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Journalism school to revise curriculum in the aftermath of Norway terror attacks

Crisis reporting is set to become integral part of a three year bachelor degree in journalism, if plans to revise the degree’s curriculum go ahead.

- Today you can go through a three years journalism degree without receiving any training in how to cover terror and catastrophes, Trond Idaas, whose survey of the Norwegian journalists who covered the 22/7 terror attacks was a key inspiration for the suggested changes, said when his survey was published.

Idaas is an advisor at the Norwegian Journalist Union and has also written a masters thesis on the experiences of journalists covering the Tsunami in 2004. He feels it is very important that crisis reporting becomes an integral part of journalism training.

Besides, his survey found that more than 40 per cent of the journalists covering the tragic events in Oslo and on Utöya on 22/7 had less than five years of journalistic experience (July being in middle of the summer holidays in Norway) .

This finding has, according to Journalisten, been an important reason for the journalism school at Oslo and Akershus University College to suggest making crisis reporting an integral part of its bachelor degree. Also, there was widespread public reactions to the use of live broadcasts from Utvika on 22/7, when some of those intereviewed quite obviously were in a state of shock.

Idaas said integrating crisis reporting in the curriculum, such as suggested at Oslo and Akershus University College, is "quite revolutionary and not even widespread internationally"

Looking through the text books from when I did my journalism degree at City University in London, I could find precious little mention of how to cover terror and catastrophes (but then I handed in my masters thesis only weeks after 9/11, which may help to explain the abscence - though we did have a lot about war reporting, which makes it seem strange).

The only mention I can find of the topic is a chapter on "How to cover major incidents" in David Randall’s eminent "The Universal Journalist" (I always did like that book). That chapter is however, very instructive – also on what not to do.

For my own part, one direct result of the debates about the media coverage of 22/7 was to contact two of the journalists who covered the hit-and-run accident that almost killed me when I was 17 to thank them for being so professional when interviewing me while I was in shock after the accident.

Now, in terms of interviewing people in shock, my case can’t really be compared to 22/7 as I gave my first interview months after the accident.

But I was certainly in shock then, and for several years after the accident: years when I wasn’t quite sure whether I was just living in a dream (or nightmare), when it often felt like my life was just some surreal movie, when I lost all sense of fear etc

In that state I could easily have said yes to the journalist who, when the case came to court, wanted me to pose for a photo shaking hands with the guy who ran me down for the ”I forgive you”-story  the journalist seemed to have pre-written (which he never got. More on that story here )

Over all though, talking to the media mostly just felt therapeutic back then.

Since I didn’t have any memory of the accident it also helped me piece everything that had happened together. I even met the guy whose car my dog stopped, the one who called the ambulance in the nick of time after my dog alerted him to where I lay unconscious and critically wounded, on a TV show - all very surreal.

But my story was only about a car accident - with the big catastrophes, riots and terror attacks we've seen recently all kinds of ethical dillemmas are multiplied and new ones emerge. The sheer scale of it all is in itself a massive challenge.

In general though, I think it may prove very benificial to make crisis reporting an integral part of journalism training.

Not all journalism students go on to become journalists, but handling communication in times of crisis is something all communication professionals are likely to be called upon to do when they least expect it. 

Just think of the many tumultuous and often tragic indidents of 2011.

Also, being prepared makes dealing with disasters, however tragic, easier.

Idaas said his research shows more experienced journalists, and certainly journalists used to covering war and atrocities, deal with the impressions more efficiently and are far less likely to suffer from delayed stress reactions than inexperienced journalists.

Despite rumours to the contrary, journalists are not immune to the impressions from the many traumas of disaster. Nor are police, firemen and other emergency workers.

So 22/7 will also be a test of how well the organisations employing any of these workers handle the aftermath of crisis, that remains to be seen.





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