize. The old “suck it up” culture cost the careers of too many talented reporters. To me this is a basic censorship issue. The good journalist who is sidelined because of debilitating emotional injury is censored as effectively as if she or he was wrapped in an orange jump suit and shipped off to Guantanamo.

The good news is that leading news organizations like the Australian Broadcasting Corporation here and others around the world are now are building innovative trauma awareness programs, and peer support schemes, and helping clinicians understand the special mission of journalists. Respected senior journalists like some of you in this room are speaking out, trying to end the stigma which has prevented our profession from contending with a serious occupational hazard. You can be proud that some of the great innovations in trauma training for journalists now emanate from Melbourne; lessons I have learned from people in this room tonight have echoed in newsrooms throughout the U.S., Latin America, Europe.

Let me circle back. I said I would not talk about revenue models, and I won’t. But of course our profession is in a moment of great uncertainty. Here, too, I think trauma-aware journalism can offer a crucial perspective, and I would like to share what I think are some important lessons I have taken from colleagues over the Dart Center’s ten-year history. From listening carefully to the survivors of crime, family violence, war, genocide, we understand something about persistence through dark and confusing times. We know how disabling a sudden loss of power and status can be — but also something about resilience, about the transforming power of community, mission and story. From attending to one another as journalists we are constantly reminded of how thrilling, innovative work can be crafted from the most challenging material, produced amid the most daunting of circumstances. What we have learned from one another about covering trauma — and what we have learned from those we cover — has a new and special relevance to our embattled profession. 

Thank you.