The Impact of Trauma Assignments on Journalists’ Families
May 19, 2014
Patricia Gannon, the sister of Canadian reporter Kathy Gannon, spoke to Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's (CBC) Carol Off about the serious wounding of her sister and the shooting death of photographer Anja Niedringhaus while the two journalists were working for the Associated Press in eastern Afghanistan on April 4, 2014. It was rare to hear the perspective of the journalists’ family members, so I listened with empathy and interest.In answer to one of the interviewer’s questions (i.e., “You know that your sister is highly regarded, seen as one of the most experienced foreign reporters in that region, when she was so conscious of what was dangerous, so aware of warning signs, what do you think went wrong in this case?”) Gannon replied, “This is something that absolutely could not have been predicted. She was in a secure compound, they were traveling with a convoy, they had the military that was supposed to be protecting them, they had the police who were supposed to be protecting them, there was absolutely no way that Kathy or Anja could ever have anticipated this…they knew how to be careful. They were not stupid; they were very, very smart--on guard. They knew about these things; they knew about the dangers. This could never be predicted.” (CBC, As It Happens, April 7th 20141)
Patricia Gannon spoke these words with urgency and emphasis, undoubtedly because the question was framed in such a way that her sister was somehow responsible for not having done the right thing to prevent this tragedy from happening--a slip in the interview where Gannon’s sister found herself in a position of needing to defend and protect the integrity of Gannon and Niedringhaus who were victims of a horrendous crime against them and were in no way responsible for what happened. This moment in the interview is a poignant example of the impact of a journalist’s trauma on family members and the role that they may play in both the public eye and in their personal lives.
Indeed, family members and intimate partners may be an invisible casualty of journalism trauma. Of the reporting and tributes that followed this tragic event for Gannon and Niedringhaus there was very little mention of the impact on either of these two journalists’ families; it appears that the journalists’ families or close partnerships were rarely mentioned in news reports nor were they contacted for journalistic interviews. This is a significant contrast to hearing the voices of family members of other victims or survivors of trauma outside the journalism profession where family members are normally front and centre in the reporting process. Perhaps the privacy of journalists’ families is much more respected than with the public or family members are more aware of the risks and vulnerabilities of talking to the press (e.g., misquotes, misrepresentation) so avoid the press themselves.
Although knowledge is steadily accumulating about the effects on journalists of these types of traumatic experiences, the coping patterns journalists may implement, and the cultural influences of journalistic workplace practices, the effects on family members and close relationships is relatively unknown.
In the context of other occupational cultures, family support is seen as an aid in reducing the impact ofhighly stressful work and mitigating post-trauma responses (Goff, et al., 2006; Regehr, 2005). Spouses, partners, and family members experience their own struggles in the process of the traumatic experiences of their afflicted loved one, such as dealing with a loved one’s emotional reactivity, emotional withdrawal after trauma exposure, or fear for their loved one’s safety during a trauma event (Regehr, 2005).
Family populations in other occupations such as police, military, and firefighters have been studied to understand the responses of the family members in order to gain insight into how families are impacted and how they cope with their traumatized member(s), as well as looking at the vital role in how families support their loved ones in the aftermath of a traumatic event (Goff et al., 2006).
For example, job stress can lessen the quality of marital interactions and causethe partner to feel more negatively toward the relationship(Larson & Almeida, 1999). To date there appears to be few studies reporting about the impact on relationships when a family member engages in journalistic trauma work, especially for families who have experienced journalists’ being injured, kidnapped, or killed in conflict assignments.
Currently, members of the Canadian Journalism Forum on Violence and Trauma are undertaking a study designated as the “Inner Circle Project” to look at the role of family and close relationships in supporting journalists who have experienced being wounded, kidnapped, assaulted, or murdered. We anticipate learning more about what happens for families of journalistic professional in the aftermath of assignments in traumatic events, disaster, war, and personal tragedy.
 Podcast available: http://podcast.cbc.ca/mp3/podcasts/asithappens_20140407_53477.mp3
About the Author
Patrice Keats, PhD is an Associate Professor in the Faculty of Education (Counselling Psychology program) at Simon Fraser University in Canada.
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Larson, R. & Almeida, D. (1999). Emotional transmission in the daily lives of families: A new paradigm for studying family process. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 61, 5–20. doi: 10.2307/353879
Regehr, C. (2005). Bringing the trauma home: spouses of paramedics. Journal of Loss and Trauma, 10, 97–114. doi: 10.1080/15325020590908812