Mail On Sunday You Magazine – Reflections from the disaster front line

Hillsborough, the Asian tsunami, the Pakistan earthquake: is it possible for news reporters to keep emotions in check when covering such traumatic events? Former BBC Breakfast presenter Sian Williams explains how studying psychology is enabling her to help her fellow reporters

Sian - You Mag

‘As reporters we had to shut down any emotional upset and get on with the story’

It was cleaning my boots that did it. Standing over a sink trying to get mud and debris out of the grooves in the soles, I felt nauseous and guilty. It was October 2005 and I was reporting from the epicentre of the Pakistan earthquake for the BBC. We’d just returned to our hotel in Islamabad from the devastated Kashmiri area of Muzaffarabad, 90 miles from the capital; a place with no sanitation, food, water or shelter. Our crew – a producer, a cameraman and me – had been lucky to have a car to sleep in; many people had nothing. Survivors were living in squalid conditions, surrounded by rubble, decaying bodies and the stink of disease and death. Yet the generosity of those who had little was humbling. When aid supplies came in, I was invited to sit with a family under a tree and to share their small pot of rice.

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Sian reporting in Pakistan in the aftermath of the 2005 earthquake

It felt wrong to leave. Back in the capital, I scrubbed at those boots over and over and felt sick with guilt that we were returning to homes, loved ones and jobs while families there were trying to piece their lives back together.

Images, sounds and intense emotions linger long after assignments are over. But to me, like many reporters, acknowledging our own guilt and shame at intruding on distress and then walking away seems self-indulgent. Even as a child, I knew covering tragedy was part of the profession, a necessary way to draw attention to horror.

My father, John, was a newsman for decades, first on Fleet Street, then in radio. He told me that a journalist’s work often meant running to a story to scoop up the grief of others. I also understood not to get too emotional or bring work home. My mother, Kathy, was an intensive-care nurse, confronting death on most days. As a teenager, I asked her how she dealt with this and she told me that she learned not to get too close, or bring upset back to our family.

That advice seemed to serve me well in my career. My first experience of covering a disaster was in 1989 when, as a local reporter, I was sent by BBC Radio Merseyside to talk to survivors from the Hillsborough stadium disaster. I was 25, with a tape recorder and no idea of how to deal with people stunned by shock. They seemed confused, gabbling into the microphone with uncomprehending eyes, their pain played out on radio moments later. I wondered then whether it was right to broadcast their thoughts at such a time, but the importance of the story was so big; people seemed to want to talk. Any uncomfortable personal feelings had to be shut away, to be dealt with later.

As reporters our job is to go in, get what we need and leave. We try not to let emotion get in the way of the task as it can affect whatever objectivity we claim to have. Now, as the families revisit the tragedy during inquests into the 96 who died, I think back to how they were interviewed by broadcasters like me and feel some unease about how we might have spoken to them; did we listen with enough understanding, did we respect the horror they’d seen?

In those days, there was no training in how to talk to people in grief or warnings to viewers and listeners about what to expect. In a way, we wanted to show the disaster in all its rawness to let the audience know what had happened. Any personal emotional upset we might be experiencing needed to be shut down so we could get on with the story.

Each time I was sent to a difficult news event, whether it was the Paddington rail crash, the Harold Shipman murder trial or the Pakistan earthquake, I would do just that. I tried to approach each story as a detached observer, moving myself further from it the more distressing it became. Sometimes that was impossible. In 2004, after a week reporting from the Asian tsunami which killed more than 250,000 people, I remember coming home and sitting in a pub with my husband, crying wordlessly for two hours while he gently pressed me on what had happened.

I couldn’t talk about what I’d witnessed with friends, family or colleagues – it was too traumatic, impossible to articulate. Yet I felt guilty being upset when so many people had lost so much. I was also needed on the BBC Breakfast sofa. I couldn’t turn up to the studio in bits; there was a job to do.

Knowing what I do now from my current studies in psychology, it’s not only normal to be distressed when exposed to other people’s grief; it’s also common to feel guilt and shame at being the one who witnessed it and walked away. It’s far better to acknowledge what you feel and talk about it rather than try to ignore it, as I did for so long. If you are repeatedly exposed to conflict, violence, destruction and pain, and refuse to acknowledge its impact, at some point something will make the firmly closed lid on the box of tightly packed emotions suddenly fly open. For me, it was the death of my mother in 2009.

When my mum died from bowel cancer, the grief floored me. I’d just had a baby when we discovered she was ill and I told her I wouldn’t go back to anchor BBC Breakfast, that I wanted to look after her instead. She said she didn’t want me ‘moping about the house’; she loved to see me on TV and make comments about who I’d interviewed afterwards.

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Sian with her mum Kathy, whose death in 2009 opened up emotions she’d learnt to bury as a news reporter

I’d shuttle from London to my parents’ house in Sussex in time to make lunch and she would chatter about what outfit I’d worn or what she thought of a particular politician. Her death was swift and sudden and robbed me of my best friend and confidante. I assumed I’d cope with it the way I knew best, by returning to work, thinking I’d deal with emotions later.

Yet before long, a patchwork of memories that didn’t belong in personal mourning emerged. Images crowded in my head of Sri Lanka after the tsunami: the open handbag of a missing woman on a wreckage-strewn beach, and bloated bodies lined up on a cricket pitch, waiting for burial. I’d wake up remembering a particular broadcast during the earthquake in Kashmir.

Reporting live for the BBC One O’Clock News, I heard shouts behind me but I didn’t turn around until we were off air. When I did, I saw what the viewers must have seen: three brothers in their 20s huddled over the lifeless body of their mother, which they’d hauled from the rubble of their home. The insensitivity and intrusion seemed huge – their level of suffering was so profound and personal that it felt wrong to show it to others. Experiencing the loss of my own mother brought it all back.

At work, I was shell-shocked and on autopilot; at home, too. I rang the BBC’s employee helpline but couldn’t speak. Few of my co-workers knew about my mum’s death and that’s how I wanted it. Work felt like the only place where I was forced to concentrate on something other than grief.

Months later, I was talking to a colleague about a news story that had affected him. He had that feeling of numbness, too, and that’s when I realised that others might also be struggling to make sense of their thoughts. I asked the BBC if I could train as a trauma assessor, to help others at work who felt able to confide in me.

I spent a week being taught a system called trauma risk management (or TRiM). It has been used by the army for decades to monitor those who have been in difficult postings. Parts of the NHS use it, as do some fire brigades, paramedic units and police forces. The BBC started using it more recently.

It’s a ‘watchful waiting’ process, talking to those returning from a distressing assignment and looking out for a persistent change in mood, sleep patterns, alcohol intake, or feelings of guilt, blame and shame. I became part of a small team of journalists trained to listen to our colleagues and talk them through what they might experience after a difficult assignment. It’s a common reaction to feel on edge, or guilty, being plagued by intrusive memories, to have problems sleeping or talking to friends and family about what they’ve seen.

It’s an important part of trauma awareness to recognise that some of these symptoms are not within our conscious control but part of a fight-or-flight response. What’s not healthy is if they continue for months, disrupting work and home life. I wish something that simple – having someone to listen in a confidential way – had been available earlier for reporters like me.

Sometimes it’s difficult to persuade people to come forward. There are those who wrongly assume that it’s weak to seek help, or that they don’t deserve to feel emotion when those at the centre of an event get little or no help. Those who do come forward are relieved to learn that theirs are common reactions. Rather than boxing it all away, it can be much better to talk about it with someone who understands. Of the people we see, few go on to develop post-traumatic stress disorder; I don’t believe I did, but it’s vital to spot those who might early on.

I wanted to understand the complexity of these emotions and my own reactions, too, so in 2012 I began a two-year master’s degree in psychology, which I’ve almost completed. I’m currently researching news crews who work in challenging environments, to see whether it’s possible to become more resilient. I’m in the process of gathering stories from more than 100 people reporting on war zones or upsetting court cases.

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Sian at the University of Westminster, where she is studying for a master’s degree in psychology

There are those who have been kidnapped, or witnessed colleagues die in front of them, or who have filmed a horror that haunts them decades later. They talk of events that have changed the way they view life, some positively, some less so. It’s making me more aware of the situations we put ourselves in, the questions we ask as journalists, the responsibility we have towards those we interview and how to protect our own – and our colleagues’ – mental health while we continue to do an essential job.

Psychology has taught me how the brain processes complex feelings, that it’s OK to acknowledge difficult emotions. Those in grief may be withdrawn, frightened, guilty, numb. They may talk nonstop or be unable to say a word. They may remember everything or nothing. There is no typical way of experiencing trauma. On reflection, that knowledge would have helped me after returning from some of my assignments. Perhaps I would have known when to put the microphone away and when it was OK to continue because someone needs and wants to talk. This awareness certainly informs my broadcasting now.

I’ve just finished a BBC TV interview series, asking personal questions of high-profile figures such as former Paralympic athlete Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson. As Tanni cried about the death of her father, I worried that my questions were too intrusive. But she wanted to talk about him – as I would now if asked about my mum. Hers was a universal reaction and maybe my personal experience, together with what I’d learnt, helped her to feel safe about sharing her story.

I’m not going to give up broadcasting to be a psychologist and I know that all this understanding won’t rid my nerves as I prepare for my final exam this month and the deadline for an 8,000-word thesis in the summer. But as I hurtle towards these hurdles – and towards a milestone 50th birthday – I realise I am able to tackle things that might have terrified me in the past. Whether it’s experiencing painful emotions or simply getting anxious about a test, I’ll keep reminding my four children what I wish I’d known growing up: do the things you think you can’t, acknowledge the feelings you’d rather box away and use what you discover to help others find their voice.

© Sian Williams 2014

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This article first appeared in the Mail on Sunday on 25 May 2014