Journalists talk about the stresses of the job

Apr 16, 2019 | News

David Walmsley (left) introduces the panel, Michelle Shepherd (second left), Dr. Anthony Feinstein, Peter Akman, Ioanna Roumeliotis and Paul Hunter (right) at the Canadian Journalism Foundation talk at TD Bank Tower on April 16, 2019. (Devin Linh Nam)

Devin Linh Nam

Every day Canadians tune into the CBC, CTV and other news sources to learn about what is going on around the world, in the country and their city.

The most important stories are often the most difficult, and they are brought to us by journalists who are willing to put themselves in the thick of the action no matter how dangerous or unsettling.

Three veteran journalists, Peter Akman, Ioanna Roumeliotis and Paul Hunter, spoke about their experiences reporting painful stories, that involve death, war and violence, and the lasting effects on their mental health at TD Bank Tower for the Canadian Journalism Foundation talk Fallout from the Field on April 16.

The talk was moderated by Michelle Shephard, an award-winning journalist, who just landed in Toronto from a flight from Mogadishu, Somalia and included Dr. Anthony Feinstein, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Toronto and Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre, to help analyze the journalists’ experiences in conflict zones, at the scene of terrorist attacks and natural disasters.

Hunter, currently CBC’s Washington correspondent, covers the daily activities of President Donald Trump and his administration. He is not at risk of physical danger like in warzones, where he has been sent to in the past, but there is still a mental toll that comes with covering Washington.

“It’s not aspirational, and it’s not hopeful. Every day is dark,” said Hunter, who visited Humber College to talk to journalism students the following day.

“I have found the relentlessness of the negativity beats you down,” he said.

For journalists, the requirements of the job often distract from the grim reality they are reporting.

Between the journalists on stage, they have covered a majority of the most challenging stories in recent memory.

Roumeliotis, a senior reporter with CBC National News, covered the 9/11 attacks, Hurricane Maria, which tore through Puerto Rico, and the #MeToo movement.

She said the most challenging stories are the ones that hit close to home, which, for Roumeliotis, was the Toronto van attack on April 23 last year.

“I was there just a couple of days ago,” she said, talking about the Finch Ave. and Yonge St. intersection where the attack took place.

“The demands of the news get you through the worst of it,” Roumeliotis said.

It’s in the few minutes of respite, in between the craze of filing, interviewing and reporting, when specific details begin to sink in and stick in the gut.

Roumeliotis said because of the number of casualties, it took all day for the coroners to address the entire scene.

“People are lying down covered in a tarp,” she said. “An officer we interviewed the next day said, ‘a phone kept ringing under one of the tarps, and the display said, Mom.’

“There are moments like that when it hits you. When you allow yourself to not be on as a journalist and be there as a human being,” Roumeliotis said.

Akman, who travels around the world for CTV W5 and has covered the Rohingya crisis in Myanmar, the fall of Muammar Gaddafi in Libya and spent two months in Afghanistan with the Canadian Armed Forces during the aftermath of 9/11, agreed with Roumeliotis and talked about covering the Danforth shooting in July 2018.

“I live a block away from where it started,” he said. “Quite literally, I was there with my two kids, and we got ice cream, and then we left.

“My phone rang, and I was back exactly to where I was earlier that day,” Akman said.

Hunter, Roumeliotis and Akman clearly detailed the hardships that come with the profession. But they will not be stopped because they strive to give voice to unheard stories.

“I don’t think I felt better about any story I did,” said Hunter, talking about the story he produced for the CBC about Baltimore and the underreported violence against young black men. “Everybody we talked to was given a voice.

“They matter. And truth matters. And putting light on any circumstance matters,” Hunter said.