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Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Why J-Schools need risk and trauma training.

"Why didn't you tell me this before?"
(The following article was published in J-Source)

Megan Radford (pictured below) is a graduate journalism student at the University of Western Ontario -- she's already undertaken an internship in Malaysia and covered the G20 protests in Toronto. Last weekend, in her final term, she attended a workshop on Journalists & Risk which explored physical and emotional safety considerations in her chosen profession. Now she asks: Are journalism schools paying too little attention to these issues -- too late?

As journalists it is sometimes our job to put ourselves in harm’s way, to get the grizzly details and weed out what the public should know...and what they perhaps should not. What some may not realize is that the toll of this kind of life begins early. For some it begins even before we have officially entered the field.

I am a journalism student who has been taught by those who I consider to be some of the best in the business. But until recently, I had been given no training in how to deal with the myriad of difficult events that I have encountered in the past few months. Had I asked or reached out, my instructors would have been quick to respond. But I didn’t know what to ask for. Now I do, and so, from a student’s perspective, this is what you need to know:

It happened so quickly. I arrived at 10 a.m. to the third floor video department of my internship placement in Malaysia, just like I had on every other day that month. But on this morning, my supervisor wanted me to accompany him, a reporter and another intern to an exclusive interview.

That same month M. Krishnan, a man of Indian descent, had died in the custody of the Malaysian police. There was evidence to suggest that he had been beaten and refused medical care. The family was demanding an independent post-mortem to investigate the causes of death. Up to this point they had refused to speak with the media. But because of the family’s belief that our news organization was one of the few not controlled by the government, they agreed to speak with us.

Our crew of four arrived at a block of crammed apartment buildings. We rode the most decrepit elevator I have ever been in to the third floor and came to an open door leading to a small apartment. I was not prepared for the number of extended family members inside the small one bedroom home. Krishnan’s teenage daughters smiled at me shyly from the kitchen doorway, their slender arms protectively around their younger brother. On the floor in the corner of the tiny living room were two older women. Their grave eyes watched us set up the cameras. We were brought orange soda to drink in glasses. Then the family retreated out of the shot and Krishnan’s wife and mother arranged themselves on the couch in front of the cameras.

Not speaking Tamil, it was my job to man one of the cameras while my colleague conducted the interview. I zoomed in and out, thinking of the shots I was told to get till I noticed that the mother, who was speaking at the time, had begun to cry. She did not wail or scream, so there was nothing to warn me when it happened. But I suddenly became very aware of the fact that sitting in front of me was a mother just like mine, a mother who had lost a son and very likely would never find justice for his death. After that, and throughout the interview with Krishnan’s stoically calm wife, I found it very difficult to keep my composure. Was I even allowed to cry? I honestly didn’t know.

In thinking back on that experience, and the other desperate stories I have reported on in my short time as a journalist, I feel like I want to scream. I want to scream for that mother who cried so quietly. I want to scream for the babies who are abandoned by their mothers on the streets of Kuala Lumpur. I want to scream for the women in the fashion industry who are treated as sexual objects by certain photographers. I want to scream for the Congolese family I interviewed in London, Ontario that is losing loved ones as the war in their home country continues.

I also worry that without the proper risk assessment training, young journalists like me will be put in physical danger. When I reported on the G20 protests in Toronto, I was unprepared for the kind of mayhem that broke out. Similarly, when I was in a crush of people at a Hindu festival in Malaysia, it was mere instinct that caused me to find a high point (a metal grate) and to avoid being pressed against a wall, rather than any kind of training I had received. Often our tendency as inexperienced go-getters is to run to the story, no matter the danger. We think we are invincible. We are not.

I recently attended a workshop co-sponsored by my journalism program and the Canadian Journalism Forum on Violence and Trauma. My professor, Cliff Lonsdale (formerly of the CBC and a host of other media outlets) is one of the co-founders of the Forum, and hosts these talks for his students every year. The workshop, through a panel of journalists and interviews with top reporters, cameramen and editors from around the world, gave an overview of the risks that we as journalists, whether at home or abroad, will encounter in our careers. They run the gamut from mortars, to lone attackers with guns, to the emotional toll of sitting through a gruesome trial.

We were told that when we go through these situations, we need to find outlets to deal with the stress right away. We need to find other hobbies outside of work, we need to exercise to work off the stress. Most importantly, we need to talk about what we are going through with someone that we trust. If we don’t, the cumulative effect of the traumas can build to the point of breakdown.

For some of us in the room, the scenarios were hypothetical. But for others, those of us who may have had to call a grieving family for comment, or been exposed to very immediate danger, they were not. The information we gained from this needed to be put into action. NOW.

I’m sure that my experiences are not extreme, but the point is that even in such a short time, this job has had an effect on me. We may be young and we may have been working in the business for less than a year, but that has not stopped us from experiencing the kind of heartbreak and fear that any seasoned journalist goes through. This is why we as young journalists need to be informed of the risks, both mental and physical, that this job can have, right from the start. Far from being dissuaded from a career in reporting, I believe it will make us braver, more careful, and ultimately better journalists.


  1. You go be brave... and your mother will pray. xoxox

  2. Sure doesn't seem like the easiest job out there but keep it up Meg! It's a great start so far.

  3. Dear Megan,

    Just read your article. Couldn't agree more. While I myself am not that grizzled a journalist, My experience in Malaysiakini made me see my life flash before my eyes a few times. Other times, extremes of emotions, sadness, anger, fear.

    I learnt a lot of my experience on the job, the hard way. As Steven puts it, in Malaysiakini you are thrown into the milieu and either swim or sink. But perhaps some pointers on trauma and stress management would help tremendously.

    And for me at least, such knowledge would not scare but make me more prepared for this profession. Nor perhaps, would it stop those any who find it more of a passion and calling than mere job anyhow.