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Editorial note: This article contains graphic descriptions.

Immediately following the December tsunami, the sights of bodies and dazed survivors in the hardest-hit areas were overwhelming to many outsiders. In Phuket, Thailand, “corpses were being carried through the street and piled up at the jetty for transportation,” an Australian journalist wrote in an e-mail to the Dart Center. In Aceh, Indonesia, the journalist saw “hellish scenes, bodies floating in the harbor and littering the streets everywhere—mass graves, mass grief.”

“[I] traveled to lots of towns that didn’t exist anymore, went to refugee camps, talked to lots of grief-stricken people ... went with my translator to the village where his father died, tried to find his house ... saw a dog eating a corpse, which was pretty much the last straw for me,” she said. The correspondent, who requested that her name not be used, asked to return home.

Like others visiting the sites hit by the devastating tsunami in December, many media correspondents experienced deeply disturbing and unshakable sights and smells during their assignments in Southeast Asia. Media representatives, as well as scientists and humanitarian aid workers, must now examine the lessons learned from the disaster—lessons about accurate reporting, cultural sensitivity, and organizational support for those facing unfathomable sights, smells and the most profound scenes of human suffering.

The challenge of responding to the tsunami, for both journalists and relief workers, has been multifaceted. Visitors such as the Australian correspondent, who went to the areas hardest hit, have had to deal with their own visceral responses to the disaster, gauge the physical and emotional needs of the survivors, avoid projecting their own responses and cultural perceptions on local communities and individuals, and work through their own emotional recovery when returning home.

Visitors to the area also have had to face feelings of guilt, helplessness and futility. “[I] felt haunted by the images of things I saw and had lots of flashbacks which were triggered by virtually anything in the first few weeks,” the Australian correspondent wrote after returning home. “[I] felt confused, upset, extremely guilty at having left and not going back ... felt my whole world turned upside-down, tormented by questions of life and death.”

Frank Ochberg, psychiatrist and Dart Center executive committee chair emeritus, visited Sri Lanka in January as part of a Green Cross mission to train local cricket players as relief workers. He described feelings of helplessness in a journal he kept: “One man complained of a stomach ache,” wrote Ochberg. “He and his diminutive wife stood in front of their tin shack, speaking with two of the cricketers. It turns out they lost three children to the tsunami—the worst tragedy of the whole camp. I felt so sad for them and concerned about the trauma workers, who had so little to offer. We all stood there, sending sympathetic glances, which probably was all that could have been done under the circumstances.”

But, Ochberg said in a conversation with the Dart Center, the emotional reactions and mental health needs of outsiders witnessing the disaster aftermath may be very different from the local survivors. Journalists, as well as relief workers, must separate their own feelings and needs from those of displaced residents in the tsunami zones. Outsiders also must understand political, cultural and geographic differences between the tsunami-affected areas in order to assess needs and report accurately to the outside world.

The needs of the survivors he met in Sri Lanka were basic, Ochberg said. Rather than Western-based therapy, they needed practical assistance. “The people I saw were grieving for loss but were participating in the life of the camp,” Ochberg said. “What they need is to get back to their lives ... get on with new jobs, new hopes.”

Mark Brayne, Dart Centre Europe director, agrees and stresses the importance of recognizing cultural differences in dealing with tragedy and intense grief. Recognizing resilience, understanding rituals of mourning and grief, and addressing practical needs of survivors are key to helping with recovery, providing better news coverage of the tsunami’s aftermath, and self-care, he says.

“Recovery is about education, team support and editorial and managerial culture—allowing for the experience of distress, and giving teams and individuals the tools to understand and talk through what’s happening to them,” Brayne explains. “Coupled of course with stigma-free counseling available for those who need it—as a minority do.”

And, he said, news coverage of the tsunami indicates that some Western journalists still have important lessons to learn about accuracy and sensitivity. Local media representatives in the tsunami zones have complained of inaccuracies and disrespect for victims by some Western reporters, said Brayne. Others reporting from the tsunami regions have talked of a lack of emotional support systems within their news organizations.

“We still have a long way to go in terms of organizational structure and good, sensitive reporting,” Brayne said.

For more information about journalists who cover violence, see the Dart Center at www.dartcenter.org.