Reporting in a time of disaster

Widespread flooding in Malawi, Mozambique and Zimbabwe in recent weeks has lead to a humanitarian crisis across the region. Pic: Medi Response Joint Rescue Team.

Most journalists are no stranger to distress or to trauma. Covering news stories such as fires, murders, rape and violence often lay at the core of the job. A natural disaster, however, and the sheer impact and aftermath can be overwhelming for even the most battle-hardened news hound.

This is especially true if the reporter is a resident of the affected area - they may have been affected by the disaster themselves, or know people who have been impacted.

Lilongwe-based journalist Mallick Mnela recently outlined the trauma of covering the widespread flooding in Malawi - especially due to the fact that so many people he knew were affected by the rising water levels. While a good journalist can often relate to the suffering of his subjects, Mnela says this natural disaster hit too close to home when he received a frantic phone call in the early hours of the morning, alerting him to the fact that his mother’s home had collapsed.

When covering the direct impact and immediate aftermath of a natural disaster - like the recent flooding in Malawi or Cyclone Idai in Mozambique and Zimbabwe - is important to acknowledge that these stories and their impact on the journalist do not subside as the deadline passes. Human distress, in itself, is distressing for those who come into contact with it, and media practitioners are not immune to the effects of the traumas that they cover.

It’s easy to forget that reporters are, in essence, professional first responders, in the same boat as police officers, military personnel, firefighters and paramedics. Journalists, however, are often among the last to recognise or acknowledge personal trauma.

Cyclone Idai over Mozambique as captured on 15 March. Copyright: 2019 EUMETSAT".

In an article published on 15 September 2001, just days after the terror attack on the World Trade Center, Al Tompkins of the Poynter Institute for Media Studies wrote:

“[Media practitioners] often work elbow to elbow with emergency workers. Journalists’ symptoms of traumatic stress are remarkably similar to those of police officers and firefighters who work in the immediate aftermath of tragedy, yet journalists typically receive little support after they file their stories. While public-safety workers are offered debriefings and counseling after a trauma, journalists are merely assigned another story.”

Mental health experts have found that when faced with distressing situations, even digitally or from a distance, the body engages its natural alarm systems, preparing it for either fight or flight. Journalists are resilient but must still take measures to protect themselves from primary trauma when in the field and secondary trauma that may come from being exposed to traumatic material.

As outlined in the Dart Centre for Journalism and Trauma Guide for Journalists, Editors and Managers, the signs of trauma for media practitioners to look out for include:

  • -Intrusive, recurrent images or flashbacks of a traumatic event or nightmares.

  • -Emotional numbing and/or persistent physiological arousal which may include an exaggerated startle response, sweating, palpitations and anxiety.

  • -Physical symptoms such as chest pain, difficulty breathing, muscle aches, headaches or stomach cramps.

  • -Sleep disturbances, exhaustion or irritability.

  • -Feeling flat, tired or depressed.

  • -An avoidance of people, places or situations that are a reminder of the event.

  • -Substance abuse to cope with the aftermath of a traumatic situation.

  • -Negativity and lack of passion about job or about self.

  • -Thoughts about self-harm or suicide.

Many good journalists go about their work with an incredible amount of empathy, but this can be a double-edged sword. While it ensures more detailed, compassionate reporting, it also leaves media practitioners vulnerable to the pain and suffering that surrounds them.

The Dart Trauma Handbook suggests the following techniques to help maintain a healthy emotional state:

  • -Prepare yourself - for what you may encounter when deployed on a story. Upon arrival take time to stop, compose yourself and breathe. Remember that you are a human being first and a journalist second - it is easier to process difficult or uncomfortable emotions if you acknowledge their existence.

  • -Know your limits - while journalists are often deployed for long periods in dangerous environments, know yourself well enough to decline assignments or speak out if you need a period of rest. Foster good habits and routines - make sure you eat three meals a day, get enough sleep and remain hydrated.

  • -Take a time out - either take a short break after a couple of hours on a project, or take a day or two off after its completion to process and regroup.

  • -Self-care - allocate time, either daily or weekly, to recuperate. During this time, switch off your phone and do something you enjoy - whether it be journalling, pampering yourself or a partaking in a hobby or activity unrelated to the daily traumas of the job. Practice mindfulness exercises and deep breathing as part of immediate emotional containment but also as part of your daily self care.

  • -Exercise - physical activity, even in the form of light exercise, is known to have a positive effect of depression and anxiety, and can help calibrate a stressed mind.

  • -Talk about it - if a particular assignment calls for a short-term repression of emotions, be sure to debrief after the fact, either with colleagues or with a professional counsellor. Remember that being able to talk about your emotions is not a sign of weakness, but rather a sign of emotional resilience. Often your colleagues also want to talk but many might not know how to broach the subject.

The Dart Trauma Handbook emphasises that the support of your team and of your colleagues is key to the achievement and maintenance of good emotional balance and psychological health. A close-knit, caring team that offers good emotional and social support can help journalists be more resilient in the face of trauma, while a dysfunctional team can often have the opposite effect on its members.

Journalists should not be afraid to speak out about the emotional challenges they face, either to their colleagues, families or to a mental health professional or counsellor. If you see a colleague struggling, reach out to them and encourage them to talk to you or someone else in the industry who might understand, or to seek professional help.

Reporting on humanitarian crises can be an incredibly rewarding experience - as long as journalists remember that they are not immune to the traumas or suffering they immerse themselves in.

To read the first installment of Voices From The Field, in which Malawian journalist Mallick Mnela's outlines the impact of covering the recent floods, click here.

For more information on journalism and trauma, visit the DART Centre for Journalism and Trauma or download the Trauma and Journalism: A Guide For Journalists, Editors & Managers by clicking here.

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