SOMEONE ELSE’S WINDOWS: Dealing with tragedies as journalists

MALAYBALAY CITY (MindaNews/21 December) – Reporters, editors and photojournalists who cover tragic events – murders, wars, plane crashes or disasters – may not realize it, but in many instances they happen to be the first responders to such events. From a purely business viewpoint, getting to the scene ahead of everyone else is an advantage. At times, however, it may pose an ethical dilemma.

For example, if you’re a photographer in the midst of a disaster like the floods induced by Typhoon Sendong, what would your priority be? Take pictures or try to help save lives? If you choose to just do your job and ignore the victims, it may not sit well with the public. After all, a human life is more important than any photo.

Sometimes a journalist’s eagerness to be there as soon as an incident unfolds may result in an ironic twist, as in the case of reporter and photojournalist Erwin Mascarinas who rushed to capture the images of human struggle and suffering at the height of the floods in Cagayan de Oro City between Friday night and early Saturday morning, only to learn later that his home was also swept by the rampaging waters.

Mascarinas’ experience was a rare case of the reporter becoming part of the reported, which may blur the thin line between these two distinct roles. Yet even if journalists won’t become a direct victim like Mascarinas, covering tragedies eventually takes a mental and psychological toll on them no matter the amount of bravado they put up.  Remember that photographer who committed suicide shortly after taking images of emaciated, starving children in an African country who had to crawl toward a UN relief camp?

Journalists think that by placing a “barrier” between them and their sources (victims and witnesses) they can fend off grief, despair and other emotions, thereby remaining faithful to the sacrosanct rule of “objectivity”. What journalists often overlook is the need to react to the situation before them without necessarily becoming personally attached to it.

This tendency to equate detachment with suppressing one’s reaction to a tragedy often leads to traumatic stress. And it’s unfortunate that while soldiers and other security personnel get debriefings to help them deal with combat stress, journalists are seldom, if ever, offered counseling sessions after covering a tragedy – until another one occurs and the cycle repeats itself.

Specific techniques may differ but in the handbook “Tragedies and Journalists,” experts offer the following tips:

1. Know your limits. If you’ve been given a troublesome assignment that you feel you cannot perform, politely express your concern to your supervisor. Tell the supervisor that you may not be the best person for the assignment. Explain why.

2. Take a break. A few minutes or a few hours away from the situation may help relieve your stress.

3. Find someone who is a sensitive listener. It can be an editor or a peer, but you must trust that the listener will not pass judgment on you. Perhaps it is someone who has faced a similar experience.

4. Learn how to deal with your stress. Find a hobby, exercise, attend a house of worship or, most important, spend time with your family, a significant other or friends – or all friends. Try deep-breathing.

Each tragedy creates lasting memories in us as journalists and as human beings. And if we can’t handle these memories well, we will become as traumatized and wounded as the characters in our stories. (MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. H. Marcos C. Mordeno can be reached at [email protected])

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