I sat in silence as I read the news that Arthur Freeman had been sentenced to life in prison.
The 37-year-old was found guilty last week of throwing his four-year-old daughter off Melbourne’s West Gate Bridge, after a Supreme Court jury rejected his defence of mental impairment. He will now spend at least 32 years in prison before he is eligible for parole.
Staring blankly at my computer screen, I remembered back to that January day in 2009, and again felt many of things I did in the weeks following it. At the time, I was a newsroom intern at The Age.
Early that morning on January 29, a police call came through to the newsroom, saying that a child had fallen off the West Gate Bridge. It was still early and only a handful of other reporters were around. I was asked to head out to the story. I rushed to the bridge not knowing what to expect.
Travelling from The Age to the West Gate Bridge, the only thing I could think of was how important it was that I got the facts of this story right. It wasn’t until I arrived on the scene that I realised the enormity of what had just happened.
When I got there, paramedics were trying to resuscitate a girl who they had just pulled from the water. I stood by helplessly as the emergency workers tried every effort to bring the girl back to life.
An ambulance helicopter arrived soon after. As paramedics rushed past me with the girl on a stretcher, I asked how she fell off the bridge. A bystander who overheard the question coldly replied: “She didn’t fall mate, she was thrown.”
For the next hour, I was reporting back to the newsroom and taking notes profusely from the police press conference on location. I was desperate to get the story back to the office as soon as possible, and considered it my “big break”.
Eventually, one of The Age’s crime writers came to the scene and took over. We went back to the office and wrote the story together.
The talk in the office echoed the talk that went on for months following the incident — how could anyone throw their beautiful four-year-old girl 80 metres to her death?
After deadline passed, one of the editors in the newsroom asked whether I wanted to see a counsellor. I refused. I was fine. Or so I thought.
For weeks, the traumatising image of four-year-old Darcey’s near-lifeless body by the side of the water would not escape my mind. I experienced constant flashbacks, anxiety, hyper-vigilance and tension. I lost concentration, had little motivation and became disconnected in my relationships.
In retrospect, it’s clear this was one of the most trying of circumstances I had ever dealt with. And yet for the reporters, the cameramen, the photographers and any media personnel who have the job of reporting news, events such as what I experienced aren’t at all uncommon.
But it’s all part and parcel of the job. Bad news is news, and trauma is a daily reality.
For so long, I kept telling myself that I wasn’t the first journalist to experience trauma. And that this certainly wasn’t going to be the last time that I would encounter it in my career.
I knew I wasn’t alone. I spoke with friends from various media institutions in the coming weeks who, like me, had moved on from this story and were covering the aftermath of the devastating Black Saturday bushfires. They too were experiencing similar emotions. And they too thought they were fine.
One friend, who has asked not to be named, was even told that if he wanted to start feeling sorry for people, he should find another job.
Unlike others who are on the front line of horrific events, Australian journalists don’t receive training in dealing with trauma. It is not taught in tertiary institutions, and only a few newsrooms have engaged in peer support programs.
Older journalists say the traditional form of counselling was six pots of beer at the local pub. Many who experienced trauma, they say, resorted to alcohol. Others to drugs. And others had broken relationships.
More than two years on from the West Gate Bridge incident, I have only now come to realise how much the story affected me as an individual. And yet much of the trauma I experienced could have been prevented with a simple cry for help.
It could have been prevented had I been trained to deal with such incidents, just the way that paramedics and other emergency staff are. It could have been prevented had I been required to seek counselling. It could have meant that most of what I felt for so long would have been minimised had I properly been debriefed.
It’s only now, more than two years on, that I begin to feel an element of closure to this episode.
I realise that what I feel is seemingly insignificant when compared to the family and friends of Darcey Freeman. Or anyone else who has experienced grief. And yet, I can’t help feel some remorse knowing that those in our profession are seldom thought to experience similar symptoms.