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Journalism, vicarious trauma and the view from Portapique

A year after covering a massacre, 13 months of a pandemic and managing the uncertainty around employment in the field has taken a toll, one I didn’t know I had signed up for as a local news reporter Continue Reading Journalism, vicarious trauma and the view from Portapique

In journalism school, I wrote my honours project on mental health effects on war correspondents. I remember learning about vicarious trauma — the idea that you can be affected severely, deeply, by something that didn’t really happen to you.

But it still has taken me almost a year of covering the Nova Scotia shooting, the pandemic, the tragedies that have arisen from both, to consider how vicarious trauma might affect my life and my career as a journalist.

When COVID-19 arrived in Nova Scotia, I knew my reporting would focus on its impacts for months to come. But there was no way I could’ve predicted what was ahead for this small province.

I’ve lived in Nova Scotia my whole life, having grown up in the Annapolis Valley before moving to Halifax seven years ago for journalism school. During my time in the industry, most of what I’ve enjoyed writing about includes community activists, people who are helping others and new businesses and non-profit groups popping up.

But in a province as riddled with issues as any other, I also often covered layoffs and strikes, municipal and provincial government budget cuts and stories of health-care and school-system failures.

On March 15, 2020, the health-care system began its most difficult challenge yet as the province recorded its first case of COVID-19.

It was a Sunday, and I was working what was supposed to be my final shift as a weekend reporter for HalifaxToday, the online component of the News 95.7 radio station. 

When we got the first COVID-19 press release, it was surreal but at the same time expected, in the final province in the country to announce a case. I remember telling my co-worker it was a “crazy way to end a job” as we were both moving on to full-time positions at new workplaces. 

On the Friday night two days before, I’d had a going-away gathering with some co-workers. About 10 of us met up at a local pub, with no social distancing and no masks in sight. We even made fun of one talk show producer for bringing his own sanitized mug to drink out of. None of us knew it then, but it would be the last time I’d see many of my co-workers in person for months.

The COVID-19 pandemic was about to hit Nova Scotia, along with all the industry precarity and indefinite social distancing that came with it. And for my career, another major crisis was about to hit — a double-whammy that would see me lose my job, get it back and cover the biggest tragedy I ever have in the span of six weeks. It would affect me for far longer.

The morning after that memorable pub night I was supposed to start my new job at the Coast, Halifax’s alt-weekly, as a full-time lifestyle editor. I arrived at the office eager to make a good impression at my first grown-up-with-health-benefits job in my field. I’d freelanced for them for the three years since I’d graduated from school, and this was my chance to finally prove myself as a staff reporter.

Instead, 15 minutes later I was laid off. COVID-19 cuts, said our editor-in-chief Kyle Shaw. The Coast laid off over 20 workers, only retaining a core group of three editorial staff and a couple production crew members, halting its print paper for the first time in nearly 27 years. (They didn’t even shut down during Hurricane Juan in 2003.)

On the way home, crying, I called my old boss back to beg for my weekend job back. She agreed, and I began working weekends from home.

For five weeks, I sat at home mourning the job I lost to COVID-19, and wondering if I would get it back when this was all over. But there was no end in sight, no light at the end of the tunnel to look forward to. 

And I wasn’t the only one. Over the course of the pandemic, journalists have been laid off left, right and centre. At least 67 media outlets in Canada have closed temporarily or permanently due to the pandemic, according to J-Source, the Local News Research Project and Canadian Association of Journalists’ media impact map, and there have been at least 3,011 permanent and temporary layoffs. 

In the United States, the New York Times estimated that 37,000 people were laid off from news companies by early December, 2020, and the Poynter Institute’s list of pandemic layoffs scrolls almost infinitely.

Then came April 19, 2020. A day that most Nova Scotians will likely never forget.

I woke up to a text from a co-worker. It said there was an active shooter in the northern area of the province.

I checked out what the RCMP had released on its Twitter account, and wrote a quick story. Typically, HalifaxToday only shares content in Halifax, and active shootings aren’t usually worth writing about because in most cases, they’re resolved before you can even file the story.

But this time, something was different. Social media was overtaken with reports of the shooter, of dead bodies strewn on the side of the road. As the morning progressed, RCMP continued releasing updates, and I continued to try to keep up with the story as it developed.

Working from home, I decided to forgo showering. I don’t think I ate that day until 2 p.m., well after the RCMP finally announced that the shooter had been taken into custody, leaving a trail of crime scenes across the province and reports of cars and homes on fire spreading across social media.

That evening, I agreed to work overtime and cover the first press conference held by the RCMP in Dartmouth. I biked to the radio station in the north end to pick up the news vehicle, and drove towards RCMP Headquarters to see a large group of cop cars sitting in a parking lot down the road with lights on but no sirens — I later realized this was one of the first shows of mourning for fallen officer Heidi Stevenson.

I arrived at 6 p.m., still not knowing how many people had died in the shooting. That night, police refused to answer many questions. Granted, at that point, they had barely begun the investigation that included 16 crime scenes and involved interviewing over 450 witnesses.

The press conference was unorganized, unofficial and unprepared. No one had notes, no one had knowledge of what had happened, and no one had answers. Police seemed tight-lipped and secretive —  but that’s no different than usual —  and I remember at the time I assumed the worst-case scenario was a murder-suicide inside a family home.

I went home that evening and finished my story up late. It had been an exhausting day but I was glad to have the coming week off to process. One benefit of working weekends, I thought, was allowing my colleagues to deal with whatever would come out of the investigation as it unravelled.

What I didn’t do that night was begin processing anything. I didn’t give a thought to the intensity of what I’d just witnessed.

In their 2008 study, Journalists Reporting for Duty: Resilience, Trauma and Growth, Cait McMahon and Trina McLellan write that journalists are often “first responders” who “closely inspect and record scenes of carnage, and delve into the often confronting reasons for these things happening.” This can cause “professional detachment” — or basically dissociating from the situation like I did that night.

I didn’t think I had to process any of this right then and there. No one ever told me I should, or taught me how.

A study funded by the DART Center for Journalism and Trauma in 2017 found that of 623 journalism faculty surveyed, 75 per cent said there was no education at their institution about trauma in journalism, leaving “prospective journalists ill-prepared to cover domestic and international violence and disasters.”

On Monday morning,  the day after the news of the Portapique shooting, I woke up to a missed call from the editor of the Coast, who had laid me off five weeks earlier. He wanted to know if I wanted my job back, in a way.

The catch was, it wasn’t permanent. But with the news of the shooting the paper wanted someone on it — and fast. So I got to work, dialing in to the media lines to compete for a chance to ask questions along with international reporters from Reuters, the Globe and Mail and more.

Over the following days and weeks, police announced that the gunman was deceased, along with 22 victims — the largest mass shooting in modern Canadian history. I continued to look into the impacts of the tragedy, including why the gunman could easily obtain his police memorabilia, the influence of misogyny and gendered violence and the timeline of events.

For Nova Scotians, tragedy didn’t stop there. Over the past year we’ve also seen a deadly helicopter crash in the Mediterranean, the death of a Snowbirds member who hailed from here, a missing toddler and a sunken fishing vessel — just to name a few.

I kept working, and working, and working. I didn’t quit my weekend job either, leaving me to work seven days a week for the next three months. At the time, I felt like it would all be over, that the tragedies and COVID would soon pass.

But now, I know that’s not true. I slowly began processing the shooting when the daily press conferences turned to weekly, then monthly and then not at all.

A year later, I’ve taken a few weeks off here and there, and am working maximum 40 hours a week. I try to get outside every day. I’ve taken up cross stitching and gardening. I’ve talked about the shooting extensively with friends and other journalists, and brought up work-life balance in therapy. But it’s still hard to admit something that happened in our quaint, peaceful province of 980,000 might have taken a toll on me.

Vicarious trauma is often seen to affect people like doctors, paramedics and psychologists. But a growing body of research shows the extent to which it’s impacting those on the “digital frontlines,” everyone from journalists to content moderators constantly monitoring violent, distressing imagery from their computers.  

A year after covering a massacre, thirteen months of a pandemic and managing the uncertainty around employment in the field has taken a toll, one I didn’t know I had signed up for as a local news reporter. 

I didn’t know anyone who died in the shooting. I don’t think I know anyone who knew anyone either. But if you live in Nova Scotia, you know that someone’s aunt’s best friend’s daughter knew someone. That’s just the way things are here.

After the shooting, I saw an outpouring of memorial posts on social media. Stories about victims’ lives and how they lived them, how they helped others in the community and how they found belonging in the once-unknown village of Portapique. 

Nova Scotians watched as our province became the centre of an investigation into gun violence, misogyny and police misconduct. The BBC told its readers about how “Portapique is ‘just a typical rural community’ where people know their neighbours.” 

But only Nova Scotians know how true that is, and how what happened in Portapique has changed how we feel about our communities. In some ways, people have become more fearful, each emergency alert causing hearts across the province to beat faster as they subconsciously remember that day. 

But in other ways we’ve come together, whether through song and dance or stunning sunsets, to grieve the loss of innocence that Portapique faced that day.

One year later, it’s still hard to process what happened in our tiny province. It’s still hard to admit it had such an effect on me, even as a reporter looking from the outside in.

The future of COVID is still unknown, and the future of my career in journalism is even more unknown each year. But what I do know is that I am not immune to the stories I cover, and that everything a journalist covers changes how they view the world, and themselves.