The survivor journalists

They are survivors first. Journalists second
By Charlotte Albutt
9 July 2021

There is an area on the outskirts of Freetown that still triggers a similar feeling of panic and helplessness that journalist Christopher Carew felt four years ago. The memories of what happened and what he saw at Regent that day are so painful that he avoids going there even today.

Carew, a reporter for African Young Voices Television, was told there had been a flood, and he needed to cover it. He remembers the date: 14 August 2017. He did not know then that he would be one of the first journalists on the scene of a catastrophic mudslide. Days of rain had caused a flank of Sugar Loaf mountain to collapse, and the colossal deluge of debris — rocks, boulders, trees, mud — engulfed and destroyed entire houses, schools, churches; more than a thousand people died or were simply never seen again.

Back then, Carew had no choice but to push aside his own fear as the murky floodwaters rose around him. He couldn’t block out the screams and cries, though. Despite his own shock and grief, Carew did his duty, putting in long hours to get out all the information he could to the public.

But it wasn’t business as usual for him. His emotions overwhelmed him.  He had trouble falling asleep. And when he did sleep, what he saw that day fed his nightmares. “Psychologically, I was never prepared for it,” Carew said. “I was not able to apprehend anything at that time. It really got me down. I shouldn’t have, but I cried.”

He recalled the conflict between his experience as a witness in the ongoing disaster, and his role as a journalist. “That particular scene got people to stand up and say this is actually really serious. But then you think [as a journalist], this is serious, and we need to get that story.”

In Sierra Leone, which has faced a series of disasters,  journalists have to survive not just the events, but also the effects of reporting on them

The general expectation of journalists who report on disasters is that they must focus on observing and documenting the event(s) accurately. However, not only is there psychological stress “inherent” in reporting traumatic events, the matter gets complicated even further when the journalist is directly impacted by a disaster as a member of the community.

In countries like Sierra Leone, which has faced a series of disasters over the past decade — including extreme flooding, mudslides, Ebola, a devastating fire in Susan’s Bay — journalists have had to survive not just the events taking place in their communities, but also the effects of reporting on them. Like media personnel across the world, they have worked amidst the threat of Covid-19. Although the pandemic has not ravaged the country the way Ebola did, it has severely affected the mental wellbeing of many journalists due to a feeling of ill-preparedness and the impacts of the year-long state of national emergency. A nation-wide study on the impact of Covid-19 on journalists, conducted by Bournemouth University researchers in collaboration with the Sierra Leone Association of Journalists (SLAJ), found that nearly 60 per cent of the 639 respondents experienced depression. Another 76.4 per cent reported an increased sense of vulnerability, and nearly 70 per cent experienced heightened anxiety.

All these have a significant impact on the journalists, points out Professor Einar Thorsen, one of the lead researchers of the study. “There is this tension between their personal and professional identities,” he said. “As journalists, they are required to perform their professional roles. But then by the very nature of living in that country, that community— the disaster community— they are also survivors themselves. That kind of traumatic experience cannot be understated."

Indeed, the mental health of journalists is the elephant in many newsrooms today. When it comes to Sierra Leone, the issue is exacerbated by the barely existent mental health infrastructure in the country. In May 2021, Amnesty International published a report on the long-term mental health impact of successive conflicts and disasters in Sierra Leone and concluded that the government and donors must do far more to build awareness, reduce stigma, and improve access to mental health services. According to Rawya Rageh, a senior crisis advisor with Amnesty International, the mental healthcare infrastructure is under-budgeted, suffers from an “extreme shortage” of mental health professionals, and is generally “not accessible for people outside the urban centres.” The findings of the SLAJ study corroborate this. There was a lower prevalence of depression (48 per cent) in journalists living in western area of the country (where the capital Freetown is located) than in less urbanised provinces. The eastern and north-west provinces, for instance, had 71.3 per cent and 70.4 per cent of its journalists indicating depression.

Radio journalist Issa Tarawalie, who lives in the northern town of Lunsar, said Covid-19 has been difficult for him. “Reporting the pandemic, especially in my town Lunsar, has been really tough and a big sacrifice. Some journalists [here] have got infected and died. Others have had their human rights infringed.”

He said the pandemic affected his mental-being at work because of the restrictions on movement as well as the fear of catching the infection when out reporting. Tarawalie still has bad memories from the Ebola outbreak of 2014–15, when at first some members of the community refused to believe that there was an epidemic and accused him of fear-mongering. “I was reporting about the Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone on our show [on Lunsar Radio] and after that programme, I was attacked. A stone hit my head, and I had a serious bleed. I was later taken to hospital. The people in my town advised me to stop spreading fake news.”

In small communities, similar to where Tarawalie lives, it can become harder for a journalist to report on trauma, not just due to cultural pressures but due to a sense of being personally invested in the ‘subjects’. Kadiatu Tholley, a reporter at Advocacy Radio, said that reporting on disasters in her community was discomfiting for her. “I did not feel good about it,” she said. “For me, I think that this is happening in my community, and my people are suffering.”

There have also been times when she has decided to go ahead with a story, only to be told that it would not be broadcast after all. “My work is to stand up for the voiceless, and I report on those issues,” she said. “At the end of the day, when you are then told no, this is not being used… it is very frustrating. It directly affects your work as a journalist and isn’t good for you as a person."

For many journalists struggling to cope with a disaster themselves, reporting on the travails of others can become even more difficult. Isata Koroma, a radio reporter for the Sierra Leone Broadcasting Corporation ( SLBC) who lives in Kono district in the eastern part of the country, said that during the pandemic she has felt stretched thin because of her own difficulties. She spoke about her struggle to report on a story about some young girls who had been orphaned due to Covid-19 and who had to then search for work in mining areas.

“I have my own problems and then going into the field as a journalist and then speaking to people about theirs has been very challenging,” she said. “You want to help them but you don’t have that capacity, the ability, or the resources to do so. It really affects your mental health.”

As Sierra Leone has endured a number of disasters, some journalists feel emotionally fatigued and fearful when it comes to Covid-19. Alice Thompson, an independent journalist who used to work for the National Radio and Television Station, acknowledged that her previous experiences reporting on Ebola and the mudslide were traumatic and that she now tries to avoid reporting on death.

“That was the worst for me, that day [of the mudslide],” Thompson said. “You see people crying, you see people dead. Arms, limbs, head, every part of their body is all over the place. So those moments were really some of my worst experiences, and that is why during the coronavirus, I have tried not to be a part of it.”

A study conducted by Eyewitness Media Hub found that several journalists felt guilt and shame over being traumatised by the pain and death they witnessed. There is, thus, a war of sorts between a reporter’s professional identity and their emotional response to traumatic events. The study also found that journalists were more likely to be impacted if they were not expecting to see anything traumatic, which indicates that it is important to prepare journalists as much as possible before they go on the field. It is also essential to equip them with the right tools to deal with the after-effects of their reportage.

Gavin Rees, director of the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, Europe, explained how sometimes it is hard for journalists to get away from a story. “Constantly feeling wrapped up, constantly feeling unable to relax — that can cause, or is more likely to cause, psychological issues down the line,” he said.

Rees also offered some strategies that journalists can employ while they are in the midst of reporting a disaster. One important tactic is scheduling downtime, away from the story. “To give time to find space and to allow one’s mind to reset, one’s arousal levels to calm down, that can appear to be very difficult in an environment in which there are many issues that are threatening in different ways,” Rees said. “But still, there is always a possibility of finding relative safety.”

Most people, if they can help it, will move away from a disaster, but a journalist is compelled to do the opposite. Their work is crucial in many ways—disseminating key information during and after a situation unfolds, monitoring relief efforts, giving a voice to different groups of affected people, and serving as a link between communities, government authorities, and humanitarian agencies.

Yet, performing this indispensable service can come at a heavy price, and journalists are often exposed to distressing scenes and psychological trauma. They even become the target of anger and aggression. In fact, it would not be a stretch to say that in many ‘disaster communities’, journalists are not just journalists, but survivors. Thus, it is critical to provide them with the training, resources, and support that they need—not just to report but to cope with the aftermath.

Photograph courtesy of Christopher Carew