Media & Culture

Journalism in the midst of trauma: Reporting deaths like a cricket match

My first footsteps into a newsroom took me into a macho-man bastion, where I remember seeing a quasi-defence correspondent in faded jeans and a white shirt hastily folded up to the elbows banging away on a typewriter. The image would not be complete without a cigarette dangling from the edge of his mouth, spewing one profanity after another as he typed away.

We all wanted to be that guy…

It was 1998, and the war in Sri Lanka was just beginning to get nasty. I had been at The Sunday Leader for barely two weeks when a massive bomb exploded at the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic in Kandy. The chaps who covered defence and the war were stars in the newsroom. They wrote as if they witnessed combat within spitting distance, even though only a handful ever got close.

The truth is, not many did. Most wrote off sources based in Colombo. Some, like the chain-smoking colleague of mine, relied more on the Tamil press. These journalistic no-nos aside, in that newsroom culture there was no chance to show any emotions other than anger or the kick you get just before you break a major story.

There was no discussion on the emotional impact of what we were doing, seeing so much death and destruction around us – day in, day out. We were reporting on deaths daily as if we were merely putting up the score sheet of the latest school cricket match. I worked as a true bastion of the bullet-proof journalist, as hard as stone and never affected by what he covered.

I remember an incident that took place about two weeks after the tsunami 26 December 2004. I had been in one of the worst-hit areas, where the stench of death hung over everything like low-hanging smog. When I returned home, family members told me I looked ashen, my eyes were in sockets an inch deep and I was moody. I had seen so much death that it was becoming unbearable.

When I returned to the office, I told some of my colleagues what I was feeling. Some consoled me, but most were too over-worked to pay much attention to my whining. But a remark from a senior pro remains fresh. “What is this nonsense about seeing dead bodies? All of us have seen them. I saw 13 dead bodies once,” he barked. The words were searing, because they came from someone I respected very much.

But all of them were wrong. In fact, by creating an environment where a poorly held up façade dictated that no emotions (especially those of pain and sorrow) are allowed, we made it a living hell for most of us. This was especially true for reporters like mye who had voluntarily (or otherwise) taken to covering the war.

Trauma does affect journalists. It impacts their physical and emotional wellbeing, as well as their work. I learnt that late in my career, and hope and pray the new generation does not have to wait that long.

“It is imperative that journalists become ‘trauma literate’ so as to understand the individuals and communities that they report on,” says Cait McMahon, the Managing Director of the Melbourne-based Dart Centre Asia Pacific, a regional hub supporting media and trauma professionals. I have been part of two Dart programmes, and both have been of immense consequence for me, my work and my family.

But consider the story of Safiullah Gul Mehsud, Dunya TV’s Peshawar Bureau Chief, who is a trusted colleague. Safi covers the volatile tribal regions in northern Pakistan on a daily basis. Ten minutes before noon on 11 June 2011, he was injured in the head in a second suicide attack while on location covering an earlier tragedy. He was rushed to hospital with head injuries, but recovered and was back at work. It was more than a year later that the full impact of the incident dawned on him.

On 16 December 2012, he did not think twice about jumping into his car and driving to the Peshawar’s Bacha Khan International Airport, when he heard loud explosions. As he drove, he was receiving the usual calls on his work mobile. Suddenly, there was a second blast, and his private mobile phone started ringing incessantly.

Safi told me he ignored it at first, but then he answered it more in annoyance than anything else. It was his son on the other end, asking him whether he was all right. It was then that Safi realised that his family’s worst fears had been triggered by the second attack, similar to the one in which he was injured a year-and-a-half earlier.

“Now I am very conscious of the impact of my work on my family. I am aware of the kind of emotional rollercoaster we take a ride on,” Safi says. He keeps a keen eye on colleagues covering the horrible reality that makes news, making sure that when they want breaks he gives them just that. He also takes extra care of himself.

Journalists usually keep their emotions bottled up in their work environments, but the weight of the emotional impact can and will breach the defensive wall, sometimes in our private lives, says Nasingom Mai, a video journalist from Papua New Guinea.

Nasi has covered the outbreak of violence against women in the Pacific nation, and says that trauma “can have a very personal impact. The reaction can come out in your personal space without any warning.” After a harrowing incident that took place when he lost control at his parents’ house, Nasi was fortunate to take part in the Dart Asia Fellowship earlier this year. After the programme, he told me that he knew the danger signs and what to do, or at least where to go for help.

Most times, the callous attitude of those we work with can be more harmful than the work itself. McMahon and fellow psychologist Irma Martam from Indonesia both agree that when journalists lack appreciation, a support network and a work environment supportive of the kind of work they do, their lives can be really terrible.

Freelance journalist Marlon Luistro from the Batangas region in the Philippines knows what colleagues, especially those who work in remote areas, have to endure when the head office treats them like disposable film roles. “In the Philippines, there’s a joke that we’re more afraid of editors than ghosts!” he says.

Here, at home, colleagues that I have worked unanimously believe that we covered a brutal war without preparation. And journalists working for the national media did not receive any training on how to stay safe, physically as well as emotionally. “Years into the war, Sri Lanka should have developed some training component to reduce the risk these journalists faced, and to equip them professionally. Institutionally, there should have been in-house training and other support services, including insurance for such journalists,” says Dilrukshi Handun­netti, a senior colleague with whom I worked.

The problems do not end with the war ending. The same callous disregard for one’s own safety, born out of ignorance, contributes to reporting that sometimes borders on the inhumane. “There was lack of preparedness when the war broke out and continued, and it came to an end with the institutions and organisations failing to ensure sufficient capacity-building and safety networks,” Han­dunnetti says.

Because we were not aware of the human and emotional toll, even after the war the media regularly skips stories that matter. Dart Centre Asia Pacific Director Cait McMahon believes that the lack of trauma sensitiveness can create oft-ignored lapses in reporting. “Silence through terror and trauma is the ultimate form of suppression.”

But there is growing awareness among media practitioners that trauma is not something to be neglected, and needs to be addressed. At the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, there is an internal peer-support network. A similar network is being established across Asia through the Dart programme. Several Sri Lankan journalists have participated in Dart programmes, but the overall effect on the community has been minimal.

But at least this awareness has changed me. Now I never want to be that guy screaming profanities and appearing to be bullet-proof. I know I am not. I am just as human as anyone else. I get scared, I get nervous and yes, sometimes I breakdown. But I know how to take care of myself and do my job to the best of my ability.

© Dart Centre


Amantha Perera is a foreign correspondent based in Colombo, Sri Lanka. He covers Sri Lanka and the region with special interest in conflict, post conflict situations, humanitarian disasters and climate change. This article was originally published in the Lanka Monthly Digest.