THE execution of journalists and emerging brutal reign of terror group Islamic State are putting to the test precautions taken by Australian media in a bid to safeguard correspondents working in the Middle East.
With safety protocols having been steadily ratcheted up in recent years, news groups including Fairfax and the ABC are increasingly alert to the risks facing their frontline reporters.
“Those of us working in and around Syria have been acutely aware of the increasing danger for the last few years,” says Ruth Pollard, Middle East correspondent for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.
Of the recent beheadings of American journalists Jim Foley and Steve Sotloff by IS militants, she adds: “It is too painful to even think about it.”
The heightened caution extends beyond the physical, even beyond geography. These days, news groups are more mindful of the effects on mental wellbeing that sustained exposure to traumatic events can have on reporters, working both abroad and at home.
But foreign correspondents can face unique pressures in which their own lives can be at great risk and the events they race to cover can be heartbreakingly tough. Post-traumatic stress looms as a major health risk.
Some have quit the profession as a consequence; others have come unstuck when they have least expected it. Kimina Lyall, a former South-East Asia correspondent for The Australian, felt deeply traumatised after reporting on the 2004 tsunami; Phil Williams, of the ABC, paid a heavy emotional price in the wake of the Beslan school massacre of the same year; ABC colleague Sally Sara revealed only recently that she had suffered post-traumatic stress some months after completing her posting to Afghanistan.
Fairfax Media has introduced strict policies for its correspondents in recent years, ahead of his appointment two years ago as editor-in-chief of The Age, says Andrew Holden.
Fairfax offers whatever its correspondents need “in terms of security advice and on-ground support”, he says. “Although, if an armed security detail is considered necessary, it is unlikely we would approve [a correspondent’s] presence in that area.”
The ABC’s Heather Forbes, manager of WHS and trauma, endorses a similar view: “ABC journalists are expected to make their personal safety a priority at all times,” she says. “No story is worth dying for.”
As a result, correspondents increasingly are made to tick the boxes on safety ahead of an assignment. Travel plans are scrutinised closely by security experts, regular contact procedures agreed and contingencies put in place.
Pollard says she always prepares a detailed security plan that draws on commitments from all those involved – editors, a security consultant, her partner and herself.
Holden confirms this as pro-forma for Fairfax correspondents. “All correspondents going into a war zone must file a security plan before they leave, which is assessed by an international security expert, and on this person’s recommendations we either approve or disapprove,” he says.
The plan can include flight and hotel details, communications set-up and on-ground security support. Regular phone contact is also demanded of correspondents.
“We caution them to avoid the frontline and obviously to ensure they do not cross dangerous territory,” says Holden. “Their safety is paramount.”
Preparation can be laborious. Pollard’s routine includes detailed planning around equipment (flak jacket, helmet, satellite phone and so forth) as well as “a schedule of check-ins with the foreign desk (outside my time zone) and a secondary schedule of check-ins with my partner (inside my time zone); a plan for Fairfax to follow if I am arrested; and a plan in case I am kidnapped, including a discussion around whether there should be a media blackout”.
Sometimes, 90 per cent of the job in a war zone can amount to logistics, she adds.
“Which road is safe? What time is it safe to travel down it? Can we get enough petrol for the journey? Should I wear my flak or not wear my flak? Should I wear a headscarf or not? Is this meeting point safe or not? Do I have enough credit in my phone for constant texting to Australia for my security check-ins? Do these soldiers seem to have control of the area they say they control? Have I left enough time for the journey to return in daylight hours?
“There’s often not a lot of time or headspace left for the actual story, which is another challenge.”
Though planning is consensual by nature, Pollard’s Fairfax colleague, South-East Asia correspondent Lindsay Murdoch, says that correspondents take the lead in deciding how to approach a story.
On a recent assignment in the Philippines, Murdoch proposed using 32 ground troops for security “and Fairfax supported my decision”. “It is a very important fact that Fairfax trusts its correspondents,” Murdoch says.
That attention to security has been intensifying across all media groups. The ABC’s Zoe Daniel says that while covering Africa in 2005, she would check in with the office much less frequently than she does now.
“Now, that is not allowed at all. Not only for safety reasons but editorial reasons, too: filing has increased tremendously,” she says.
Typically, on appointment, foreign correspondents undergo a crash course in how to watch their backs – so-called “hostile environment safety training”, which is conducted in Australia by at least two private companies that draw on ex-army personnel as trainers.
The Age’s Jewel Topsfield, who will take over Fairfax’s Jakarta bureau in the New Year, undertook the training recently, together with 13 other journalists, at a scout camp in Wollongong run by security company Beltin.
“The best thing about this training is it is conducted by ex-military people who teach journalists how to plan,” she says. “Journalists are used to responding to deadlines, so they wing things.”
Topsfield cites Beltin’s training acronym SMEAC, which stands for situation, mission, education, administration and communication. The list is deceptively simple, but the reality can be unnerving. “The training teaches basic first aid, including bullet wound management and has simulation sessions that can be intimidating initially.”
“Which road is safe? What time is it safe to travel down it? Can we get enough petrol for the journey? Should I wear my flak or not wear my flak? Should I wear a headscarf or not? Is this meeting point safe or not? Do I have enough credit in my phone for constant texting to Australia for my security check-ins? Do these soldiers seem to have control of the area they say they control? Have I left enough time for the journey to return in daylight hours?” — Fairfax correspondent Ruth Pollard
The ABC uses the services of another company, Dynamiq. Together with Beltin, the companies count as clients all the major media groups in Australia.
Some correspondents, such as the ABC’s Daniel, willingly repeat the dose of reality. She has done the hostile environments training multiple times over the last 10 years and says it is good practice to refresh learning.
“In a real hostile situation stress is magnified, the scenario is magnified,” she says. “But by going through a combination of scenarios in the training, you tend to respond better in an actual situation. If you are in the line of fire what is your go-to response? The training does kick in those times.”
Pollard leaves nothing to chance. “Correspondents often have to think on their feet,” she says. “Assess every situation, hour-by-hour.”
While no back-up system is failsafe, there is comfort in the fact that a big organisation is beholden to its correspondent, a measure of insurance that is not extended routinely to freelancers operating in conflict zones, although many media groups, which have been forced by economic pressures to close foreign bureaus, are increasingly reliant on freelancers for copy.
But Andrew Holden says that Fairfax has become mindful of the escalating danger for freelancers. “We have no ability to help with their safety, and do not believe we should profit from their work if we cannot protect them.”
The big international news agency Agence France-Presse has had a similar change of heart, the murder of 40-year-old Foley the catalyst.
“Since August 2013, we have stopped sending any journalists into rebel-held parts of Syria,” AFP declared in a statement issued last month. “The situation there is out of control and far too dangerous. A foreign reporter venturing into those lawless areas runs a serious risk of being kidnapped or killed as tragically happened to James Foley, a regular AFP contributor murdered by IS militants in August.”
Foley (pictured right) and Sotloff (below) are among 96 journalists killed in the world in 2014. Last year, 113 died, mostly nationals who died covering conflicts in their own country. But at least nine of those who died were freelancers, some of whom were covering foreign conflicts for western media.
Though they are often left to their own devices, freelance reporters do get the offer of support from several not-for-profit bodies – Reporters Instructed in Saving Colleagues (RISC), Reporters Without Borders and the International Federation of Journalists among them – that offer training and modest back-up.
While the safety of correspondents operating in strife-torn regions remains a priority, Australian media groups are also better coming to grips with the mental toll that can be born by their reporters.
Many have teamed with the Dart Centre for Journalism and Trauma , which grew out of the Graduate School of Journalism at New York’s Columbia University and supports journalists worldwide who report on traumatic events. The Dart approach is to partner mental health experts, educators and researchers with journalists.
Dart has been gradually embedding itself in Australia’s newsroom consciousness since 2004, with the ABC in particular tapping Dart resources for its journalists irrespective of whether they are covering domestic or foreign stories. As a consequence, Dart has worked with hundreds of Australian journalists over the past decade.
Despite this shift in attitudes, Cait McMahon, of Dart’s Asia Pacific branch, argues that more needs to be done still “in terms of both pre as well as post-assignment safety and mental well-being of journalists”.
It is a sentiment shared by the journalists’ union, the Media Arts and Entertainment Alliance, which, according to spokesman Mike Dobbie, believes media groups could do more to train, equip and provide ongoing support for journalists who report from conflict zones.
But at the same time, he concedes: “Safety decisions in a conflict zone are matters for the individual – no story is worth dying for.”
It is a recurring theme at a time when the risk of death for frontline reporters arguably is greater than ever. And with governments even less able to ensure their citizens’ safety. A spokesman for the Department of Foreign affairs and Trade, Jonathan Muir, confirms reality: “It is a journalist’s and media group’s responsibility. They should be taking care of their safety, and not us.”
But safety is not just about coming home in one piece, and McMahon’s own research from 10 years ago underpins her concern about journalists’ mental wellbeing. Her study, conducted with Swinburne University’s Professor Glen Bates, found that a significant majority of journalists who covered trauma (four-out-of-five, in fact) reported experiencing peri-traumatic distress at the time of reporting, with the majority also experiencing helplessness. And around 16 per cent of the 115 journalists surveyed, suffered from a form of post-traumatic stress disorder.
The study also brought to light another outcome of the cumulative effects of reporting traumatic events – so-called post-traumatic growth or PTG – a condition experienced by a third of the journalists in the study.
“PTG doesn’t take away negative effects,” says Ms McMahon. “But it is an experience that gives you a deeper sense of life and appreciation of your family and things around you.”
The ABC’s Europe correspondent, Phil Williams, affirms the ABC’s approach, through Dart, hailing the public broadcaster a leader in the field of trauma awareness and post-assignment care. His own health was badly affected post-Beslan, when he bottled up emotion and was left feeling powerless and emotionally drained.
“I’ve seen the result in myself of not letting it out, of not dealing with it as it happens,” he told ABC TV’s Compassin 2007. “And I’ve seen what’s happened to some of . . . my colleagues, particularly the older generation cameramen and journalists and soundmen, who self-medicated. They drank. They took drugs. They had broken relationships. It’s a waste, it’s just a waste.”
Both the ABC and Fairfax offer their journalists access to counselling and peer support, although Ms McMahon says Dart is pushing for compulsory sessions with a counsellor every three months for all correspondents – irrespective of where they work — who report on traumatic events.
Such sessions are about diffusing rather than debriefing. “Debriefing does not have a good connotation in psychology,” says Ms McMahon. “By ‘diffusing’ we acknowledge the traumatic event and work on it gradually.”
Peer support is also gaining favour in newsrooms with journalists being trained to deliver psychological ‘first aid’ and to recognise when their colleagues are suffering in silence.
Zoe Daniel supports the concept “I sometimes prefer talking to a friend who would say ‘Yes, this happened to me, too’. You can compare notes about what you are feeling rather than going through a formal process. Although, you may be able to download completely to a counselor, so those two things work together – peer support and counseling.”
However, Daniel says these programs are still evolving. “No counselling was offered to me when I was in Africa. By the time I was posted to Bangkok, a counsellor called me twice a year. But it was very generic.”
Ruth Pollard stays in touch “when I feel the need” with a trauma counsellor who specialises in working with journalists, via Skype or Facetime. “My senior editors also check in with me, sometimes by phone, sometimes by email, to see how I am travelling.”
Ms McMahon admits that newsroom attitudes have started changing only over the last few years.
“It was a gradual shift from no interest to minimal interest, and now all major groups utilise the services of Dart for their journalists.”
Further underscoring the need was an attempt two years ago by a former Walkley Award-winning Age photographer to sue Fairfax Media for more than $700,000 after her life unravelled when she was sent to cover the first anniversary of the 2002 Bali bombings.
The photographer alleged the newspaper had failed to provide a safe workplace and breached its responsibility to care for her mental health. A judge ruled however that the newspaper had not been negligent.
But McMahon says: “Clearly the support systems were not personalised enough for a journalist. It was certainly a falling down.”
Had the attitude shift across media mastheads occurred sooner, former News Corp correspondent Kimina Lyall (above) says she would probably still be a journalist.
Based in South-East Asia for The Australian, Lyall covered the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami from Thailand and became a part of the story that she was covering when a house she had recently built was damaged and her partner nearly died. She found herself deeply traumatised as a result, but felt unsupported by her employer. She was diagnosed with PTSD in 2005.
“I was falling apart, and [the company] knew it,” she says. “They thought that they had expunged their duty by asking ‘Are you ok’, and me by answering, ‘Yes, I am’.”
For Lyall, the disaster was “a double-edged sword”: “the privilege of actually experiencing a story when usually we are running in after the event and asking other people what happened — versus the need to take care of myself and my partner, who had nearly died and was in need of support”.
When she returned to Australia, no-one mentioned counselling or special assistance. She had to ask for it.
“The people who move towards any traumatic event – such as bombings, terror attacks, bush fires – are usually journalists, paramedics, firefighters. They move towards the disaster because they are paid by their employers to do so. Then, whose responsibility is it to take care of these people?”
Lyall’s experiences ultimately led to her leaving journalism. She now works outside of the media, and is a director and company secretary of the Asia-Pacific chapter of the Dart Centre for Journalism and Trauma.
Attempts to seek comment from News Corp about its current policies regarding the safety of its correspondents were unsuccessful.
Still, the issue of mandatory counselling for journalists remains unresolved. Fairfax Media, according to Age chief Andrew Holden, does not demand counseling for staff. But all correspondents are placed in contact with Dart and are strongly encouraged to use its services. “The offer of counselling is open-ended,” he adds.
But the ABC’s Daniel (above, right) believes counselling should be compulsory and ongoing. “Someone might not use [a counsellor] if just given the option,” she says. “You might think you are all right, but you might not be. If someone is monitoring you over a period they may pick it up better. Depends on what kind of person you are.”
Lindsay Murdoch, who has spent much of his 40-year career reporting from foreign posts, says that if counselling had been mandatory, he probably would have made use of it.
“Everyone has a different way to deal with reporting on traumatic events,” he says resignedly. “I move on to the next story and try not to think about it. It is not the best thing to do . . . I am damaged by it probably, but not to the extent that it affects my work or family.
“I know counselling is there and available. PTSD was never around up until a few years ago. But I know it’s a real thing. The effects are cumulative and they build on you over years. This stuff does not leave you.”
Dart is pushing for organisations to make post-assignment therapy available for a minimum of 18 months.
“Everyone has a different way to deal with reporting on traumatic events. I move on to the next story and try not to think about it. It is not the best thing to do . . . I am damaged by it probably, but not to the extent that it affects my work or family.” — Fairfax correspondent Lindsay Murdoch
“Journos get busy when they come back from an assignment in finding a house, school for their kids, a stable job,” says Cait McMahon. “They cannot find time immediately to slow down and reflect on what they have been through. A continuous support from their employer for a prolonged period is, hence, a necessity.”
It was trauma as a psychological ‘sleeper’ that brought Sally Sara unstuck in late 2012. Speaking on ABC Radio recently, she revealed that she had suffered debilitating PTSD several months are returning from Afghanistan.
“I understand now that human beings have a deep, deep aversion to life threatening danger,” she told Correspondents Reporton Radio National. “And when you go against that instinct, again and again, year after year, damage is being done and, one day, it will snap back and hit you. And that’s what happened.
“As for the bigger picture, we know that journalists who cover war are far more likely to be affected by PTSD than their colleagues. We know that the longer journalists are out in the field, the worse it is. We also know that journalists who work on their own are at increased risk.
“The other important thing to understand is the delay. PTSD can hit months or years after the actual trauma . . . In some ways, coming home from war can be more difficult than going in the first place.” — the ABC’s Sally Sara
“The other important thing to understand is the delay. PTSD can hit months or years after the actual trauma . . . In some ways, coming home from war can be more difficult than going in the first place.”
Sara is a former Dart Centre Ochberg fellow, which took her to New York and immersed her in a week of intensive briefings and discussions with interdisciplinary experts in trauma and mental health. So, too, are Williams and Pollard, the latter who says worldwide Dart contacts remain a key support in her current role traversing the Middle East.
Nevertheless, reacclimatizing after sometimes weeks on the road can remain a challenge. “For me, the re-entry into ‘normal’ life after an intense experience such as covering the recent war in Gaza is difficult,” says Pollard.
“I struggle with so many different feelings – physical exhaustion from working for nearly three weeks without a day off; grief from all of the death, destruction and the multiple interviews with deeply traumatised survivors, replaying scenes of intense fear, such as repeated airstrikes or mortar fire, and the knowledge that I need to recover and get back out there again to Iraq or wherever the next story is unfolding.
“I try to get back into an exercise routine that helps ease some of that anxiety but all my body wants to do is sleep. Some ‘re-entries’ are better than others.”
Zoe Daniel says media groups need to think hard before sending their correspondents to hostile environments. “They need to ask: ‘How much do we need to put our correspondents at risk?’ ‘What could be gained by sending them there?’ ‘How will it advance our understanding of the issue if we send them?”
That, as always, remains a balancing act, between getting the story and doing so safely.
“More can always be done, and no amount of training or counseling can prepare journalists and other news personnel for some of the horrific scenes they will witness and situations they will find themselves in when they go to places of human tragedy and despair,” says Mark Pearson, Professor of Journalism and Social Media at Griffith University and Australian correspondent for Reporters Without Borders.
“Reporting horrific scenes is a part of journalism calling,” he adds.
For Daniel, it is this kind of altruism that eclipses the danger. “The thing that is attractive is, covering events that need exposure. You are an eyewitness to events rather than watching them from far. It is rather a pure form of journalism.”
► This story was republished by Emergency Journalism, an initiative of the European Journalism Centre.