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Aug 31 2005

Tip Sheet

Self-Care Amid Disaster

Advice From an Editor Who's Been There

Coverage of any disaster, whether it is man-made or natural, can be a difficult venture for a newsroom. While it has been particularly devastating, Hurricane Katrina is similar to other disasters in that it caused death and destruction—and grief for many people.

Coverage of any disaster, whether it is man-made or natural, can be a difficult venture for a newsroom. While it has been particularly devastating, Hurricane Katrina is similar to other disasters in that it caused death and destruction—and grief for many people.

Having been involved in coverage of man-made and natural disasters, I have noticed an interesting dynamic when covering a natural disaster. It seems people tend to be more understanding of each other and turn more to God or their faith community more often for help. You often hear people say, "It's God's will." There also seems to be much less anger than is generated by a man-made one (except for frustration caused when people cannot return to their homes).

But for journalists, the same dynamic exists for covering a natural disaster as for a man-made one, except you don't have a criminal investigation at the onset. (In natural disasters, the newspaper’s investigation probably will come fairly soon because of insurance scams, debris cleanup, etc.) The help and how-to-get-help lists, stories or messages of hope, etc., are vital parts in any coverage of this type.

Also, in the subsequent coverage of mass disasters, the team concept does work; this involves assigning teams to different areas of coverage. It’s important that a vital area of coverage is the victims; reporters who are good interviewers, sensitive to people who are suffering and good writers are needed in this area. Sportswriters who constantly deal with and approach people are especially good, once they are coached the proper techniques in approaching victims.

When my newspaper, The Oklahoman, was confronted by a disaster, we posted reminders on our bulletin boards and Intranet about caring for yourself. I also sent and posted notes about how the coverage is affecting the community (e-mails that are sent to the paper and/or Web site as well as anecdotes that come from reporters in the field).

We had a trusted counselor who could receive e-mails from reporters and editors who had questions about their feelings, talk to them on the phone, and schedule one-on-one appointments when needed. This is in addition to the regular EAP counselors.

If reporters are particularly affected because their homes have been damaged or loved ones have been injured, care of them is especially important. Consider rotating reporters so those journalists can have time to deal with their own situations. (In some instances, it may be just a few hours.) They will grow resentful if you don't. Have other reporters—even a team—ready to fill holes if needed.

Don't force them, however, to quit if they want to continue covering the story, but be consistent in asking them about what they need to help deal with their problems. Asking and then listening are important here.
Provide support for them in any possible way. Raise money and items for reporters who have suffered injuries or whose homes were damaged. Contact your Human Resources Department about any company support for these journalists.

Make them feel that they are not alone, and that the newsroom is supportive and understanding of them and their needs.

Overall, all reporters and editors involved in the coverage should be encouraged to do the following:

• Get away from your desk and take brief breaks. Look outside to see that the sun is shining and life continues.

• Try deep breathing. The Eastern Connecticut Health Network recommends that you "take a long, slow, deep breath to the count of five, then exhale slowly to the count of five. Imagine breathing out excess tension and breathing in relaxation."

• Talk to a person that you trust about how you're feeling during these times. It can be an editor, a peer or spouse, but you must trust that the listener will not pass judgment on you. Perhaps it is someone who has faced a similar experience.

• Exercise. Twenty minutes of walking or other forms of exercise can be a great stress reducer.

• Listen to music. Do your favorite hobby. Go to church. Laugh. Do something that relaxes you or provides you with relief from the pressures.

• Eat right—most difficult for any journalist. Foods high in protein or vitamins A, B or C can help reduce stress. And, yes, the experts say the coffee and doughnuts that we've been chugging down really don't help. (However, they're great in the morning, if you didn't get enough sleep. Oh, that could be another tip: If you can, get enough sleep.)

As Oklahoma City counselor Charlotte Lankard, who provided counseling to The Oklahoman's newsroom after the 1995 bombing and 1999 tornadoes, advises: "Write about it. Talk about it. Cry about it."

However, if your problems become overwhelming, seek counseling from a professional.

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Joe Hight

  • Joe Hight is the editor in chief of the Colorado Springs Gazette. Previously, he was the director of information and development for the Oklahoman/NewsOK.com. In 1995, he led the team of reporters and editors who covered victims of the Oklahoma City bombing. The Oklahoman’s coverage won several national awards, including the Dart Award.

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