“Why didn’t you tell me this before?” Why j-schools need risk & trauma training

Megan Radford (pictured below) is a graduate journalism student at the University of
Western Ontario — she’s already undertaken an internship in Malaysia
and covered the G20 protests in Toronto. Last weekend, in her final
term, she attended a workshop on Journalists & Risk which
explored physical and emotional safety considerations in her chosen
profession. Now she asks: Are journalism schools paying too little
attention to these issues — too late?

Megan Radford

As journalists it is sometimes our job to put
ourselves in harm’s way, to get the grisly details and weed out what the
public should know…and what they perhaps should not. What some may not
realize is that the toll of this kind of life begins early. For some it begins
even before we have officially entered the field.

I am a journalism student who has been taught by
those who I consider to be some of the best in the business. But until
recently, I had been given no training in how to deal with the myriad of
difficult events that I have encountered in the past few months. Had I asked or
reached out, my instructors would have been quick to respond. But I didn’t know
what to ask for. Now I do, and so, from a student’s perspective, this is what
you need to know:

It happened so quickly. I arrived at 10 a.m. to
the third floor video department of my internship placement in Malaysia, just
like I had on every other day that month. But on this morning, my supervisor
wanted me to accompany him, a reporter and another intern to an exclusive

That same month M. Krishnan, a man of Indian
descent, had died in the custody of the Malaysian police. There was evidence to
suggest that he had been beaten and refused medical care. The family was
demanding an independent post-mortem to investigate the causes of death. Up to
this point they had refused to speak with the media. But because of the
family’s belief that our news organization was one of the few not controlled by
the government, they agreed to speak with us.

Our crew of four arrived at a block of crammed
apartment buildings. We rode the most decrepit elevator I have ever been in to
the third floor and came to an open door leading to a small apartment. I was
not prepared for the number of extended family members inside the small one
bedroom home. Krishnan’s teenage daughters smiled at me shyly from the kitchen
doorway, their slender arms protectively around their younger brother. On the floor
in the corner of the tiny living room were two older women. Their grave eyes
watched us set up the cameras. We were brought orange soda to drink in glasses.
Then the family retreated out of the shot and Krishnan’s wife and mother
arranged themselves on the couch in front of the cameras.

Not speaking Tamil, it was my job to man one of
the cameras while my colleague conducted the interview. I zoomed in and out,
thinking of the shots I was told to get till I noticed that the mother, who was
speaking at the time, had begun to cry. She did not wail or scream, so there
was nothing to warn me when it happened. But I suddenly became very aware of
the fact that sitting in front of me was a mother just like mine, a mother who
had lost a son and very likely would never find justice for his death. After
that, and throughout the interview with Krishnan’s stoically calm wife, I found
it very difficult to keep my composure. Was I even allowed to cry? I honestly
didn’t know.

In thinking back on that experience, and the
other desperate stories I have reported on in my short time as a journalist, I
feel like I want to scream. I want to scream for that mother who cried so
quietly. I want to scream for the babies who are abandoned by their mothers on
the streets of Kuala Lumpur. I want to scream for the women in the fashion
industry who are treated as sexual objects by certain photographers. I want to
scream for the Congolese family I interviewed in London, Ontario that is losing
loved ones as the war in their home country continues.

I also worry that without the proper risk
assessment training, young journalists like me will be put in physical danger.
When I reported on the G20 protests in Toronto, I was unprepared for the kind
of mayhem that broke out. Similarly, when I was in a crush of people at a Hindu
festival in Malaysia, it was mere instinct that caused me to find a high point
(a metal grate) and to avoid being pressed against a wall, rather than any kind
of training I had received. Often our tendency as inexperienced go-getters is
to run to the story, no matter the danger. We think we are invincible. We are

I recently attended a workshop co-sponsored by
my journalism program and the Canadian Journalism Forum on Violence and Trauma.
My professor, Cliff Lonsdale (formerly of the CBC and a host of other media
outlets) is one of the co-founders of the Forum, and hosts these talks for his
students every year. The workshop, through a panel of journalists and
interviews with top reporters, cameramen and editors from around the world,
gave an overview of the risks that we as journalists, whether at home or
abroad, will encounter in our careers. They run the gamut from mortars, to lone
attackers with guns, to the emotional toll of sitting through a gruesome trial.

We were told that when we go through these
situations, we need to find outlets to deal with the stress right away. We need
to find other hobbies outside of work, we need to exercise to work off the
stress. Most importantly, we need to talk about what we are going through with
someone that we trust. If we don’t, the cumulative effect of the traumas can
build to the point of breakdown.

For some of us in the room, the scenarios were
hypothetical. But for others, those of us who may have had to call a grieving family
for comment, or been exposed to very immediate danger, they were not. The
information we gained from this needed to be put into action. NOW.

I’m sure that my experiences are not extreme,
but the point is that even in such a short time, this job has had an effect on
me. We may be young and we may have been working in the business for less than
a year, but that has not stopped us from experiencing the kind of heartbreak
and fear that any seasoned journalist goes through. This is why we as young journalists
need to be informed of the risks, both mental and physical, that this job can
have, right from the start. Far from being dissuaded from a career in
reporting, I believe it will make us braver, more careful, and ultimately
better journalists.

Megan Radford is a graduate student at the University of Western Ontario’s school of journalism.

Editor’s note: This section is edited by the Canadian Journalism Forum on Violence and Trauma.  The Forum is seeking sponsorship so that it can offer the type of workshop described in this piece to other journalism schools across the country.  The article was unsolicited.