Journalist Gary Hughes wrote powerfully in the recent Weekend Australian magazine about his experience with bushfire horror and of the emotional toll of having to tell and retell his story afterwards — to journalists, agencies and wellwishers.
“The demands for media interviews and calls from wellwishers continue,” he wrote. “I am being stalked by my mobile phone. Each call extracts an emotional price I can no longer afford to pay.”
His comment, about the unexpectedly heavy toll of helping out fellow journalists, reminds me of something Associate Professor Ngiare Brown mentioned when I was researching this story about the impact of media coverage of Aboriginal health.
Dr Brown, Director of the University of Sydney’s Poche Centre for Indigenous Health, and a prominent member of the Australian Indigenous Doctors Association, was recounting some of her experiences with the media (these didn’t make it into the Inside Story piece due to my chronic habit of over-researching and ending up with more material than I can use).
Her introduction was as a teenage medical student at the University of Newcastle. When it was arranged for her to speak with journalists, she assumed they would be asking about the University’s fabulous new program to recruit Indigenous medical students. Instead, she was asked to justify why places in the medical school should be reserved for Indigenous students. The implication was, she says, that “we were taking up the places of nice white middle class students.”
But what most struck me from her observations of the media is the toll of being repeatedly asked to tell stories that are deeply personal, especially when these stories are not always handled in a respectful way.
“It’s a similar issue for patients or in clinical research,” she says. “It really is giving a piece of yourself. Our cultural traditions are around sharing knowledge and sharing stories. Particularly for people who have more intimate or painful stories, each time they give away a piece of their stories, it exhausts them.
“By sharing, people are trying to contribute to the notion of understanding and therefore healing and addressing all that unresolved grief. For that not to be appreciated undoes some of that for them; it is exhausting and it’s disheartening. We need to value that knowledge in the spirit in which it’s given.”
I’ve often noticed that when doctors become patients, they see the health system in a whole new light and their reflections are particularly powerful. Perhaps the same is true when adversity turns journalists into media subjects.
Just as doctors tend, naturally enough, to give more weight to their colleagues’ reflections about what it’s like “on the other side of the fence”, perhaps journalists might be more ready to listen to and learn from colleagues who’ve been to the other side.