Courtesy: Tony Webster

Do journalists become ‘desensitized’ to crime and tragedy?

If you write daily crime stories, does it become less violent over time? Or is this a survival mechanism?

As a journalist living in Winnipeg, it’s inevitable I write at least two or three crime stories a day. These stories range from stabbings, sexual assaults and gang violence.

And then there’s the international news: terrorist attacks, bombings, violent protests and natural disasters. There’s no shortage of violent and depressing stories to cover when you’re a reporter.

When I first started working in the media, whenever I reported on a sexual assault or homicide, it stayed with me for days. Fast-forward seven years and I’ve almost become used to it. I even find myself turning off my brain when writing stories, trying not too think about it too much. Because if I do, I get lost.

Last year there was a tragic story we covered about a two-year-old boy who wandered off from his house in a small town in Manitoba, Canada. Days later a search party found his body in a small creek — he had drown. It was utterly heart-breaking. Hearing the parents talk about their little boy during a media conference, destroyed me. I had never cried over a story, and finally it hit me. I cried hard. It’s like I had been bottling up all the terrible news stories I had read and written over the years.

And it wasn’t just me who was impacted by the story. Many people in the newsroom were feeling the pain of the tragedy— camera operators, reporters, technical operators and producers. There was a layer of sadness in the newsroom.

Our news director caught wind of this and brought in a professional therapist to talk about stress when working in the news, and what we can do do cope with covering tragedy on a daily basis. It was a great session, we all talked about how graphic stories impacted our mental health. We all agreed sometimes the best you can do is turn off your brain and “try not to think about it.”

So are journalists “desensitized” to tragedy? I don’t think so. I believe this is a coping mechanism. The numbing effect is for survival.

Journalists and mental health

In the video above, BBC producer, Stuart Hughes, talks about how over the last decade it’s become more acceptable for journalists to talk about the pressure and stress they feel in the field.

“In the last 10 years we’ve become more comfortable in talking about psychological trauma,” he said.

Although many journalists are now talking about psychological trauma, we are still lacking in treating the trauma, he added. For example, we need to give more journalists the a option of talking with a psychologist.

The Associated Press is one the many news organization that is reaching out to reporters struggling with mental health. The organizations runs a trauma-education initiative to train reporters to deal with difficult subjects. Employees can also fill out an anonymous survey about their behaviour and receive feedback about whether they should seek help.

The Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, a project of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, offers trauma-awareness training and peer-support program for newsrooms. ABC News and BBC News offer similar peer support for their employees.

As graphic content becomes more available through our growing world, the need for peer support in the newsroom, is more important than ever. Simply “turning off your brain” won’t cut it.