"Whether to report or not is a personal choice"

Gavin Rees, director of Dart Centre Europe, the research centre that helps journalists and media workers who cover traumatic events, talks to the ECPMF about the effects reporting on tragedies might have on journalists, ethical conflicts and the importance of tragedy reporting.

Gavin Rees Gavin Rees in April 2015 (Picture by the Dart Centre for Journalism & Trauma)

Interview by Michelle Trimborn


ECPMF: What consequence might the dilemma between a human tragedy and reporting on the big story have for journalists? Can the pressure to report and do a job or function in such situations even cause a trauma?


Usually the professional persona we put on as journalists is protective. But only up to a point. If we have a job to do, we have a point of focus or a mission that the primary victims do not have. Instead, they may be struggling to make sense of how this could have happened, why them. 


In traumatic situations, feelings of helplessness are corrosive. Being a journalist, however, certainly does not bestow a magic immunity. Journalists who cover violence are at risk of developing Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), even if they are less at risk than the general population. Journalists at the beginning of their careers, and who are thus lacking experience, and those with heavy levels of exposure, who are, perhaps, near the end of their careers and feel that they have seen too much, tend to be more at risk than other colleagues. 


Could you comment on the ethical question of journalists providing first aid or the first story when they arrive at crime scenes as first responders?


This has to be an individual choice and depends very much on the particular context.  If a journalist has the requisite skills to apply combat-relevant first aid and he or she was the only one there who could have prevented a person from bleeding to death, then it would seem perverse to insist that they should not help.


The broader question is: What is our function in society? This is usually to report to give timely and accurate information so that those who are not there can understand and contextualise such traumatic events and the impact such violence has on communities and individuals.  Often, the “help” vs. “not help”- dichotomy is a false one. There have been many situations in the past, where journalists have done both. 


In reporting on such attacks, journalists often put themselves at big risks - is this their duty coming with their job as reporter? Do they actually have the choice to stay away?


Whether to report or not, or put oneself in a particular location, is always a personal choice. It has to be.  Being in a headspace where one feels that one has no options is a place where one is more likely to jump into making bad decision and feeling more out of control if things go wrong. In any crisis, the first step is to take a deep breath and then pause to think. People do their best work when they have the headspace to think how they can best balance risks and make most agile and effective news choices.


That said, of course, there are compelling reasons why we should report on such important human tragedies. We need to cover them. It is just that individuals need to have the right to decline an assignment if it is really not the right time for them. To give an example, a journalist who has recently been struggling to come to terms with the recent death of a murdered relative or colleague might not be in the best place to report on a similar death. A responsible editor might think twice before insisting that particular colleague should be the first on the scene, and at least have a conversion with the reporter about it. There’ll be other ways that they can contribute to coverage.

Interview by Michelle Trimborn from the ECPMF Centre in Leipzig, Germany.