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Journalists' own reactions to crises are a challenge when reporting on disasters
09 October 2008
Reporters and photographers who are professional eyewitnesses to disasters should be regarded as suffering in the same way as survivors, relatives and the emergency services. This is revealed in a new dissertation at the University of Gothenburg.
In many cases, arriving as a reporter or photographer at the scene of an accident or a disaster entails professional and personal anguish for the individual journalist. A task that does not consist of saving lives, but instead of witnessing and reporting, can be perceived as provocative by both the people in the vicinity and the journalists themselves. Conflicts that arise at accident scenes often stem both from the ignorance of others about the role of the media, and from the inability of journalists to relate to their own and others’ reactions to crises.
— Despite inadequate training in dealing with critical situations, many journalists are nevertheless able to deal with their own reactions to incidents and their extreme work situation, says Liselotte Englund, who has surveyed reactions to crises and methods of working in reporters, photographers and editors based on a case study of the fire in Gothenburg in 1998.
— However, this does not exclude the fact that psychological problems can afflict journalists when the assignment is over. This is where the media companies have a major responsibility to support and help their staff to recover, and to have procedures for organisational learning, says Liselotte Englund.
The journalists in the survey dealt with the mental stress of their work by being emotional or problem solving to varying degrees. The different ways of reacting are described in four journalistic roles that Liselotte Englund calls the Witness, the Weasel, the Hack and the Rescuing Angel. The latter is extremely unusual and represents journalists who are overcome by their own reactions to the crisis and the desire to help and who temporarily desert their journalistic role.
Knowledge of how journalists react at the scene of accidents can also provide insights into why media reporting is the way it is.
— Raising the level of knowledge among journalists about normal crisis reactions will lead to psychologically better prepared journalists and probably also to better journalism in relation to traumatic events.
An increased awareness
It has been ten years since the disastrous fire at Backaplan in Gothenburg. Liselotte Englund considers that we need to ask ourselves whether the Swedish media has become any wiser since then.
— In some respects the answer is yes. There is an increased awareness that support is needed after incidents such as this, and there has not been a repetition of some of the mistakes made in terms of press ethics. However, if we look at the need to prepare journalists better through training in crisis psychology and disaster journalism, nothing much has happened, despite recommendations for this from government commissions of enquiry and other reports ever since the Estonia disaster some two decades ago.
Liselotte Englund’s dissertation ends with ten recommendations for trauma journalism as the current rules on press ethics provide guidance that is much too inadequate under extreme conditions.
– It is in situations such as this, when press ethics should be at their most important, that they are most difficult to apply. The most ethically sensitive media reporting therefore risks resulting in the most regrettable errors of judgement. With better prepared journalists and media organisations this can be avoided, says Liselotte Englund.
Title of the dissertation: The Eye of the Disaster - a Study of Journalists' Work at Accident Scenes and Disaster Sites.