Suck it up just isnt enough

George Hoff

shares his experiences as an Ochberg fellow of the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma and encourages other

Canadian journalists to consider an opportunity to address the many

issues surrounding the reporting of violent and traumatic stories. 

Recently a journalism student told me about her first
journalism encounter with death.  She’d landed a job at a Canadian city
newspaper and the editor had sent her off to cover a murder.  She raced to the
scene and arrived to find the body still in situ. Once back in the
newsroom, she briefed the editor.  He simply looked up and told her to write a
couple of paragraphs and then make some calls on something completely
different.  The young reporter didn’t sleep well that night or for the next few
nights.  Her story reminded me that the macho newsroom credo of  “suck it up and do the next story” is still
alive and well and how it belies the reality of being a first witness to
violence and trauma.

This student’s journalism education had not prepared
her for the reality of newsgathering and, in this case, the editor had not
supported her either.  Journalists need better preparation for dealing with
violence and trauma in local news coverage.  In international news coverage much
has changed since I was sent off in the early 1990s to the CBC Washington
Bureau with a handshake and colleagues wishing me a grand time.  There was
no thought to preparing me for assignments like the Rodney King riots in Los Angeles, the invasion in Haiti or the natural disasters we
covered over the next six years. 
Today at CBC, that doesn’t happen. 
Training is a given.  It might not
be enough but it does provide basic procedures to help the journalist in times
of crisis.  However, journalists covering stories in Canada are expected to cover
violence and trauma with very little support.

Now, think about this for a moment.  A group of ten
journalists from around the world, brought together for a whole week to discuss
violence, trauma and journalism.  Experts in the field of post-traumatic stress
disorder walk you through what it really is. Frameworks for covering trauma are
reviewed.  Those frameworks are designed to make sure that the victims of trauma
are respected, that the journalist is prepared for covering stories of trauma
and taught how to produce narratives for the audience with an awareness of the
emotional aspects the story will elicit.  You get to share experiences with nine
other journalists, photographers, editors, reporters working in print, radio
and TV.  You listen and talk through the stories everyone has covered and the
coping mechanisms others have employed.  You think about the larger
implications of covering violence.  After
a week, you have a group of new friends, colleagues who will always be there to
support you and your journalism no matter where it takes you.

That and much, much more, is what the Ochberg Fellowship
from the Dart Center for Trauma and Violence offers.  The fellowship
is named for American psychiatrist, Frank Ochberg.  Frank was a member of the American Psychiatric Association committee which established the PTSD diagnosis in 1980.  He is also a founder of the International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies (and has received its lifetime achievement award).  One of the
wonderful benefits of becoming an Ochberg fellow is that you get to meet and
spend time with Frank.

For ten years now, Dart has selected its fellows and
brought them together in the city where the annual conference of the
International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies is held.  A fellowship includes a full week of seminars
and discussion and there is real “think-time” to focus on an issue that all too
often is kept in the closet – the impact of violence on the journalist’s

In 2007, Dart accepted my application to be a fellow. The
other fellows were all newsgathering journalists and in the beginning I felt
out of place.  It wasn’t that I was older (although I was!).  It was that,
as then-managing editor of the CBC Ottawa Bureau, I was the only news manager
in the room.  Journalists like photographer Jim MacMillan had confronted violence
and trauma from the streets of Philadelphia to
the World Trade
Center and Iraq.  Georgian journalist Margarita
Akhvlediani lived with the violence and trauma of civil war as a local reporter
covering events she couldn’t leave as foreign correspondents do.  However, as
the week went on, it became clear that my field experiences along with my news
management experience at CBC News had added a helpful perspective to the

The Dart Fellowship is about more than the journalist.
  It also provides the time to view violence and trauma from the
perspective of the victim.  What are the ethical considerations we as
journalists make every day as we seek to report on events that have had
traumatic consequences for the victims?  It is that dual mandate that keeps me
involved with Dart’s work today. Every newsgathering journalist draws the
assignment to go to the door of a victim or the relative of a victim.  Every
editor, in every newsroom, assigns reporters to be the first to “get the
picture” of the victim.  It is part of our work but how it is handled — the
sensitivity used, the words chosen — can increase or alleviate the trauma of the
victim and his/her family.  Dart acknowledges the need to come to terms with the
challenges and costs for everyone involved of choosing to cover violence up

In Canada,
there is a growing awareness of the costs of covering violence and trauma. 
Anthony Feinstein’s research
and books broke important ground and led to
recognition that training was needed for international coverage.  Patrice Keats
and Marla Buchanan’s study entitled “Secondary Traumatization in First-Responders: A Critical Ethnographic Study of Journalists and Photojournalists” added to that work by putting
voice to the experiences of journalists working in Canada. (I was interviewed as part
of that study.)  But it is just a beginning.

Most current journalism programs in Canada give the
issue cursory treatment.  I am not aware of any Canadian journalism program that
provides a full course on violence and trauma. 
And that macho “suck it up” attitude is still prevalent in many
newsrooms.  I will never forget the blank look I got talking to a newsroom manager
about this issue.  It had simply never occurred to this long-time newsman that
supporting his journalists in covering violence and trauma was part of his
job.  I believe that attitudes are slowly changing as the issues of
covering trauma and violence get more attention.  There is a need for more
journalists to come forward and openly discuss issues arising from the coverage
of violence and trauma — be it in Afghanistan, a child shot on a Canadian city
street, the daily realities of aboriginal communities, sitting through a trial
like Picton or Bernardo or covering natural disasters such as forest fires,
floods and hurricanes in Canadian communities.

The Dart Center, now based at Columbia University,
is an international endeavour.  It operates in Australia/Asia and Europe as well
as in the Americas. 
However, after ten years, it still has only one journalist working in Canada amongst its alumni. 
Here in Canada,
the CAJ includes sessions about trauma at its annual national
conference.  And the newly founded Canadian Journalism Forum on Violence
and Trauma is helping to develop an increased awareness about both the physical
safety and emotional health of journalists, here and abroad.  Much of the discussion so far has been about
the impact of trauma and violence on the journalism community.  I hope that more research will also be
undertaken on the ethical issues that media coverage has on the victims of
violence and trauma and their communities.

George Hoff
is former managing editor of CBC’s Ottawa Bureau, and now a freelance
producer and an instructor at Centennial College in Toronto.

Watch the Dart Center website for more information on the 2010 Ochberg Fellowships in May.  The deadline for applications will be at the end of June and the results announced in early August.