Sixteen journalists with links to Northern Ireland have documented their experiences of reporting traumatic stories and reflected on the impact on their lives in a new book edited by Leona O’Neill and Chris Lindsay.
Breaking: Trauma in the Newsroom tells stories of some people who have escaped their old profession. It tells the stories of some who have witnessed terrible things but, at face value, intimate that they walked away largely unscathed … though the reader may read between the lines and wonder. And it tells the stories of others who are still trapped in their dream profession and only now realising that they’ve mostly avoided processing the physical and mental health issues that they carry with them.
These are not all reflections on years of reporting the Troubles. Many of the journalists have careers that span decades of reporting at home and abroad. The common thread is that telling the story of people touched by tragedy leaves a mark that few journalists can truly erase or ignore when they close their eyes at night.
Ivan Little writes movingly about his time in New York after 9/11, and following a family looking for a relative who had been caught up in the 2004 tsunami that hit Phuket in Thailand. David McIlveen describes being embedded in a London hospital ward during the Covid pandemic, capturing footage of patients dying and the distressed relatives and staff.
Natasha Sayee covered the 2011 trial of two hotel workers accused of the murder of Michaela McAreavey. Sayee spent 12 weeks in Mauritius reporting for the BBC, refusing offers to come home, even though she was “listening to the most horrific details of the murder in the court” and then facing abuse from the islanders if she left the confines of her hotel at the weekends.
In 2017, Cathal McNaughton photographed the genocide of the Rohingya in Myanmar and the experience of refugees who fled to Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh. He found himself intervening when a man was trampled by a crowd and first aid was not offered. He received a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage, but returning from the New York award ceremony, he was refused re-entry to India where he lived, cut off from his girlfriend, his apartment, his belongings, his cameras, his job. Never to return due to the Indian government’s view on his reporting on the conflict in Kashmir.
The book’s chapters contain ragged stories. Some contributors have applied polish and thrown in amusing anecdotes. Others read like raw confessions, cathartic admissions of dark baggage that has troubled them for decades. Some chapters end with a plea for colleagues and news organisations to take mental health more seriously. A few note how rare it is for a colleague to ask “how are you?” in the fray of a big news story. Sayee notes how RTÉ’s Tommie Gorman became “like a Daddy” to those covering the McAreavey trial in Mauritius once she’d got over her competitive streak.
A number of those writing or being interviewed admit that their involvement in the book finally triggered them to seek help after years of holding back. One seasoned correspondent for a major broadcaster remarkably tells his interviewer that:
“In many ways talking now about it has been the most I have discussed any of this, ever. I have never discussed it with a therapist or a counsellor or a GP. I have probably only touched upon it, even with my own family, only if they have asked.”
He was on the scene of the IRA’s Shankill Road bomb as the police were establishing a cordon and emergency services arrived. Images from what he saw that day came back to him in nightmares. Driving to Omagh to report from the memorial service a week after the devastating bomb, he had to stop the car at the side of the road to cry as he thought about the stories he’d heard from the bereaved over the previous week. Journalists are a lot less hard-nosed and stoic that their on-screen image might suggest.
Several contributors praise the work of paramedics and ambulance drivers attending incidents on the streets of Northern Ireland, naming some who qualify as true heroes in their eyes. Those who filmed, photographed, wrote and talked about events raise questions about their role. They’re uncomfortable and somewhat perturbed when their compassion and sensitivity is recognised publicly by families connected with the stories they have reported on. Many admit to being adrenaline junkies, some using alcohol for a time to dull the pain of events. Some journalists speak of being “in competition” with other broadcasters for “the best pictures”, racing into situations at home and abroad that put them further in harm’s way that their risk assessment might allow.
While the Northern Ireland press pack over the last forty years is pretty sizeable – the 16 voices in the book only represent a tiny fraction of the overall set of experiences – there’s a real sense of the media being a tight-knit community.
David Blevins and Niall Carson were nearby, reporting from the same Ardoyne riot in which one of the book’s editors Chris Lindsay was injured by a blast bomb. Carson was also working in Creggan on the night that Lyra McKee was shot and the book’s other editor Leona O’Neill phoned for the ambulance. Other colleagues remember the night that a bullet passed through Carson’s leg while he was covering an incident on the Newtownards Road and shots were fired by a gunman in Short Strand.
The trauma experienced doesn’t just come from what they witnessed and reported. The aftermath can bring its own hurt and harm. O’Neill describes in detail the vicious trolling and online attacks from conspiracists that followed her coverage of Lyra McKee’s death. Patricia Devlin documents the abuse, sexual harassment and threats to her family she has received, often not the work of “run of the mill trolls [but] an orchestrated campaign”. Those disagreeing with what is said, written or captured by journalists would do well to play the ball and not attack the player.
If Breaking was being published in a few months’ time, some of the contributors would most likely have referred to the recent tragedy in Creeslough. Being embedded for a prolonged period in a small community will have built friendships among the local community and reporters on the scene in the immediate aftermath and throughout the week of funerals. But it will also have bruised the resilience of reporters, producers, camera operators and photographers who have had little time to process the grief they witnessed before moving onto the next breaking story. (The Dart Centre for Journalism & Trauma published a set of resources for self-care and peer support aimed at those covering the explosion in Donegal.)
Reading Breaking also brings to my mind Brian Rowan’s most recent book Living With Ghosts: the Inside Story from a ‘Troubles’ Mind. The title says it all. While the majority of the content of each chapter looks under the surface of key moments in the Troubles and peace process that Brian covered, he also leaves room to reflect on how he felt at the time, and how he feels now.
Rowan and Eamon Mallie were put in a car with tape across their eyes and dark glasses on top, and driven to a remote location to write down a statement narrated by the IRA. The manner of the journey did not form part of that night’s news bulletin. Rowan went home and cried as he told his wife the fuller story of how his day had been. It had been a gruelling two days: the night before he’d been part of the BBC crew that came across two bodies on the roadside. Rowan turned down his boss’s casual though sincere offer of counselling.
Earlier this year, one of the five P. O’Neills (IRA spokespersons) he’d dealt with during his career asked him if he’d had any counselling. “We were talking about how moments in that past still play inside all of our heads. The answer is no – not the formal kind that comes with an appointment.” He adds: “None of us has come through that conflict without damage.”
In his role as security correspondent, Rowan describes an “exhaustion” of constantly analysing “two scenes: the one onstage and what you are missing offstage” as the different actors in the conflict simultaneously planned for war and peace, hedging their bets as they waited for other players to make their moves.
His linking of the LVF to the murder of Rosemary Nelson provoked a statement from the paramilitary group asking for a retraction. A threat loomed over him once more. Later he would be hounded by legal letters from the British Government asking for pre-publication access and right of redaction for an upcoming book that would (amongst other topics) discuss loyalist intelligence agents (informers). They argued that even if he didn’t use names, they might be identified. Rowan resisted making changes to his text, but was told that a threat assessment would decide whether some agents might have to be relocated on the basis of what he wrote. Doing his job and telling the whole story of the conflict had repercussions on Rowan and many others.
Both volumes have clearly been cathartic for the authors. They give pause for thought, useful reminders that journalists – in common with many professions – work in a pressurised environment and aren’t always given the space by their colleagues, bosses and readers/listeners/viewers to decompress at the conclusion of a story (or during its telling). Hopefully Breaking will reinvigorate a discussion about promoting good mental health in newsrooms.
Alan Meban. Tweets as @alaninbelfast. Blogs about cinema and theatre over at Alan in Belfast. A freelancer who writes about, reports from, live-tweets and live-streams civic, academic and political events and conferences. He delivers social media training/coaching; produces podcasts and radio programmes; is a FactCheckNI director; a member of Ofcom’s Advisory Committee for Northern Ireland; and a member of the Corrymeela Community.