In favor of conscious reporting

According to Ross, we media professionals are one of the most important and influential social sectors today.

Breaking News  (photo credit: Courtesy)
Breaking News
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Gina Ross’s new book, Breaking News! The Media and the Trauma Vortex: Understanding News Reporting, Journalists and Audiences, rests on my desk as a permanent reminder of the triple harmful effect reporting trauma can have on those who are present at the scene; those watching the news; and the reporters themselves, the journalists.
I covered numerous terrorist attacks in Jerusalem in the early days of my journalistic career. Some of the images stick with you for the rest of your life, like a child’s kippa next to a smoldering bus, or human organs stuck on an overthrown tomato stand in the Mahane Yehuda market. Yet I reported what I saw without any attempt to lessen its impact for my audience.
Ross’s book shows us how media reporting can exacerbate trauma’s impact on the public, deepen their fears, and cause emotional scars. But more importantly and vitally, it teaches us that it is possible to report from the scene without harming journalistic truth, while simultaneously being aware of the impact on the public and doing corrective reporting/conscious reporting.
In the age of social media, when anyone at the scene of a traumatic incident can instantly videotape it with their cellphones and instantly distribute it, unedited, from their own angle and with their own emphasis, the need for conscious, accurate, restrained reporting increases. It becomes more vital!
Yes, our professional journalistic imperative is to just report the situation accurately, even if it is difficult, and not more: see what happened, photograph, write and report back as quickly as you can, and beat the competition.
Yet after reading Gina’s book, it is impossible not to examine the need to include more nuance, bring more angles, and restrain from reruns of blood-dripping close-ups. We must look for the humane moments in the horrifying atrocity, like when a hand reaches out to help the injured – the rescue teams’ work.
Is it possible to express the pain without the detailed description of the blood of horror? Yes. Restraint “sells” as well.
After a bus attack where a grandma and grandson lost their lives on their way to school, I was sent to cover the story. I went to the child’s classroom, to where that child would never return. The teacher was on tranquilizers and dysfunctional. I convinced the principal to overcome her doubts and let me stay. I sat down on one of the little school chairs, while my colleagues from other newspapers were pacing the corridors, looking for “the human angle.”
The children were sitting and drawing with colored pencils, in silence. Their drawings were to express their feelings about what had happened. I felt I did not want to interview anybody. I didn’t want to interview any teachers, any parents or children.
It was one of those rare days when even for a person who made a living from words, there were no words left.
I asked and received permission to take one painting that showed a bus, drawn in a childish hand, going up in flames, and next to it, a child looking out of the window. I faxed it to the newspaper’s editor. The editor requested “more material.” For me, the painting spoke for itself. I only added a paragraph that described the circumstances, time and place where it was drawn. It expressed my feeling that there’s nothing more to add. The editor understood the message.
In the beginning of my career, I heard the sentence of Jerusalemites under shock at least a thousand times: “Suddenly I heard a boom; there was a smell of smoke and a lot of shouting.”
There are situations where it is impossible to diminish the harshness of the incident. But yes, you can also incorporate the efforts of people coming to the rescue, the stories of courage and resilience. And the public can be warned that watching and re-watching the same traumatic images is not healthy. It is traumatizing.
I remember all the terror attack stories I wrote in my life, every one of them, every moment. In one, I went to write a story and bring photographs of a woman who had fallen victim to terror bullets a few hours earlier in French Hill.
The family lives in Jerusalem’s Musrara neighborhood, a stone house that was full of relatives and neighbors who had come to comfort the family. I had only one hour to meet the “submission deadline,” to publish the article.
I went into the heavily furnished Jerusalem living room, and I sat there among strangers, in silence. I just sat there without making any requests, without asking for anything. They all saw me, guessed my identity and the purpose of my presence. In the eyes of the mourners, we, people from the media, are perceived mostly as black crows circling over the corpse.
I looked into the eyes of the father who had lost his wife and into the eyes of the children who had lost their mother – and I still said nothing, and no one spoke to me. Half an hour passed, and I was still sitting there, as one of the mourners. Fifteen more minutes passed. My pager vibrated with messages from the editor in Tel Aviv saying “immediately and now” and “where the hell are you.” But I just couldn’t speak or do anything. I decided I would not look at the clock.
Once he felt comfortable, the father came over and took me by the hand to another room. He wanted to show me the family album, from happier times. I finally found the photograph I could send to my newspaper.
Even more than writers, photographers, both still and video, pay a high personal price for the continuous emotional injury they are exposed to during their work. They struggle to capture on camera the most horrifying moments, the essential moment of terror, unprotected and without filter. They must deliver the strongest images, or they could lose their jobs. They are our brothers-in-arms. They are the ones who bring the real story.
Ross’s book shows us how we will all benefit if the writers, and especially the photographers, will also show moments and images that give some hope, that show men caring for other people’s fate. Everything else is in the editors’ hands anyway, the decision-makers. The editors decide what to include in the radio or TV news story, the home page of the news website, or page 1 of the newspaper.
I believe Ross’s book is a reminder primarily directed to those who bring the final version of the written and photographed content to the public – the editors – and this message cannot be ignored.
They must remember the impact of the reporting and follow their professional conscience – not necessarily a contradiction to their human conscience. But the human first, the professional reporter second.
This novel paradigm discusses how to examine and report on politics, conflict and war through the lens of trauma awareness.
The book is full of other riches for the media. Ross is clearly concerned with the well-being of media professionals. She describes in detail the costs of secondhand trauma for us journalists who cover tragedy and trauma, the cumulative effects, and how it affects our reporting and impacts our audiences.
Just as importantly, her book presents easy-to-follow tools that help us, media professionals, diminish the impact of constantly covering traumatic events on our physical, emotional, and mental well-being. It also covers in detail the impact of trauma on the brain, giving a scientific basis to both the theory of trauma and the tools she presents.
According to Ross, we media professionals are one of the most important and influential social sectors today.
Additionally, I found fascinating Ross’s perspective on collective trauma and what she calls the “collective nervous system.” She makes it easy to understand how trauma’s impact on society is profound and its costs staggering, and most importantly, how trauma causes or amplifies conflicts and leads to violence. As for us journalists, this novel paradigm discusses how we can examine and report on politics, conflict and war through the lens of trauma awareness. Bringing this kind of understanding, using the transformative power that we media professionals have, can help diminish violence, according to Ross. She believes that we are one of the most important and influential social sectors today. I tend to agree with her.
Breaking News! devotes several chapters to discussing the impact of instantaneous 24/7 communication on the global trauma vortex. Ross, however, is hopeful, and brings up the salutary effect of the healing vortex, and how to repair collective trauma to help resolve the part that trauma plays in conflict and violence.
Ross warns us that as media professionals exposed to trauma, we may be pulled in by what she calls the “trauma vortex” of the different parties in a conflict: we may become sympathetic to the polarized beliefs and emotions of one party – those we believe are the victims, the underdog – and lose our impartiality and fail to double-check the information received. Her book is peppered with examples how the media can be misused.
We learn in detail what a collective trauma vortex is made of, how it develops, and the cultural circumstances that contribute to its development. Ross also presents a model how to resolve trauma at national levels through the 10 different social sectors that she identified which interface with trauma. Her book is just as fascinating for the public.
Reassuringly, Ross shows that it is possible to “integrate the knowledge of trauma and get it that to include the bright side, the healing side, we do not need to repress or cancel the bad side, the trauma side.”
She has an interesting take on how memes and intersectionality can be affected by and reflect trauma.
More significantly, the book shows Ross’s respect for the tremendous role that we the media can play, and explores our remarkable potential to heal trauma and benefit humanity. Her optimism can be contagious.
The writer is a member of the Israeli Press Presidium, editor of the Journalists Association Jerusalem website, and author of The Profession Caught in the Net, which deals with professional journalism challenges in the time of Facebook