Reporting on journalists in harm’s way

There were a number of very interesting seminars and panel discussions at this year’s national conference of the Canadian Association of Journalists in Montreal in late May. Among conferees, the most popular panels were those on “Ottawa’s Information Lockdown and What Journalists Should Do About It” and “The Future of the Daily Newspaper.”

Equally interesting, however, was a discussion titled “In Harm’s Way,” moderated by Cliff Lonsdale, a professor at the University of Western Ontario’s graduate journalism program. The panelists were Rodney Pinder, director of the International News Safety Institute, based in Britain, Dr. Anthony Feinstein, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Toronto and one of the world’s leading experts on the impact of post-traumatic stress disorder on journalists, and Lorne Motley, editor-in-chief of the Calgary Herald.

The session was fascinating, given each of the unique perspectives present. Pinder argued forcefully for the need for journalists to report on the casualties among their own — something we’re often loath to do. More journalists die each year around the globe in the line of duty than do aid workers, he said, yet journalists do not often report on deaths or the threat of death within their ranks. Feinstein discussed the prevalence of PTSD among journalists who cover war and conflict, but also made the point that reporters who cover the police, crime and court beats over many years can also suffer from the disorder. Motley provided a glimpse into the emotional journey within his newspaper’s newsroom in the hours, days and months after Herald reporter Michelle Lang was killed in Afghanistan (see my previous post).

To promote awareness of these issues in Canada, Lonsdale and veteran journalist Jane Hawkes have co-founded the Canadian Journalism Forum on Violence and Trauma, which “promotes the physical and emotional safety of journalists in Canada and abroad. We also address the impact of coverage on people caught up in violent and traumatic stories as well as the effects that covering violence and trauma may have on news consumers.”

One of the Forum’s goals is to make hazardous-environment training — the kind provided by large news organizations to their journalists ahead of risky assignments — more widely available to freelance journalists and others who may not be provided with such preparation. Though many Canadian journalists and their employers agree with that notion in principle, fundraising for it has been a challenge.

My own view is that Lonsdale, Hawkes and the rest of the board of the fledgling Forum are onto something here. As news organizations and their distribution platforms change, and as those companies divest themselves of full-time staff in favour of additional part-timers and stringers, the numbers of freelance and unilateral journalists are likely to swell. And the need for better preparation for dangerous situations will grow too.

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