Reporting Disasters : managing risk 2

Covering the unprecedented string of international disasters and political insurrections can be a decidedly risky business.

In the last few months, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation deployed journalists to report on  domestic floods and cyclones, the earthquakes in New Zealand and Japan and the popular uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain and Libya.

ABC Head of  International News, Steven Alward said the ABC had about twenty correspondents deployed overseas. The international events had “stretched resources”.

We are not just sending in single people. We are sending in camera operators as well as reporters and fixers… If its a really big story like Japan, we send in multiple crews.

Decisions to deploy journalists depended on “newsworthiness”.  In the case of the Japanese earthquake, tsunami and nuclear accidents, it was a “no-brainer”. “We talked to program departments but we knew it was a big story, which just got bigger as the week went on,” he said.  As it went on, he asked departments, “What’s the appetite?”, to make decisions on scaling coverage up and down.

How were correspondents supported in the field?

The main points of contact for them are their production desks which are staffed twenty four hours a day. They also stay in touch with me and my assignment editor. Sometimes that’s difficult because communications fall down.

“If safety is a concern, like in Libya, we are regularly assessing the situation several times a day. With the nuclear threat in Japan, we are monitoring it around the clock, to see whether we should have people there,” he said.  The ABC maintained links with companies which could evacuate journalists, if required.

Australian journalists have died while on overseas deployment: most recently Paul Moran, who lost his life in IRAQ in 2003. But others got back to Australia with injuries, illnesses and traumas resulting from their deployments.

“We do everything we can in terms of health and safety precautions, innoculations. At the ABC, we also focus on psychological support. There’s a trauma support program we introduced a few years ago,” Alward said. If journalists were sent to places like Christchurch or Japan, the ABC put them in touch with counsellors before they went overseas. There was also peer support.

Even though people might think they are gung ho. They are not. They are really aware of their safety. That comes from years of us talking about those sort of issues. We don’t want them to take unnecessary risks and I think they don’t either.

Psychologist, Cait McMahon, Director of the Dart Centre Australasia said she worked with news organisations to help journalists who  were exposed to emotional trauma.

Sometimes its about personal triggers  and something in the disaster reminds them of something in their own life. Some times they are purely exhausted. But sometimes they are very resilient and there is no impact.

Rest and support were critical to continued effectiveness . “The British military talk about the need for “three hots and a cot”, that is meals and sleep. That’s very important for journalists as well. Exhaustion just exacerbates any trauma exposure they are having,” she said.

The Dart Centre was promoting the idea of training to prepare journalists for disaster reporting. “If people feel a sense of mastery, if they feel they know what they are doing in these sort of disaster situations, they will fare a lot better emotionally,
McMahon said.

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2 comments

  1. Journalists reporting from war zones or disaster zones are today’s unsung heroes.
    Words and cameras their only weapons. What they see and hear becomes psychologically embedded changing them.

    More focus should be given to the bravery shown by journalists and camera crews covering such events, and to the logistical nightmare faced covering stories.

    There appears an insatiable thirst these days to see disastrous events minute by minute on television screens and websites, but how often do we think of those who work to quench this thirst?

  2. Pingback: Queensland police unleash a social media lynch mob « Online Journalism

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