At the recent Canadian Association of Journalists conference in Toronto, I moderated a panel on social media and trauma.
In effect, does the increased reliance on social media in war zones exacerbate reporters' mental health? And what about local hires who are using cell phones to cover conflict? Are they being put in harm's way even as western media reduce their coverage with their own reporters? Are media encouraging dangerous practices by both staffers and freelancers with social media?
It was an excellent discussion with four distinguished panelists: Esther Enkin, CBC News executive editor, Michelle Shephard, Toronto Star war correspondent, Professor Judith Matloff from Columbia University School of Journalism, a former foreign correspondent who now teaches conflict reporting and Wilf Dinnick , ex-CNN forcorr and now head of Open File.
As is my wont, I mentioned that domestic reporters can also suffer from trauma, especially those who spend their time relentlessly covering crime and violence. I also suggested that western media, especially in North America, report this in a distorted way.
First, as crime rates continue to drop both in the US and Canada, crime reporting still takes on more and more airtime and ink in our media. Second, I referred to crime reporting as "low-hanging fruit": easy to gather thanks to journalists acting (consciously or not) as police agents, often doing public relations (inadvertently) for the cops.
After the panel, I was approached by two young reporters from British Columbia who berated me for "dissing" what they do: the crime reporting.
I was slightly taken aback at their intensity for their subject. We agreed to disagree and they left, clearly annoyed with me and my comments.
It got me to think that as media organizations increase their level of crime reporting, that not only will high profile war reporters - both staffers and local hires - exhibit strains, so can local reporters. Is enough being done to make sure that crime reporters don't burn out in similar ways?
I recall a particularly repulsive story some years ago, involving the murder of two young women in Toronto by a stalker and his wife - Paul Bernardo and Karla Homolka. The trial was brutal in its intensity and the audience was both obsessively fascinated and deeply revolted by the testimony.
Six months after it was over, reporters who attended the trial were having serious psychological problems.
But what about reporters who - day after day - report a lower but more constant level of violence and trauma? How are they handling their assignments? And at a time when jobs are scarce and getting scarcer, do they even dare to ask for help?
Was that what those two young women who gave me hell, were trying to do?