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VOICES FROM THE FIELD: Reporting in a time of disaster

OPINION: A journalist’s sojourn of sobs and smiles

journalist mallick mnela while on assignment with the un - no stranger to trauma

MALAWI - A journalist’s daily routine is spent in sojourns, temporary physical and emotional stays while pursuing different stories. Some are joyful, others are traumatic. This often takes a heavy toll on their emotional and psychological well-being.

I have learnt the importance of balancing the coverage of good news and bad news, and of practicing journalism responsibly and with compassion. Despite knowing this, I can attest that it is easier said than done, especially when assigned to cover distressing or even horrific stories.

I was introduced to trauma early in my career through harassment and intimidation while in pursuit of stories for The Chronicle Newspaper in 2002. I was beaten by party thugs on several occasions, hospitalised and then later, kidnapped for my continuous reporting in a manner perceived to be ‘anti-government’ as documented by the International Committee for the Protection of Journalists.

Through the years I have covered the war in DRC, violent protests, humanitarian crises such as flooding, unsafe abortion practices, the brutal killing of people with albinism and severe and widespread child abuse.

In the past two weeks I experienced some additional traumas when floods and incessant heavy rains devastated parts of Malawi. Recently I was woken by a phone call at around 2am. My younger brother was calling to inform me that my mother’s house had collapsed - succumbing to the week-long, heavy downpours. Soaked ground around the house had weakened the foundations, prompting the wall to come crumbling down.

I alerted my boss and drove some 80 kilometers at the break of dawn to provide support by mobilising builders to start repair work. As I drove back to Lilongwe I saw many more homes like my mother’s in various states of ruin.

When I returned to work the next day I came across a number of stories about floods in southern Malawi. The news was all devastating. As I sat at the desk, editing scripts, I remember standing up to call my desk editor colleague Leonard Sharra to take over from me - I was not holding myself together, I was beginning to lose it, and I needed help. Unfortunately, he had a crucial meeting in a few minutes time and could not postpone, and I had to put that stoic heart to use. I had to be brave. At the end of the day, I ran the stories.

The horrific images continued to appear - on social media platforms and the mainstream media. I remember seeing posts by a number of my journalist colleagues who had been to ground zero.

Nation Publications journalist Bobby Kabango told me the experience of covering the floods had touched him emotionally. He was among the few journalists who had been ‘privileged’ to be airlifted by Malawi Defense Force helicopters to see a birds eye view of the extent of the damage inflicted by the floods.

“I felt so depressed. As we went taking aerial pictures of the floods, we spotted someone at the top of a tree in the middle of the flood waters,” Bobby told me in an interview.

Malawi News Agency photojournalist Roy Nkosi also travelled by plane to capture images. He described the scenery as heart-breaking and traumatising.

“The coverage of the flooded parts of the country left me drained. Of course, I had to do my work despite my feelings. Deep down I could feel for the people, and at the end of it all I just realised that I had to tell the story for others to appreciate the extent of damage caused,” Roy told me in a phone conversation.

Lameck Masina, a longtime colleague who writes for Voice of America had a less emotionally distressing, but still frustrating moment, with damaged infrastructure restricting him to road side damage.

“I have seen the horrific images elsewhere. Unfortunately, most of the roads to the most affected areas are impassable. So, I could not go deep into areas where the floods have wreaked the most havoc,” Lameck told me.

He added, however, that he experienced and witnessed the most frustration at the designated campsites where traumatised victims were stationed after being displaced by the floods.

“Nothing can prepare a human being for that kind of experience. Most people were bitter and devastated. Getting a story in such a situation is very tricky and I had to assess each situation as it came to me. But the experience was devastating,” Masina added.

I can relate to most of the experiences I heard from my colleagues. Many took

me back to stories I had covered in the past and the emotions they had triggered. One example that comes to mind is from when on the frontlines of the war in the DRC last year, I had to report about insurgents killed after an attack near a camp we had just visited at Beni Mavivi town. It’s important to remember that this is the part of that country that was the hardest hit by the recent Ebola outbreaks.

Of course, as mentioned earlier, my journalism career is a series of sojourns. The irony is that the stories that bear the highest risk to the journalist personally, professionally and psychologically also often results in highest gains and rewards. As a result of my traumatising stint and depressing work in the DRC, I earned the Ricardo Ortega Media Award by the United Nations Correspondents Association (UNCA) for best media coverage of the United Nations, its agencies or its UN field operations. The fact that the award was presented to me by the UN Secretary General António Guterres added immense satisfaction and sense of accomplishment.

Coincidentally, the UNCA award came barely a month after I was named a winner of the continental Isu Elihle Awards by the South African-based Media Monitoring Africa (MMA). Earlier in 2013, I also collected a continental award from the African Palliative Care Association for my work on pediatric palliative care in Malawi. In this instance, I explored the pain and suffering of children with chronic ailments who end up dying without opioids or appropriate medication.

However, the secondary trauma encountered by a journalist on the job can do psychological damage that cannot be repaired by the accomplishment or gratification that comes with winning awards.

Recently, an Australian court awarded $180,000 to a journalist for the traumas endured while facing so many horrific events on the job. This court decision has ignited a long-overdue debate on how newsrooms treat and care for journalists who cover horrific and traumatic news events.

It is becoming clearer that journalists, because of their regular interfaces with traumatic events, are often left psychologically hurt. As violent incidents and natural disasters become more a regular occurrence for us to report on, often dominating the headlines for weeks on end, perhaps it is time to start investing in care programmes for our journalists who are faced with situations that threaten their physical and psychological well-being, time and time again. Due to effects of climate change, flooding has become a regular, tragic event that leaves journalists with scars of trauma - in Malawi and in many other parts of the world.

Can disasters like these ongoing floods provide a launch pad for change? Can they kick-start discussions addressing the threats of psychological trauma to journalists and journalism as a whole? I hope they can. I think they should. I have had a share of sobs and smiles in my sojourns as a journalist - but I can say without fear of contradiction that the smiles are healthier (and often more necessary) than the sobs!

For more information on journalism and trauma, visit the DART Centre for Journalism and Trauma or download the Trauma and Journalism: A Guide For Journalists, Editors & Managers by clicking here.

To read more about reporting in a time of disaster, click here.

Mallick Mnela (@mallickm3) is an award-winning Malawian journalist and assistant editor at the Zodiak Broadcasting Station, based in Lilongwe. He has experience working both local and internationally, reporting on a vast array of topics. He is passionate about children’s rights and favours an intersectional approach - a combination of hard-hitting journalism and advocacy journalism in favour of the child. He is the founder of Media Advocates for the Advancement of Child Rights (MAACR) and uses his free time to train and mentor journalists in shaping pro-child media narratives.

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