Journalism and Everyday Trauma: A Grounded Theory of the Impact From Death-knocks and Court Reporting

Barnes, Marilyn (Lyn)
Rupar, Verica
Harrison, Jacqueline
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Doctor of Philosophy
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Auckland University of Technology

News is an emotional business (Richards, 2009, p. 308) Journalists are now often carrying out death-knock interviews early in their careers, whereby they are expected to interview the family or friends of a victim immediately after a tragedy. Soon after graduating, some also cover horrific court stories. In New Zealand there are few guidelines – written or oral – about how to cover death-knock interviews or how to filter out the lurid details in court. Rarely are journalists taught how to deal with the range of emotions they are likely to encounter. This lack of insight includes the emotions of people who are suffering, as well as their own. This study focuses on two sites of secondary or indirect trauma: death-knocks and court reporting, as opposed to direct trauma whereby journalists actually witness the event. Previous research has shown that the denial of emotions and psychological damage from ongoing trauma coverage can have a cumulative effect on journalists. The effects include exposure to secondary trauma. The repetitive nature of any work, where death or near-death stories now constantly make the news because of the need to maintain audiences and profits, has exacerbated this issue. The traditional approach to trauma reporting has been to learn on the job, as journalism education has been based on recommendations from the media industry. As a result, journalists can make mistakes as they practise on the public. Because of a traditionally stoic culture and the socialisation process within newsrooms, novice journalists feel the pressure to remain objective and suppress any emotions. Using grounded theory methodology and taking a social constructivist approach, this study analyses data from in-depth, semi-structured interviews with 20 news professionals – 18 journalists and two former media managers. The outcome is an inside account of what those journalists felt and what they experienced as they repeatedly covered trauma on the job. Using participant comments, the study identified three theoretical concepts – Attaining balance, Maintaining balance and Losing balance – and developed a grounded theory that supports the investigation of the tension between objectivity and emotionality in trauma reporting. First, novice journalists need to attain balance. In this phase, they must learn and accept the professional ideology and implicit rules of the newsroom as they come to terms with any conflicting emotions. To do so, at this stage, some adopt strategies to help them manage their work. Second, to maintain balance, they strive to deliver emotionally laden stories to earn rewards and avoid punishment, and some devise other ways to stay in control. Sometimes that control requires emotional labour, or “putting on a mask” and becoming emotionally detached. Third, if they lose the drive to cover trauma and feel they have no control over their work, they may burn out, and lose balance. Therefore, for some journalists who cover trauma-related events on a regular basis, these three theoretical concepts can be phases along a trajectory. The study examines the concept of newsroom socialisation, highlighting the fact that most journalists in New Zealand covering trauma-related incidents are female and most journalism graduates are also female. This scenario can accentuate the existing power imbalance within traditional, male-dominated newsrooms to the point whereby females are undervalued and can become easy targets for bullying. The increasingly competitive nature of newsrooms fosters superficial support among colleagues, and in some cases, encourages the ongoing stigma related to mental health issues. Based on the findings, this study argues that the current legislation in New Zealand that prevents trauma victims being able to sue for work-related stress, contributes to the inability of the country’s newsrooms to address concerns related to trauma work. As a result, trauma training needs to be mandatory in journalism programmes so that graduates are aware of resources and the importance of self-care.

Trauma journalism , Trauma education , New Zealand , Gender and journalism , Death-knocks , Court reporting
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