In September 2004, believing the next few moments would be his last, Canadian reporter Scott Taylor turned to his colleague and whispered: “Tell my son I didn’t cry.”
It was the third day into his captivity in Iraq, held hostage by Islamist insurgents who would later identify as ISIS, which hadn’t been formed yet. He arrived in Iraq to report on the invasion by the United States military, and was accused of being an American spy.
He was blindfolded with his wrists and ankles chained to a bed, while his captors waited for a confession that never came.
After an additional two days of torture, the Turkish ambassador intervened and Taylor was released. Roughly 36 hours later, with his feet still burning from being lashed by a whip, he found himself sitting on the front lawn of his home in Canada, watching his son hold a garage sale for the neighbourhood.
“There was six times in five days where I was to be killed, either to be shot, to be beheaded, or – at the time of the torture – it was like, ‘Admit you’re a spy or we’ll torture you to death,’” Taylor says. “And then I’m sitting at home, watching someone haggling for a secondhand soccer ball, and I think, ‘This doesn’t make sense. Two days ago, I didn’t think I was going to live.’”
Taylor, a seasoned war correspondent and founder of Canadian military magazine Esprit De Corps, says that it was a relieving yet frustrating feeling to come home to a world that did not understand the terror occurring in other countries. This feeling – as the Canadian Journalism Forum on Violence and Trauma says – is only one of the many impacts of traumatic reporting experiences.
Dr. Anthony Feinstein, a board member of the forum, co-released a report with the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism on the emotional toll reporters have experienced during the recent refugee crisis. Published in July 2017, the study is an analysis of how working in conflict zones can cause “significant stress to journalists, who are often first responders to a trauma scene.”
Of the 80 journalists who participated in the study, the results reveal that they displayed symptoms of PTSD, depression, and moral injury.
“I don’t know any other profession in this day and age that sort of treats safety and emotional consequences of the work as an afterthought. It’s wrong,” says Cliff Lonsdale, the forum’s president. Lonsdale, along with other reporters, believes there’s a lack of treatment for journalists with PTSD due to the “macho” nature of the newsroom. “We’re saying to journalists that they are human beings in spite of the tradition that somehow we’re not affected by this stuff. That’s nonsense. If we are human like everybody else, we are going to have the same human reactions.”
In the early summer of 2008, CBC correspondent Paul Hunter was embedded with Canadian troops at the Kandahar airfield in Afghanistan. After spending several weeks as a witness to mass casualties and gun battles, he experienced a strange moment — though it did not occur until he returned home to Ottawa.
“I remember being at a street corner waiting for the light to change and noticing all the people rushing around in a typical midday downtown panic. And I thought, ‘What do all of you know about stress? What do you know about this world? For that matter, what do you know of danger? The most life-threatening moment you’ll have today is to remember to look both ways as you cross the street,” says Hunter. “It’s kind of weird for me to think about that now because I was kind of angry, but I didn’t really know why.”
The strain of reporting in mass-casualty situations is not one that he is unfamiliar with. From witnessing the aftermath of the earthquake in Haiti to covering the trial of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, Hunter’s experience with trauma extends far beyond the newsroom.
“In Haiti I found a quiet, dark corner of a patio in the backyard of the house we were all staying at,” he says. “And I sat there for 15 minutes after we’d all filed our stories for the night, just thinking about the day.”
While the security of returning home is a relief for journalists, Taylor, who returned to Iraq once 13 years after he was held hostage, says containing professional and personal emotions is a difficult balance to maintain.
“When you go into that [world of conflict], everything changes, all the values change – from the climate to the poverty,” Taylor says. “It’s like going through a portal, and the more you do it, the more you get conditioned to it. To try and reconnect those two worlds is always tough.”
Lonsdale suggests spending time alone and categorizing your thoughts following an emotional report, which is something Taylor and Hunter recommend as well. Though it does not rid one of emotions, it does help damper them, they say.
“You’ve got to find some time to sit and think all those things through,” says Lonsdale. “Give your brain a chance to really feel what you’ve seen and to file it because it’s the stuff you’ve repressed that you haven’t given time to sort out — that stuff can come up to haunt you because it hasn’t been properly processed.”