Journalists need to acknowledge effects of covering traumatic events

I recall exactly where I was when I first found out about what we now refer to as the Brentwood Stabbings; at that particular moment in time, I was mindlessly playing my recently purchased Playstation 4, putting off end-of-semester assignments and the stress that went along with them. Pausing between games to just as mindlessly troll my Facebook feed, my eyes were drawn to a focal point that shook me from my comatose state.

The early postings indicated there had been a multiple murder involving University of Calgary students at a home in Brentwood.

Given my age, and having grown up in the northwest and knowing a huge wealth of people in this city, I had an immediate knot tense up in my core — an unshakeable premonition that I knew people involved. As the facts gradually surfaced through the media, I soon learned that my gut feeling was correct.

I had met Josh Hunter through a weekly, underground bass music night in Calgary, which was a magnet for spirited, enthusiastic young people. Josh had an absolutely captivating charm, the kind of person you knew you’d easily become friends with.

Through him, and the lively community of fellow music lovers and general life enthusiasts of which he was a part, I met Zachariah Rathwell. While I now regret not having dedicating more time to those friendships, I’m contented to have shared a few great times and dance floors with them. Those fond memories I now work to preserve, and use as a model for interacting with new people that I meet.

When I first stopped procrastinating with my life and committed to pursuing a degree in journalism, I knew, perhaps not entirely, that I would be faced with difficult subject matters, and stories that I’d feel strongly about.

I know that it’s the role of the journalist to remain unbiased, and to not allow personal feelings to detract from accurately portraying the story. However, our complex human intellects do not allow us to be unaffected by the things we experience, and I’ve learned it’s important as a journalist to be in touch with your reactions to them.When journalists cover tragic events it is nearly impossible for them to be unaffected.
Photo courtesy of Flickr.

Eva Ferguson, a reporter with the Calgary Herald, and mother of two young adult boys, did a phenomenal job covering the story one year ago. She says she felt emotional throughout the whole process, especially when having to seek interviews from people close in age to her own kids.

“I think as journalists we are often told to step back from stories, to not allow things to affect us emotionally. But I disagree,” says Ferguson. “It’s impossible for us as humans to be unaffected by human tragedy. But that is essentially what makes us better journalists.”

I was initially hesitant to write a remembrance piece on this issue, but I knew that the process of addressing these things head on would be an important exercise in my development as a professional writer. Ferguson’s words helped reaffirm my personal feelings and perspective on this type of scenario.

Via email, Ferguson adds: “I think my showing that emotion helped me get better interviews. If you show that you honestly care about the people you are interviewing, they are more willing to open up to you and share their feelings.

“In this silly world of social media, emails and tweeting every random thought, the art of honest conversations, and patient listening, is a dying skill. And in order to be good journalists, I think we need to be willing to have those patient, honest conversations, that are full of emotions at both ends.”

According to the Columbia Journalism School’s DART Center for Journalism and Trauma, at least 86 per cent of journalists, if not all, have witnessed some form of traumatic event while working. The most frequently witnessed traumas were automobile accidents, fires and murder, the report says.

Some journalists may seem on the surface to be unfazed by the things they cover, but research suggests some suffer from PTSD, with the rate anywhere from 4.3 per cent to 28 per cent.

Kyle Bakx with the CBC echoed Ferguson’s sentiments, stating in an email: “Covering a tragedy never gets any easier and you never know which story is the one that will stick in your mind for years to come. Journalists will produce several stories about major catastrophes such as the initial events as they unfold, emotional stories about the victims, events such as vigils and funerals, and often detailed court cases with vivid photos and video.”

Reporters’ obligation to the public necessitates getting right into the middle of crises, accidents, tragedies and horrific crimes. Public interest in times of distress is overwhelming, and it is our unique duty to gather and dispense difficult information in those times especially.

Today’s vigils remind us that one year ago, something happened that rocked the city as a whole, that left all of us struggling desperately for understanding and grasping at any information that would aid in the long journey of coming to that place.

It seems clear to me that my original feeling was correct – that there is no way to be unaffected by the things I will be required to cover.

It’s not an easy process, and there is no way to fully guard against the things we will see, hear and feel. As I move forward in my education, I hope to learn how to best report about these things and present them in such a way that leads to the best possible understanding for my readers.

April 15 marks the one-year anniversary of the worst mass killing in Calgary’s history.
Joshua Hunter, Kaiti Perras, Jordan Segura, Lawrence Hong and Zachariah Rathwell all died of stab wounds following a party in Brentwood. Matthew de Grood has been charged with five counts of first-degree murder.

prodgers@cjournal.ca