Leona O'Neill: Breaking news should not be breaking our journalists

There are ways to mitigate against harm in our newsrooms. Realising there is an historic problem that can easily be fixed is a first step: the public recognising that our journalists are just like them is another, writes Leona O'Neill...

Witnessing the murder of fellow journalist Lyra McKee left Leona O'Neill traumatised
Witnessing the murder of fellow journalist Lyra McKee left Leona O'Neill traumatised

AT THE end of this month, I will do a TedTalk at Stormont to mark 25 years of the Good Friday Agreement. In it, I will speak about how my experiences of the last few years have really fuelled a desire to make newsrooms better, make them more supportive environments for journalists and media workers. 

I have spoken before on these pages about how witnessing the murder of journalist Lyra McKee left me traumatised. I have spoken about how the tsunami of abuse and harassment after that tragic event battered down my already bruised soul and left me broken. 

What I maybe haven’t touched on was the impact of the build up of trauma from covering harrowing stories, hard news, attending inquests and court cases, legacy issues, family tragedies and dealing with the very worst side of humanity for over 20 years, for me and many other journalists. 

All of the above contributed to me getting PTSD. As a mother, I had to deal with that so I could function for my four kids. I have done a fair bit of unpacking in counselling over the last four years and I feel so much better for it. I stepped out of the newsroom and was able to look at it from a place that wasn’t so ceaselessly spinning at break-neck speed and realised that I had to do something to help other journalists thrive and grow.  

We live in a strange world where our media workers face pressure at work. They have to walk towards the danger, they have to sit with the grieving, absorb their pain, they have to compute the most harrowing details in inquests or court and filter out the not-for-publication information too gruesome to print. They have to stand at murder scenes and go home and act like it is completely normal, that none of this stuff lands on them.  

They have to act like they are somehow superhuman and totally immune to mental health or wellbeing challenges. The newsroom environment demands it. Showing weakness makes you look like you’re not up for the job. 

Over the last few years there have been increasing campaigns to dehumanise journalists and media workers, brand them all heartless, black souled individuals who care not for their fellow human, just for the story. We see this played out on the streets and online.

When something happens, the public demands information immediately. They want to hear every single detail. They are almost insatiable for it, 24 hours a day. Then they turn on the media, calling them vultures and worse for delivering what they wanted.  

The abuse journalists have to endure online is off the scale. Yet it’s an arena that journalists have to operate in to do their work.  

You know that feeling when you read a horrific story - perhaps about a child murder or innocent people slain - and the details are almost too much to bear? Reading the details can feel like someone is taking a Brillo pad to your soul. That feeling of helplessness and sorrow grips you. But you can turn the page or switch the channel and it subsides. 

Journalists and media workers have to gather that information, follow a story from the very start to the very end, stand in front of those people and absorb and record the details, all the horror, all the raw, angry grief. They can’t turn away. They are responsible for taking that person’s story and their voice and putting it out to the world. No matter how grim the message, how brutal the facts. They are talking to parents who have lost children the same age as their own, or parents of young women killed doing the normal stuff we all do every day. Stories that we can relate to, all day long. 

Imagine doing all that, then coming back to an environment where cushioning or comfort is often not even considered and in some cases almost frowned upon, and the emphasis is – not because it is an official rule but because the notion is woven so tightly into most newsrooms the world over - solely on getting the next story, hitting the next deadline.  

It doesn’t have to be that way. There are ways to mitigate against harm in our newsrooms. Realising there is an historic problem that can easily be fixed is a first step.  

The public recognising that our journalists are just like them, they work hard, they make a difference, they fight people’s corner, is another.  

Journalists and media workers are mothers, fathers, sons and daughters, sisters and brothers and we need to look after them. 

Tickets to the TEDxStormont event are available here: