National forum launched on covering violence and trauma


Cliff Lonsdale

Cliff LonsdaleClimate change is real, but its increments can be small – and may become smaller still in tough economic times.


The climate in question is the one that has traditionally prevailed in newsrooms across Canada and elsewhere.  The one that tells journalists that getting the story always comes first; that safety is mostly a matter of depending on your wits, rather than on equipment or training; and that if reporters are troubled by any of the harsh situations they cover, they should keep it to themselves.


It took my generation an unconscionably long time to conclude there was something in this that was utterly at odds with journalism’s reliance on critically-evaluated facts.  Firefighters, police officers, paramedics and soldiers might take safety and trauma training seriously, but it seemed as though we journalists secretly preferred to see ourselves as swashbuckling imitations of Ernest Hemingway.  


The good news is that the younger generation is starting to understand the flaws in that thinking, just as many of those who have risen to leadership positions in media organizations now do as well.  But between those two layers, the awareness about the effects of covering violence and traumatic stories is variable.  When he ran CNN International, Chris Cramer watched on a monitor as a correspondent covering hour after hour of the 9-11 aftermath broke down on camera.  He found her cell phone number and called to tell her it was OK.  She replied: “You’re too late, Chris. I’ve already been given shit by the assignment desk.”


The Canadian Journalism Forum on Violence and Trauma (the Forum) has been established to make it easier for those who do care about such issues and their implications for our profession to speak out and be heard.  It also seeks to help the profession open its eyes to the effects that newsgathering and other forms of coverage may have on the ordinary people caught up in violent and traumatic events.


“Journalism” is in the organization’s title because, for all that we recognize the contributions other disciplines can make, this is at heart a journalistic issue.  The Forum’s core members, many of whom are prominent in journalism both in Canada and abroad, value the essential role of journalists in democratic societies and appreciate the sacrifices journalists make for the common good.  But our membership also includes experts in the fields of medicine, mental health, security and risk management, education and research – to help bring wider perspective to these issues as well.


“Forum” is in the name because we are inclusive. We’re focused on a whole range of problems and possible solutions. We don’t endorse one particular line of approach or treatment over any other because no two journalists or media organizations will encounter the exact same challenges.  We believe that from open and candid discussion of physical and emotional safety issues, some right answers will emerge, for individual journalists and for their employers.   In these tough economic times, we have also made a commitment to ensure that freelancers, on whom we are now relying more than ever before, are given the safety training and trauma awareness they need. Many more young journalists will be tempted to take unnecessary risks abroad in the coming years as they struggle to jump-start their careers.


Most journalists, of course, will never face physical danger in one of the world’s far-off conflict zones – but that’s not where most journalists killed in the line of duty die. The vast majority die in their own countries, many killed for what they have written.  Similarly, emotional trouble can lie in wait for those who cover child pornography, traffic accidents or murder trials, as much as for those who count children’s bodies after a massacre abroad. 


The Forum is currently in the process of achieving status as a federal educational charity.  In the meantime, the organization is moving ahead on many fronts, including holding workshops for journalism students.  We are also working with the Brussels-based International News Safety Institute in the development of a series of short, issue-driven documentaries and accompanying materials that will help journalism schools develop courses on physical and emotional safety – materials that can also be of use for self-study and to encourage discussion and practical measures within the newsroom environment. 


The Forum is also working to develop relationships with other journalistic organizations in Canada and abroad, including the Canadian Journalism Foundation,  the Dart Centre for Journalism and Trauma, Canadian Journalists for Free Expression  and the CAJ.


A major international conference is now being planned for May 2010 in Vancouver.  It will build on the success of the Forum’s inaugural conference, Journalism in a Violent World, held at the University of Western Ontario in February, 2008.  Despite the location and the winter timing, it attracted 120 journalists, educators, mental health specialists and others from Canada, the United States and Britain.  One delegate told us afterwards that the experience gave him “a measure of peace about the difficult paths we tread on that knife-edge balance between our consuming passion for journalism and the danger of being consumed by it.”  That’s the Forum in a nutshell.

For more information, please visit The Canadian Journalism Forum on Violence and Trauma.

Cliff Lonsdale is co-founder and interim chair of the Canadian Journalism Forum on Violence and Trauma.  He is a former chief news editor of CBC Television, now teaching in the Graduate Program in Journalism at the University of Western Ontario.