The Ripple Effect of Trauma

Posted By SK Reid & Karen Percy  
21:00 PM


Several weeks ago, I sat in on the 2019 Annual Grief Lecture: Death in the public eye or watching online, hosted by the Australian Grief and Bereavement Centre, the organisation where I did my grief and bereavement counselling and intervention training.


A stellar line up for this year’s lecture, speakers included Coroner Rosemary Carlin, Dr Jane Mowll, ABC journalist Karen Percy, lawyer Dr Ian Freckleton, and Walter Mikac AM, patron and founder of the Alannah and Madeline Foundation who lost his wife and children in the Port Arthur Massacre in 1996.


I have been especially interested in the impact of trauma, both direct and indirect through vicarious exposure to trauma, since joining fire brigade and doing my training as a paramedic.

Every time there is a housefire, bushfire, natural disaster, serious car accident, assault, homicide, suicide, civil strife, war or any other emergency-type incident, there is a ripple effect that begins with those directly impacted and extends outwards to the many people that fall within its insidious reach.


Victims and casualties, family, friends, first responders, law enforcement, emergency department healthcare professionals, legal personnel attending trials or participating in coronial inquests all process exposure to trauma differently, and while the hallmarks of response may carry recognisable patterns, individual responses can vary greatly.


Many people are familiar with the end result of exposure to trauma in post-traumatic stress disorder or injury (PTSD and PTSI), a variation of what was once known as shell shock, or combat-related stress reactions that affected the mental health of combat personnel.

Nowadays, it is acknowledged that PTSD can be triggered through cumulative exposure as well as single incidents the nature of which are shocking enough to destabilise normal coping mechanisms. The Bourke Street attack in Melbourne is a recent example of a single event and major traumatic incident that impacted many people, as well as placing great strain on our emergency response resources. This is the daily and unpredictable occupational risk for the many people whose job it is to keep our community safe, as well as hospital emergency department personnel who help those injured in such events.


What many people are perhaps less aware of is that the journalists and media personnel who bring us the stories on the nightly news are also exposed to the effects of direct or vicarious trauma through reporting these incidents. These communicators are no more immune from the effects of trauma than the first responders whose job is to restore safety.


Thankfully, as research drives improved awareness and a cultural attitudinal shift around the impact of trauma and the risk of PTSD, workplace mental health and wellbeing strategies are being implemented to help offset this risk and reduce the burden of exposure.


Here, ABC journalist and ACGB panellist Karen Percy shares her reflections from the annual lecture on Death in the Public Eye. Exploring the impact of trauma on the journalists and media personnel who bring us the news, Karen shares personal experience as well as shedding some light on some of the measures introduced to minimise the deleterious impact of trauma in the media workplace.




Reflections from Karen Percy on Death in the Public Eye


The best journalism is journalism about people.

It's not about the number of votes, but about WHO voted and who was voted in.

It's not about house prices, but about those who can or cannot afford homes.


Journalists spend a lot of time with the people affected by the stories we write - some of the people most damaged by our society, by the ills of the world.

And that is not easy to do, day in and day out.

The media gets a lot of flak for being intrusive, for being sensational, for hounding people.


It's quite often true - the media does all of these things.

But it's not all of the media, and it's not all of the time. 

There are respectful, ethical ways to approach victims and families and those most affected by a disaster or a crime.

And that is something that I do my very best to do, each and every day. 


The personal is crucial to a story.


There's been a real push in recent years to practice "trauma informed reporting" and there's a growing body of work that's being adopted and accepted by more and more news organisations about this. With fewer and fewer reporters taking on ever increasing workloads, and budgets ever tightening, working smarter and with a view to ensuring the mental welfare of our subjects and ourselves is imperative.


It means we as journalists need to better understand what the impacts of trauma are and use it in our everyday work - the way we deal with our subjects, the way we write, the way we frame stories.


For the people I deal with, trauma can affect what they tell me. And that story might change - it might be inconsistent. That's not unusual for people who've gone through extreme events. It doesn't mean they are lying, it doesn't mean they are wrong. It means they've been traumatised.


Last year I was lucky enough to go to Columbia University in the United States, to the Dart Centre for Trauma in Journalism in New York. It was an incredible 6-day program looking at all things  - Sad Campas it became known. 


I spent an intense time with 13 amazing other journalists and filmmakers from across the world where we exchanged war stories and tips on how to deal with tough interview subjects and our own reactions to them.


I learnt a huge amount in that program and this year I will be returning to Columbia as the senior fellow for the program.


As a result, I now approach my subjects in a different way.


Of course it's important to listen sympathetically and with empathy. And be genuine. One of the questions I get asked by younger reporters all the time is "how do you get people to talk to you"? And my answer is be yourself, if you are genuinely interested in their plight that will come across, if you show sympathy and ask the genuine questions beyond "how do you feel"? people are more likely to speak to you.


There's nothing more off-putting than someone desperately pleading with you to do an interview to talk to them.

And you need to know that not everyone will speak to you - that's when you move on.


I am still in awe of the people I approach who trust me with their stories and will open up -- to me, a stranger who's approached them oftentimes at the lowest point of their lives.


But the program in NY gave me a new set of tools in understanding those who have experienced deep trauma or ongoing trauma.


One of the first things I learned was that having someone talk about their traumatic experiences isn't necessarily going to RE-traumatise them- it might upset them, it might take them back to a dark place. And you do need to watch their responses closely to ensure they don't dissociate or show other signs of deep distress.


But talking about such experiences, and getting some kind of action, is a powerful motivator for people wanting to tell you what's happened. And now I always ask, “Who are you going home to? What is your support network? How are you going to deal with the tears?” And I'll try to call at a later time to check in on them.


It is a real privilege to tell those stories.

I've been doing this for 30+ years and I love it as much as the day I first started - and I'm much better at it.


But one of the reasons I still love this job is that I'm still learning.

I had been a journalist for a very long time before I truly understood the impact of the trauma I had experienced during my career.


I remember exactly when that happened.

It was in February 2014.

It was at a home in a cul de sac in Tyabb.


And it was a mother, standing in the street, her face tear stained, her voice simultaneously soft and strong.


That woman was Rosie Batty... 


I was in the media group when she spoke with such love about her son, such grace about the man who killed the boy; her former partner.



That day was a crazy one.


I had been out news gathering with a camera-operator. We had been to the cricket oval, we'd been to his school, we had filmed at his scout hall and we had finally arrived at his family home.


We were not anticipating that Rosie would emerge. As journalists we always hope for such a response as Rosie's but it rarely happens.


So leaving her house, I knew we had an amazing story. I called back to base, let them know what we had and got on with writing my story.


There's a weird happiness that comes when you get good elements to a story - even one as gruesome as this.

That night I was out with friends. I went to dinner, I saw a show.

Half way through the performance I found myself in tears. I had this longing to be with my husband - to be at home where it was safe.


When the performance ended I bolted.


When I got home, I pretty much collapsed into his arms.


The adrenaline had gone.


All I had left were my thoughts and I kept thinking about how a man could be so disconnected from society, from his family, from community norms that he would kill his son.


At about that time, the ABC's head of our trauma/peer supporter program had just started working out of our office. That's the esteemed Dr Cait McMahon who knows the impact of trauma on journalists better than anyone else.

I spent some time with her the next day. 


It's often the case in newsrooms that a reporter will follow a story like this for a couple of days.


But that next day - I just couldn't.


I was not able to pick up that story.


My colleagues were shocked. I was the hardened, experienced, former correspondent who had covered a coup, an assassination, natural disasters and more. And here I was a blubbering mess.


I was sent on my way. Sent Home to lick my wounds and recover.


That event opened up a can of worms for me.


It brought back pretty much every traumatic event or story I had experienced - either firsthand like Cyclone Tracy or seeing my first dead body as a young journalist or vicariously, like covering the 5th anniversary of the tsunami in Thailand or interviewing the Filipino General who admitted he might have 'inspired' military killings of two young student activists in 2006.


Throughout my 3 plus years as the Bangkok correspondent, there had been low level violence on the city streets after the Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra was ousted in a coup. It had been a peaceful coup, but the sides fought openly for years afterwards.


During the ASEAN summit around this time a decade ago, when then prime Minister Kevin Rudd's plane was turned around mid-flight when there was an outbreak of violence at the venue in Pattaya. I found myself trapped in a corner, separated from my team, as the mob broke the glass and surged in. I managed to reconnect with my producer and camera operator - and scolded a man for picking up a flag pole to use as a weapon in the process.


Again I had a brilliant story. But over my time as a correspondent, my nerves were rattled again and again.


Gin and tonics and I became best friends.


I was never diagnosed with PTSD and I certainly don't claim to have it. But I have experienced a lot of vicarious trauma. 


It was obvious as a foreign correspondent that I would be subjected to more than the usual level of trauma - it's part of the patch.


And PTSD in war correspondents and foreign correspondents has been recognised for a long time, even if it hasn't been properly acted upon by many journalists and their employers.


Despite my overseas experience, I was actually surprised when I heard someone equate journalist’s exposure to trauma to that of first responders - the police, the fire brigade, the ambulance service, the military. 


I don't know why I was surprised because when I thought about the hours I've spent at crime scenes or natural disasters writing, re-writing, talking, reporting, photographing, tweeting about traumatic events and the days I've spent in courtrooms listening to details of horrendous, violent crimes a penny dropped.


I might not be tending to the injured or investigating crimes, but I am often so deep into a story that it just has to be having an effect. 


And for a long time my industry did not acknowledge that.


So in recent years I've become very passionate about recognising and responding to trauma.


A recent court judgement has put media organisations on notice that they must do more about protecting journalists exposed to traumatic events.


A county court judge has awarded a journalist $180,000 in general damages for the PTSD she suffers still after ten years as a crime and court reporter from 2003 to 2013.


The woman cannot be named but the court heard she covered 32 murders, as well as funerals, talking to grieving families.


She covered Homicides, suicides, rapes, fatal car accidents, fire scenes, drownings, natural disasters such as the Black Saturday bushfires, grieving families, deaths of young children and young adults.


She covered court cases related to some of the worst crimes in recent Victorian history - gangland killings and underworld figures.


She was threatened by some of those she reported on.


She told her superiors again and again and again over several years that she was not coping.


The death of 4 year old girl Darcy Freeman on the West Gate Bridge in 2009 was one of those occasions where she went back to the office and said enough.


She took advantage of the Employee Assistance Plan, she got counselling.


She begged to move off the crime beat and was given a short reprieve - about 15 months - before being put on the courts round where she wasn't attending crime scenes, but she was certainly reliving those crimes in detail as she sat in the court.


She requested training in how to deal with trauma and those affected by trauma and was only offered a two-day training course and the day which talked about PTSD and self-care was the day she was pulled out of the course to attend another murder.


The court heard expert evidence that journalists and other media employees are at significant risk of developing these conditions as a result of the stressors they have to deal with in carrying out their day to day jobs - be it a risk to one's physical safety or a risk to one's mental well-being by being exposed directly or vicariously to trauma.


In particular, YZ reported being disturbed by memories of the work she did. She said she was depressed and cried often. She became snappy, irritable, was tired and lacked motivation.


She said she found it very hard to get to sleep and had nightmares several times per week. 


The judge concluded that steps should have been taken to change the culture at The Age so as to make it clear that it was appropriate to talk openly about symptoms and signs such as depression, anxiety and stress. The media industry very much has a "toughen up princess" attitude


That the paper should have made it clear to reporters they could be moved on to a different round/area.


That it needs to train reporters and their editors to identify the symptoms of psychological injury.


Putting on one of my other hats that of a co Vice President of the Media section of the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance, which represents journalists in workplaces, employers are very much on notice that the status quo is not good enough.


It was accepted by the court that YZ suffered psychological/psychiatric injury as a result of the repeated exposure to these traumatic events.


The court found that The Age owed a duty to take reasonable care against the risk of foreseeable injury, including psychiatric injury. 


This duty extended to setting up and maintaining a safe system of work and providing appropriate instruction and supervision.


The ruling means there is now a duty on employers to take pro-active steps to prevent the risk of foreseeable injury, be it physical or psychological.


And so the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance has sent a letter to media editors, publishers and relevant agencies alerting them to the case and suggesting they need to institute some programs to deal with employees exposed to trauma.


There's a business imperative - $180k is not something any news organisation can afford to pay out these days; but there's also a human imperative.


The court heard evidence from the amazing Cait McMahon at the DART centre that one in three journalists who are reporting on traumatic events or who are exposed to trauma have probable PTSD. 


The ABC has a formal program, where staff like me are trained to keep an eye out for others. It's not 100% foolproof but I know it makes a difference when staff hear a friendly voice reaching out to see they are okay. I have reached out on many occasions myself to other staff. And for myself. When I covered the court case of James Gargasoulas, the Bourke St driving killer, where we heard victim after victim talk of their suffering that was one of those times I needed some support. I contacted my point-person, we had a chat, I had a cry, I got a hug, and all was good.


It doesn't always work out that way. 


But I know there are ways to deal with trauma. 


Accepting there is a problem, dealing with it and doing what's needed to get back to work is key. 


I'm a big believer that peer support programs and proper counselling and dealing effectively with those exposed to trauma is crucial in my industry. 


It's about self-awareness, self-care and being aware and caring about others around you.


By building resilience, knowing that I can recover. That with the right response from those around me, I can find the next story and the next.




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