Newsroom managers slow to acknowledge stress injuries

Operational stress injuries in journalists can be successfully treated — and the earlier it’s dealt with the better. That was the most important take-away for me from this year’s Journalism and Risk workshop, offered by the Canadian Journalism Forum on Violence and Trauma at Western University on Saturday.

Organized by veteran journalists Cliff Lonsdale and Jane Hawkes, the annual workshop this year featured CBC Radio’s Rick MacInnes-Rae, London Health Sciences Centre’s Karen Pierre, London Free Press reporter Joe Belanger, and Canadian Press reporter Colin Perkel as panellists. Through video presentations and panel discussions, the workshop intends to prepare young journalists for the risks they’ll face — domestically and internationally — in the pursuit of their vocation. See my Twitter feed for a running summary (look for Nov. 10) of the day’s proceedings.

I was especially struck by two assertions by the panellists. First, it was Pierre’s view that stress injuries in journalists can nearly always be successfully treated, especially if they’re identified early on. Second, it was Belanger’s contention that newsroom managers generally don’t recognize stress injuries in their staff until they become very serious.

As a former newsroom manager, I can attest to the latter. Newsroom culture is not unlike the macho culture that pervades workers in emergency services such as police, fire and paramedical services — we compartmentalize the stress and shock, put it on a shelf, do our work and then go home. Too few newsroom managers appreciate the number of walking wounded within their organizations — and are too slow to recognize injury. Far too often, journalists are left untreated altogether and their efforts to cope with their accumulated injuries relegate them to sideline status. Some are demoted or transferred to other duties; others are forcibly retired or bought out.

It is incumbent on newsroom managers to deal with the injuries and stresses of their staff in a timely manner. In fact, a training module for newsroom managers, created by the Forum or some other organization, would be useful tool in many Canadian newsrooms.

Another memorable moment from this year’s workshop: Perkel’s very personal account of the final hours of the life of Calgary Herald reporter Michelle Lang, who died covering the Canadian mission in Afghanistan. It was incredibly moving. A previous post on Lang’s death is here.

Panellists Rick MacInnes-Rae, Karen Pierre, Joe Belanger and Colin Perkel participated in Saturday’s Journalists & Risk workshop.

Egypt earns headlines around the globe

The front page of Al-Ahram, Cairo, Egypt, Feb. 12, 2011

It was Philip Graham, publisher of the Washington Post from 1946 until his death in 1963, who coined the phrase that has since almost become cliché in the world of journalism and beyond. In a speech to Newsweek’s correspondents in London on April 29, 1963, he urged them, “Let us today drudge on about our inescapably impossible task of providing, every week, a first rough draft of a history that will never be completed about a world we can never really understand.”

Yesterday was one of those days when it was easy for journalists in Egypt and around the world to feel as if they were, indeed, writing the first rough draft of history. And today is one of those rare days where one story dominates headlines around the world: Egypt. The resignation of president Hosni Mubarak inspired front-page designers on five continents to mark the day in unusual and special ways.

That makes it a perfect day to check out the website maintained by Washington-based Newseum. Sort through the world’s front pages by region, compare visual treatments of the story from continent to continent and notice the headlines, including their emphases and nuances. The Newseum’s newspaper front-page index is here.

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.

Reporter Michelle Lang dies in Afghanistan

It isn’t often that Canadian journalists die in the line of duty, at home or abroad. That fact alone makes the death yesterday of 34-year-old Calgary Herald reporter Michelle Lang remarkable. She was killed alongside four Canadian Forces soldiers as their armoured vehicle was hit by an improvised explosive device. The Taliban have claimed responsibility.

Michelle Lang

Lang’s untimely death has hit journalists hard — not because her life was somehow more important than the soldiers who died with her, but because the Canadian journalistic community is, despite appearances, a relatively small one. There are few among us who do not personally know someone who has been to Afghanistan to report on Canada’s mission there. Lang was the first to die doing it.

I did not personally know Lang. Over the past day, tributes from those who were well acquainted with her have been posted; they come from across the country and overseas. There is the account of Globe and Mail reporters Patrick White (on the ground in Afghanistan) and Anna Mehler Paperny on Lang’s career, spirit and courage. There is the column by Windsor Star reporter Craig Pearson on the loss of a journalistic comrade. There is the account of Emmy Award-winning reporter Graeme Smith, also of the Globe and Mail, on the fear journalists confront while working in a war zone. There is a blog post by U.S. Ambassador to Canada David Jacobson, one of the last people to be interviewed by Lang. There are statements of regret and condolence by many journalistic organizations, including Canadian Journalists for Free Expression. There is a tribute by Canwest News Service columnist Don Martin.

Dozens of Canadian journalists have, over the past six years, volunteered for a tour of duty in Afghanistan. Many do more than volunteer — they actively lobby their managers, syndicates and networks for the opportunity to go. Still others see the chance to work in a war zone, even for a short period of time, as a way to burnish their professional credentials and hone their abilities. All, however, are driven by the desire to tell the story of what Canada is doing in such a remote part of the world — and whether, through military action or humanitarian intervention, we’re making a positive difference there.

We owe a debt to Lang — for modelling journalistic integrity and excellence; for being brave enough to risk her life for the sake of understanding and clarity; and for reminding us that journalistic zeal and passion are no antidote against the deadly, ugly realities of armed conflict.

Amanda Lindhout: a year in captivity

Amanda Lindhout posted this photo of herself on her Facebook page
Amanda Lindhout, from her Facebook page

One year ago today, freelance journalists Amanda Lindhout of Canada, Nigel Brennan of Australia, Abdifatah Mohammed Elmi of Somalia and their two drivers were abducted as they were returning from the Afgoye refugee camp, about 20 kilometres west of the Somali capital, Mogadishu.

Elmi and the drivers were released from captivity on Jan. 15; they had been separated from Lindhout and Brennan immediately after capture.

Over the past year, little has been heard from the captors, their hostages, the families (who don’t wish to jeopardize official efforts to free the pair) or government sources. The information that has surfaced is sobering, speculative and unconfirmed.

A poor-quality silent video appeared on the Al-Jazeera TV network within weeks of the abduction. Both CTV News and Omni Television have received frantic phone calls from a woman claiming to be Lindhout, but her identity couldn’t be confirmed. Rumours abound that Lindhout has attempted escape twice, only to be recaptured. Reports of ransom demands have been contradictory. A Somali news website has suggested Lindhout is already a victim of Stockholm syndrome, living happily with one of her captors and a child she bore. Some of Lindhout’s supporters and a few news organizations have been critical of what appears to them to be the lack of a robust response from Ottawa, where terse statements are given that efforts to secure the release of the 28-year-old Sylvan Lake, Alta., woman are continuing through “appropriate channels.” For more details, see this story in the Red Deer Advocate.

Lindhout’s fate and Ottawa’s capacity to deal with her predicament should be of special concern to Canadian journalists. As a freelancer in a foreign country, she simply does not have the institutional support of a major Canadian news organization, as did Mellissa Fung, the CBC reporter captured in Afghanistan. In Fung’s case, it became clear that the CBC was in regular contact with Canadian government officials, senior executives at other Canadian news organizations, and even Afghan intermediaries.

Depending on the business models that emerge for journalism over the coming decade, the number of freelance journalists who work in Canada and abroad as independent contractors to media outlets, both large and small, is likely to increase, not decrease. Multimedia journalists such as Lindhout, who are either self-assigning or commissioned by staff-lean news outlets to prepare specific reports, could rapidly become the norm, not the exception. Therefore, the capacity of the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade to deal with the illness, incapacity, arrest, detention or abduction of Canadians abroad, including failed states such as Somalia, is likely to become an ever-greater issue — as will be the capacity of organizations such as Reporters Without Borders, which has issued a statement on the grim Lindhout anniversary, to support them.

Update 1 (Aug. 24): The Canadian Association of Journalists today issued a press release calling on Prime Minister Stephen Harper to help free Lindhout.

Update 2 (Nov. 28): Lindhout and Brennan were released by their Somali captors on Nov. 25. The two journalists travelled to Nairobi the following day for medical treatment. Reports indicate a ransom payment of $600,000 (U.S.) was paid by the families.