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University of Wisconsin–Madison
School of Journalism and Mass Communication

Journalists who retell violence relive trauma, too


When he was sent to cover the war ravaging Sierra Leone, reporter Ian Stewart had little knowledge or interest in the conflict – until he saw it unfold before his eyes.  

On November 10, 1999 a child soldier shot Stewart in the head. 

The bullet left him with paralysis and some brain damage.

It was then that Stewart, former West African Bureau Chief for the Associated Press, realized that journalists are not passive observers. They are active participants who impact their surroundings and whose surroundings impact them. 

In February, the University of Western Ontario hosted the Canadian Journalism Forum’s inaugural conference, Journalism in a Violent World. 

The conference welcomed reporters, producers, news managers, media analysts, journalism instructors, students, and mental health professionals. They discussed the impact of violence and emotional trauma on journalists and their audience. 

“It is emotionally taxing to relive violence through our notebook, our lens or our darkroom,” says Stewart.

Stewart faced violence every day he reported in Africa. He says he felt a sense of failure as he wrote stories about rebels who killed and raped innocent people daily, while his articles were never picked up by any of the 1600 North American newspapers that subscribed to the Associated Press wire service at the time.

He read from a journal entry he wrote while in Sierra Leone, “Why should God care if we don’t?” he asked.  It was not until Stewart was shot that the world paid attention to the stories. This added to his sadness and distress.

Stewart was later diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

According to Dr. Anthony Feinstein, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Toronto, rates of PTSD among reporters are 25 to 28 percent compared to the general population who experiences PTSD at rates closer to four or five percent.  

Feinstein explained that for many years there was a “culture of silence” about how covering crime, war, and accidents impacts journalists.

“Journalism is not a profession that is governed by a professional body or code like the medical profession,” says Cliff Lonsdale conference co-organizer and television journalism instructor at UWO. As a result, questions on how to deal with traumatized journalists have flown below the radar and, subsequently, journalists have often been left to fend for themselves.

“For years we didn’t pay nearly enough attention to what these violent situations were doing to our journalists short of getting them killed. Similarly, we haven’t paid much attention to how we extract these stories from victims who have survived traumatic situations,” Lonsdale says.

Documentary filmmaker, Giselle Portenier agrees. She shared her views on the ethics of interviewing the victims of social cleansing, rape and violent regimes.  She emphasized the importance of sensitivity toward victims during the interview process and ensuring that they will not become more vulnerable as a result of speaking publicly about their story. 

She followed death around the world, producing documentaries about violence against women in Guatemala, social cleansing in Colombia and honour killings in Pakistan but Portenier says she is most haunted by her memories of the survivors.

The conference served as an illuminating experience for journalism students who may find themselves in similar situations one day soon.

“I think that the awareness factor has been left out of the equation for many years,” says Anna Drahovzal, journalism student at Western. “We got to understand the impact of trauma first-hand. You can see it in them, on their faces, in their stories,” she says.  Awareness that journalists need to look out for themselves and their colleagues is something Drahovzal believes students learned from the conference.

Unlike soldiers and first response teams, journalists are not formally schooled in dealing with the violence they may witness or endure. As such, journalists who have been traumatized often ignore or hide how much they have been impacted by what they have seen.

CBC cameraman Brian Kelly shared the story of how his co-worker Clark Todd was wounded and killed during heavy crossfire in Lebanon in 1983.  Kelly and the rest of the crew had to leave Todd behind. 

For a long time, Kelly thought he was fine and continued with his life and his career.  One day in an edit suite, moments before he was set to shoot an interview, Kelly broke down and cried for hours.  It was then that he realized the profound impacts of all that he had witnessed.  For a long time he could not utter a word about Lebanon without crying.

Kelly recently went back to Lebanon to the scene of the incident for the first time since Todd’s death.  The trip he said, did not offer him closure. 

“Closure implies that it ends,” says Kelly.  “But you never leave it behind.”

Now, Kelly participates in various simulation exercises with other journalists to prepare them for the field and the possibility of a traumatic or dangerous situation.

Since he was shot in 1999, Stewart left his job as a reporter for the Associated Press. He is now a PhD student at the University of Michigan where he studies the impacts of trauma on journalists.

“It’s time we do something to make people realize how our jobs impact us,” says Stewart.

As a result of the conference, the Canadian Journalism Forum plans to expand its reach, making it capable of gathering resources for news managers, journalism instructors and journalists.

Conference co-organizer, Lonsdale plans to establish a board of trustees to ensure that the forum remains sustainable.

“I think there is a responsibility for the leaders in the profession to take an interest in what we do and encourage more responsible practices surrounding the impact of violence and trauma on journalists,” says Lonsdale.

“We especially have a responsibility to the younger generation to make things better in our profession.”

Anna AbouZeid is currently completing her Master of Arts in journalism at the University of Western Ontario. She is specializing in radio journalism but has a strong passion for both broadcast mediums. Anna hails from Winnipeg. She completed a BA with honours in political science from Acadia University, Nova Scotia and an MA in political science, University of Western Ontario.  She recently completed an internship at CBC Newsworld’s News Today. Anna hosted and co-produced two current affairs shows for Western’s radio station CHRW, which is broadcast across southwestern Ontario. She loves politics and travel and would love to do international reporting one day.

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