I recently spent three days with a collection of media professionals who had come together to focus on the topic of ‘restorative narrative’. The gathering was sponsored by Images and Voices of Hope an organization promoting the concept of restorative narrative as a more complete way for journalists and others in the storytelling business to tell the tales of individuals and communities impacted by tragedy.
The group consisted of newspaper, magazine, television and radio reporters, filmmakers, photojournalists, video game designers, and artists. As a psychologist who has specialized in trauma for 25 years, my entire professional career, I was intrigued to find that such an organization existed and welcomed the opportunity to speak with this group which is so often scorned by trauma victims. Knowing the untapped potential for healing that journalists can play in the lives of victims, I was eager to attend.
Restorative narrative stories are those that not only tell the facts about the tragedy and outline the struggles inherent in the recovery process, but they go beyond that to highlight the less often described characteristics of resilience unique to the individual victim/survivor or victimized community. Telling a story from a restorative narrative perspective means not sugar-coating the pain and tragedy in a Pollyanna type fashion but instead emphasizing the resilience triggered by the extreme tragedy.
Given the negative experiences many victims and communities have had with journalists around the world, it was uplifting to meet so many at the summit who truly were interested in telling a more complete and restorative narrative.
But as the weekend unfolded I realized I was most impressed by something entirely different. Throughout the summit, professionals told the stories of a wide range of tragedies they had covered. Whether it was via film, video, painting, the written word or some combination of these, person after person described in exquisite detail a story of awful tragedy interwoven with themes of strength and resilience. They clearly knew how to tell restorative narratives.
But what was most impressive to me was the sheer amount of tragedy that had been absorbed and shouldered by those in that room. These journalists and artists carried stories of virtually every type of tragedy… war, natural disaster, mass killing, deadly diseases, and horrific human abuse and suffering. I was stunned to feel the weight of the world in that gathering. It was palpable.
Naturally, I’ve been to conferences on a wide variety of trauma related topics in my professional career. But those traditional gatherings typically bring together mental health researchers, academics, clinicians and others whose careers are dedicated to understanding and treating the impact of traumatic events. Like me, those individuals study trauma.
The folks at the IVOH summit tell the stories of trauma. And they immerse themselves in it to do so. However, journalists must begin to truly appreciate the toll all that exposure to trauma takes on one’s self.
Mental health practitioners have known it for years and have regularly built in strategies to our professional lives in order to minimize the impacts of the ever present wave of tragedy that washes over those of us in the trauma business. Whether you know it as ‘vicarious trauma’, ‘compassion fatigue’ or ‘secondary trauma’ the effects of repeatedly dousing one’s self in the tragedy of others is real and it is corrosively dangerous. Not recognizing or ignoring the impact of these ongoing assaults decreases one’s professional life span and undermines multiple aspects of daily functioning and personal relationships.
And the effects can appear rather rapidly. I am reminded of the seasoned reporter I met years ago who arrived on scene at a massive earthquake, with thousands killed, and in a brief couple of hours was suddenly experiencing many of the symptoms of PTSD.
The contributing factors which determine the impact are vast and range from personal characteristics, to event details, to nature and length of exposure, and recovery environment. There is no way to predict with certainty just when and how anyone will feel the effects. Therefore preventative steps should be taken and response and recovery mechanisms should be easily accessible. When taking steps to assure safety on the job, media organizations and professionals need to make psychological safety a high priority.
The dozens of personal conversations I had during the three day meeting made clearer to me how the impact of trauma was living on in the storytellers, long after the fact checking was complete. As a storyteller dealing with traumatic events, it is virtually impossible to not be affected by the material you are immersed in.
In order to tell a restorative narrative, or any semblance of accurate narrative, understanding the psychological weight of the material is imperative. When the storyteller acknowledges the magnitude of the traumatic material, s/he can use that acknowledgement as both additional information in understanding the story they are telling and as the first step in preventing the deleterious effects of exposure to trauma on themselves.
The author is a clinical psychologist and principle partner at Organizational Resilience International
(ORIConsulting.com) a crisis consulting firm.