Friday, August 10, 2012

Newsrooms, Glass-Jaws and "Anonymous" Interns

The Farrago's Editorial team and room. (University of Melbourne)
A couple of days ago there was quite a bit of drama on Twitter after a certain "anonymous" young “upstart” from the University of Melbourne's Farrago newspaper dared to call News Ltd's Herald Sun a “hetero-normative” publication.  Apparently the young journalism student (a.k.a. "Intern") in question had taken offence from the fact that newsrooms can occasionally be the breeding ground of dark humour and other forms of bleak comedy, predominantly due to the high levels of stress, tension and tragedy that pass through a newsroom's hallowed walls on a daily basis.

While that doesn't excuse homophobia, transphobia, sexism and other forms of directed personal abuse within the workplace as veterans like Mark Colvin have stated, the presence of such comedy is the sign of a relatively healthy newsroom once you realise that it means that journalists and other media professionals are talking through the emotional traumas that most have to witness or experience on a daily basis. We all know that there's a lot of really gruesome and disturbing content that Journalists have to pursue and then edit out, before a broadcast ever goes to air or a newspaper goes to print. While the public may get a sanitised version of events as they are occurring, more often than not Journalists don't, which can lead to some pretty serious mental health issues down the road if they don't have a coping mechanism (such as dark humour) in place.

If the Intern had been dropped into either an emergency services or military environment, she undoubtedly would have encountered similar attitudes from doctors, police, soldiers, paramedics, nurses and firefighters alike. That's because when people face a similar type of tragedy or stress together on a daily basis, a tribalistic culture starts to form both within their select group and their industry as a whole. When that happens, all sorts of crude, innovative and outright dirty jokes come flying out of the woodwork, as a way of people getting things off their chests. Without that level of release, bad things nearly always happen.

Journalists are no exception to that rule, as evidenced by an explosive piece that was penned by NewsWeek's Michael Ware only a couple of months ago.

(More after the Jump!!)

After spending most of the past decade embedded with military units fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, Ware wrote a personal reflection on what war does to the mental health of soldiers and journalists alike when they don't have access to appropriate levels of psychological release on a daily basis. Within some of the most heartfelt and soul destroying paragraphs that I've ever read, he documented how depression, grief and post-traumatic stress disorder can become a life-long disability that literally destroys an otherwise healthy mind.

"To this day my mind still reels with war’s usual kaleidoscope: dead kids splayed out, often in bits; screaming mates; crimson tides from al Qaeda suicide bombings creeping across asphalt. I still see ... things.

Other things I cannot remember, even when told of them, but I know they haunt my sleep; I tore my left shoulder right out of its socket during a dream one Friday night; awakened by the hellish sound of someone screaming before realising it was me."

While most reporters aren't war correspondents like Ware, it's next to impossible to find a journalist who hasn't been traumatised by something that they've covered throughout their career. From pursuing pedophiles through to murder scenes, car crashes, falls off horses and other accidents, there's a lot of gruesome material that journalists regularly witness which can stay with them for years. While most are able to recover in some way, shape or form and move on with their lives, others like Ware are left permanently scarred in ways that make it nearly impossible for them to resume their previous careers and lives. While journalists in a newsroom have access to a support network of sorts via dark humour, Ware didn't and the destructive results of it show.

A while back a friend of mine who's trained as a counsellor told me that while mental health professionals worry about people who are talking with them about traumas that they've been through, it's the ones that aren't talking about those same traumas that give them nightmares at night. That's because while the people who are talking through stuff in some way, shape or form are dealing with the issues that have been forced upon them, those who aren't talking more often than not are struggling to survive. So while dark humour and comedy might sound unprofessional when it comes from journalists on various occasions, it does have its place within a newsroom on the proviso that it doesn't become a personalised attack.

That said, I think that everybody needs to take a deep breath and remember that we are all dealing with a University student here. While her writing style may have about as much grace as a rogue bull in a china shop, few (if any) of us were able to set the world on fire with the first few stories that we either wrote or broadcast live to air. Furthermore, a few of my colleagues need to look at themselves in a mirror before they start casting stones at this young woman.

While her article may have been anonymous, it's not as if newspapers and online media outlets don't commission such content on a daily basis. More often than not, a newspaper with multiple editors will have an unaccredited editorial somewhere within the first couple of pages of each individual edition, which uses anonymity to stir up public sentiment over various issues. Furthermore, it is rare that a newspaper offers a right of reply to an editorial piece, which gives further credibility to some of the “Glass-jaw” comments that have been made about the press since this story broke.

I'm also slightly disturbed by the vindictive nature of some of the comments that have been placed towards the Intern in question, by a handful of columnists who should know better. Sure she's upset the apple-cart and has probably misunderstood a couple of the gestures that were made towards her in good faith, though she's also highlighted something that we all know happens in every workplace once in a while: That some people take their comments just a teeny-tiny bit too far, on occasion.

If we can't take the comments that a student (of all people) makes in a University newspaper without going off our rockers, then we've got more problems in our industry than what a disgruntled and disillusioned journalism intern can ever cause. Given that none of us know what the psychological condition of this student is, it's also important that we keep the age of this Intern in mind since older and more experienced members of the media have tragically succumbed to other levels of scrutiny in the past.

Given my own personal situation, I also feel compelled to address some of the other allegations that have been made within the former Intern's article. As most of you would know, I've been out of the closet as both a Trans-woman and as a lesbian-leaning bisexual since 2008. While I don't actively promote my own personal history, I'm not afraid to use it as an advantage when I'm pursuing a story on occasion as well. While being a member of the wider Same-Sex and Gender Diverse community can court controversy on occasion, it is only one small part of who I am as a person and should be treated as such.

While I'm dead certain that being “Trans” has cost me a couple of jobs in both the public and commercial media sectors that I otherwise would've gotten, I'm also certain that it has opened more doors for me than what have been closed in my face. Because of my unique background, I've been able to meet a lot of people throughout my career who've been more than worth wading through a river of muck created by arrogant and close minded jerks in order to meet.

People like Rosie Beaton, Mark Colvin, Amanda Meade, Wendy Harmer, Carol Duncan, Craig Norenbergs, Neil McMahon, Tommy Christopher, Kirsti Melville, Andrea Ho, Julie Posetti, Rhianna Patrick, Helen Tzarimas, Linda Mottram, Mona Eltahawy, Zoe Daniel, Jess Hill, Rosemary Church, Kate Carruthers and my old station manager Chris Jahnsen have all had a hand in teaching me how to stand up for and be myself. While I don't go looking for drama, the fact that I know how to properly take crap and also dish it out when necessary, has saved me a lot of stress and angst over recent times. In essence, the support of friends and mentors such as those that I've listed above has helped mould me both as a person and as a journalist.

More often than not, situations are what you make of them and I'd much rather make lemonade out of lemons than the other way round. I think that's a lesson that this young intern should learn from this entire incident.

So while it's blatantly obvious that the Intern needs to work on her writing and analytical skills, it's also evident that a few of my colleagues need to wake up to themselves. While being the subject of criticism may suck at times, whenever it's constructive in nature it needs to be taken at face value and examined rather than ridiculed. While I think that she should have raised her concerns in a more subtle manner via the appropriate University authorities and diversity officers within News Ltd, I hope that she is able to brush her critics aside and stay in the industry.

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