Trauma and tragedy: who supports the journalists?

Journalists who are exposed to trauma are more likely to "burnout". (Photo; Flickr)

As a veteran crime reporter, the woman known as YZ had seen untold carnage throughout her career. But nothing was as horrific as what she witnessed on January 29, 2009.

Standing on the banks of the Yarra River watching the broken body of four-year-old Darcey Freeman being pulled from the water after being tossed over the West Gate Bridge by her own father was “the worst day of my life”, YZ told a Victorian court in February.

It was a court case that saw the journalist win $180,000 in compensation for her ongoing post-traumatic stress, anxiety and ongoing depression as a result of her years of work as a crime and court reporter at  The Age.

“I just can’t deal with death and destruction any more,” YZ testified she had told her editors after returning from the scene of Darcey’s death.

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“I have just done too much. I’m just not sleeping I’m not coping. I just need to write about something good for a change.”

Soon after, the paper sent her to cover the Black Saturday bushfires, where 173 people died.

YZ claimed in evidence that the media company had no system in place to enable her to deal with the trauma of her work, failed to provide support and training in covering traumatic events including from qualified peers and did not intervene when she complained of being unable to cope with trauma experienced from reporting.

Judge Chris O’Neill agreed with her that the media company had let her down, ruling in her favour in what has been described as a “historic” victory for Australian journalists.

“The scene she observed, the people she interviewed and dealt with and the material she observed exposed her to a very high level of trauma, much of it the worst type of violence that can be inflicted by one individual upon another,” Justice O’Neill said in his summary, describing YZ’s evidence as “chilling”.

Cait McMahon, a psychologist who trains and educates journalists and editors on how to deal with stress and trauma at Australia’s Dart Centre, testified as an expert witness for YZ. McMahon said her organisation, the first of its kind in the world, constantly sees traumatised journalists being “laughed at and belittled” in their workplace.

“Many media organisation do not have adequate systems in place to understand or educate their employees about the effects of trauma, McMahon says.

“It’s about putting in place policies and processes of rotation. It’s about managers and editors being across what their staff are covering and some sort of an assessment about the amount of cases that journalists are reporting on that are potentially traumatic. It’s about having specific trauma – not just general employee programs but trauma trained councillors that know what they are talking about – and a workplace that speaks about trauma that’s needed.”

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Guardian Australia journalist Melissa Davey describes the effect of covering Cardinal George Pell’s mistrial, retrial and sentencing, explaining how she managed to separate her personal feelings from those of the abuse victims – to a certain point.

“It’s awful and it will never stop being horrific hearing the details, but I am not the victim,” Davey says. “I am there to do a job and it’s a privileged job and that’s how I maintain my focus.”

Davey has a wealth of unique understanding on how abuse works as she has previously reported on the death of 11 year-old Luke Batty, who was killed by his father on a cricket pitch in 2014, and also covered the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.

“We have all covered big stories before and we will all cover big stories again, but when you have the most powerful Catholic to be ever be charged with child sexual abuse sitting in a court room every day, for weeks on end, and you can’t say a word about the extraordinary and often mundane details unfolding, it puts you in a very unique situation” Davey says, reflecting on the bond she formed with the other trauma-exposed reporters.

However, like many respected journalists, Davey’s empathetic nature can be challenging.

“When you have [sexual abuse] survivors who trust you with their story, you find it hard not to pick up the phone when they call you at 12am or 3am in the morning,” she confesses.

Similarly, Louise Milligan, an ABC investigative reporter and author of the controversial 2017 book on Pell, The Cardinal, did not hold back revealing her personal sadness for the victims during an interview with Channel 10’’s The Project. Milligan was called as a witness during Pell’s trial. She is also the only journalist to have ever spoken to the abuse victim known as J, whose evidence led to Pell being sentenced to six years on five counts of abuse.

“He lives with the rape … he lives with knowing his friend who was also abused died of a heroin overdose.”

While journalists such as Davey and Milligan are dedicated to giving a voice to abuse victims, the question that arises is: who is supporting them emotionally?

In 2016, a study by phycologists at Charles Sturt University found many journalists who were subject to potentially traumatic events were more likely to “burnout”. The study found journalists’ constant exposure to victims in their work, coupled with the industry’s “increasing competitiveness, resource constraints, changing job roles and constant deadlines” reduced their “capacity to perform self-care and maintain a work/life balance”.

The study also cast a dim light on the industry’s stoic culture, discovering that “journalists feel they cannot seek social support from their colleagues or management without the risk of seeming weak”.

They turned instead to “less useful coping mechanisms for support such as alcohol because it is socially more appropriate in the newsroom culture”.

As a cadet journalist in the 1980s and 1990s, Wendy Squires witnessed a beheaded man, a father’s Christmas Day suicide, and personally informed a 21st birthday party that their guest of honour would never arrive during an unforgettable death knock. Reflecting on her past, Squires now understands the gravity of the pressures journalists are placed under.

“I define any 20 year-old to go and interview Anita Cobbys’ parents after their daughter had been so brutally murdered and then come back and be expected not to be carrying any emotion,” Squires, who today is a columnist for Fairfax Media, says.

As a former court reporter, her thoughts are with her fellow journalists still on the front line covering traumatic stories such as those revealed during Pell’s trial.

“As journalists we tend to just kind of keep going and going and going because we don’t want to look like we are fallible, but I can’t see how this kind of pain won’t catch up with the reporters,” she says. “I know it eventually did with me.”

The heart-breaking footage of Darcey Freeman’s death was broadcast again as part of a story on the ABC’s Media Watch. Veteran journalist and host of the program, Paul Barry, used it to illustrate what YZ had endured first hand, going on to explain it was only one example of the trauma many thousands of journalists endure inadequately supported.

“It’s a legal decision [YZ’s win and compensation] that could change the way every media organisation manages its duty of care towards its staff,” he said. “Well, let’s hope they’re serious about it.”