Training to Cover Terror

Students at Bournemouth Media School perform journalistic exercises in response to a staged terror attack on London.

It’s Sunday afternoon, minutes before kick-off. Chelsea football club need just one point against Arsenal to win the league title for the second year running. The mood in West London is festive as the capacity crowd waits for the show-down of the season.

Suddenly, the atmosphere is punctured by a loud explosion. Within minutes it is clear that the worst fears have come true. Terror has again come to the capital.

As the crowd spills onto the pitch at Stamford Bridge stadium, the extent of the casualties becomes plain to see. Newsrooms across London, picking up the dramatic live television pictures, send in reinforcements to cover the breaking news story.

This is where Bournemouth Media School’s students come in. For this is, thankfully, an exercise, staged on the university campus in Bournemouth, with professional actors playing four key roles as victims and witnesses in the unfolding drama of a terror attack.

The students’ job was to cover the story and, later, to reflect on the many complex issues raised by such a traumatic news event.

How do you interview a victim clearly in shock? Do you even attempt to do so? Where is the dividing line between the need to get the story and human compassion? What impact does such a story have on the journalists covering it? What are their emotions and thoughts?

The exercise was part of a pioneering three-part programme devised to introduce postgraduate students on the Media School’s multi-media journalism course to the subject of media and trauma. And as the exercise was designed to show, these are not issues confined to the hardened international war correspondent. Every journalist can face them any day of their working career, whether it be a terror attack, a street riot or a road accident.

The programme was led by Mark Brayne, a former BBC foreign correspondent who now heads the European arm of the Dart Centre. Brayne is also one of the Media School’s visiting fellows.

The School is moving into uncharted territory in the academic world and the students were, in a sense, pioneers. No other journalism course in UK or indeed European universities is known to have introduced such a comprehensive programme on trauma and the media, a subject area which is relatively new to the media profession itself.

It is only in the last few years, spurred on by the conflicts in former Yugoslavia, Afghanistan and Iraq, that news organisations such as the BBC and Reuters have started to train their journalists in trauma awareness and how both managerial and journalistic culture need now to change.

“We have started to gather valuable experience with some of the big professional media outlets,” said Brayne. “The Bournemouth sessions built on good work pioneered by the Dart Centre at the University of Washington in Seattle, USA, but they were a first in the academic world in our part of the world. We hope they will set a benchmark for how we can educate the next generation of journalists.”

“We are guinea pigs,” said one of the international students, Siggridur Gudlaugsdottir. “It is interesting and positive for the course because it shows the course is on its toes, delivering the best it can, and that it is up to date with what is going on”.

The project also ties in with a £75,000 research grant won by the Media School’s Prof. Barry Richards to investigate issues of emotional literacy in journalism.

In the first Media School session, in which students were given an overview of the subject area, it soon became clear that this was not some form of psychobabble. Fundamental moral and ethical issues of journalism were raised within minutes.

Why did, for example, The Times and some other UK newspapers print a picture of a career lawyer jumping to her death in a London street? Are there times when a journalist puts down his camera and helps victims of, say, the Asian tsunami or the New Orleans flooding?

For the second session, it was time to translate theory into practice and the Student Centre became a mock Stamford Bridge stadium. The 20-odd students had divided up into four news teams ahead of time, each with one discipline: print, web, radio and television. It was their task, given only the barest details of what had happened courtesy of a mock police statement, to gather the news by interviewing in turn the four victims and witnesses – the actors. Like many a news story in real life, they were coming to this one cold.

The actors, led by Brighton-based Aaron Swartz, had rehearsed the scenario and worked out in complex detail the roles and personalities of four key characters – a victim injured in the blast, a St John Ambulance worker traumatised by what she had seen, a guilt-ridden security guard (who may have been responsible for a security lapse) and a distraught father searching for his missing son.

The students knew they had to get the story. But just how was a matter of learning on the job. It became clear pretty quickly that thrusting cameras and tripods in the face of a bomb victim is not the way to gather information from someone who is traumatised or, as in the case of the distraught father, extremely angry that he cannot find out information about his son.

Tutors accompanied the students as they progressed from one distressed witness or survivor to the nest. As Brayne and others commented, rarely had they seen students learn a new skill so quickly and dramatically.

When the exercise was finished, the actors said it was the small things that had made them open up and speak more freely to the reporting teams. One student offered her mobile phone to the angry father to help him contact the authorities; another cracked a joke with the St John Ambulance worker and gained her confidence.

But would the students have enough information for a report? The teams had three days to produce their finished packages for review at a third and final “wash-up” session.

And the result? Apart from the fact that the Student Centre bears no resemblance whatsoever to Stamford Bridge ... The work was of a high standard, it was emotive and compelling, without going over the top. The final session brought together the theory and practice, developing a detailed discussion on reporting technique when journalists are confronted with such a traumatic news event.

Did the project live up to expectations? For some it was clearly a matter of overcoming initial skepticism.

"I have to be honest, I didn’t expect a lot, before doing it,” said another postgraduate student Eduardo Landin.

“I thought 'what can they tell us?' But once you live the experience, it is very shocking and it moves you; it seems you are there in an extreme situation because the actors' performances are so good and that really makes you work on this ...

“How can you write, and be accurate and balanced, when you are yourself in distress at some point?"

The Dart Centre in Europe now intends to take the training pioneered in Bournemouth to other media organisations and journalism schools in the UK, including the BBC and Cardiff University.