Dec. 3 Event: Ebola, Covering a Modern Plague
Film Screening: The Last 40 Miles
Similar to police, firefighters, and first responders to critical incidents, journalists are often exposed to highly stressful, traumatic situations, and required to bear witness to others who have been overwhelmed by traumatic events. While emergency workers have, particularly in the last decade, recognized the need for self-care and organizational safe-guards, journalists may not yet have been recognized as potential candidates for employee safeguards and increased support.
While journalists are increasingly feeling more comfortable talking about the effects that covering violence and other traumatic events has had on them, this was not always the case. In the past, many journalists chose not to talk about their feelings of fear, anxiety, depression, anger and other emotions because those expressions might be construed by others as a sign of weakness and inability to do the job. Today, even nationally prominent journalists such as the New York Times' Rick Bragg, CNN's Christiane Amanpour and retired veteran broadcast journalist Bernard Shaw have spoken publicly about the emotional and psychological difficulty of covering certain kinds of news stories.
At a conference at the University of Washington several years ago, one journalist talked about the difficulties of covering an adult-child sex ring case that dragged on for two years and other emotionally taxing stories. "Everyday I get up and there's this river, this wild raging river," she said, "and I take a deep breath, and I dive in and at the end of the day I claw out, and the next day I jump back in. I don't feel that I ever have time to think about what I'm doing."
What journalists need to remember is that there may be a number of potential stress reactions they may have when they write about particularly stressful or traumatic topics — murders, car accidents, sexual assaults and other violence. It is also possible that they may experience traumatic stress symptoms themselves after covering these kinds of stories over a long period of time.
As described in parts 2 and 4, people who are regularly exposed to traumatic stress may experience reactions that are adverse to their mental and physical health, such as cynicism, isolation, excessive smoking or drinking, compulsive behavior like overeating or illicit drug use, anger, anxiety, avoidance, depression, and so forth.
There are a number of common strategies that individuals utilize when coping with extraordinary stress in their lives. These strategies, while effective at manageable levels of stress, can become unproductive or detrimental when stress reaches overwhelming or traumatic levels. Common coping mechanisms have been grouped into six types of categories:
Of the above coping strategies, research has shown that:
Individuals with strong coping skills often choose to:
The process of "converting" traumas into growth experiences has the following characteristics:
There are also healthy coping mechanisms that have been suggested by journalists and editors themselves and tried out in newsrooms across the country. Debriefing opportunities after a community tragedy has been shown to be helpful, as well as making mental health services readily available for those who need them. The act of seeking mental health counseling needs to be de-stigmatized in the newsroom culture so that journalists will feel comfortable accessing those kinds of services. Peer support is also beneficial. Often there is one or more individuals in a newsroom who a troubled employee can seek out for empathy and friendly counsel. The person or persons providing this counsel, however, needs to be careful not to become too overwhelmed by others' emotional pain.
Editors and other newsroom managers can take a leading role in letting journalists know they work in a caring newsroom. Hosting a workshop on journalism and trauma can help prepare journalists to deal with potential problems related to covering traumatic events. Calling the newsroom together to discuss problems and concerns during or after a traumatic event shows concern not only for the journalists but for the community that the journalists are reporting on.
A potentially harmful coping mechanism to both the journalist and community is the effect of desensitization to others' emotional pain and psychological distress. While it is often necessary to compartmentalize one's emotions temporarily to get through a difficult period and do what it takes to get a story written, it is harmful to stop feeling altogether. The inability to empathize in the process of getting a story could cause the journalist to add trauma to an already traumatized victim. Journalists need time and encouragement to process their emotions, to deal with their feelings of sadness or anger or horror or confusion, and not repress them.
A good internal and external support system is critical. Some people meditate, take long walks, listen to relaxing music, enjoy quiet baths, seek spiritual retreat or sustenance, and treat themselves to massages and other extravagances when they are feeling "stressed out." This, coupled with a network of caring family, friends and health professionals, provide constructive relief to a stressful work life.
Reducing stress in one's life, especially when one has a busy and stressful job, usually requires thoughtful planning and deliberate action. Work can be all-consuming, leaving little time to think about how to rest, relax and enjoy life. Unfortunately this self-neglect can lead to physical and mental deterioration. Countless studies have by now established a clear link between stress and sickness. Journalists, like all people who work at stressful jobs, need to create a wellness program for themselves that takes into account healthy eating, exercise, recreation, relaxation and, if necessary, physical and mental treatment.
Besides being more aware of coping strategies, there are many ways to restore lifestyle balance, and keeping track of and making progress with as many of the following changes is a good way to regain balance after having been exposed to or witnessed cumalative traumatic experiences:
There may be times when the above self-help strategies are not effective in reducing the effects of exposure to traumatic stress. Research has shown that some changes associated with exposure to trauma may involve a change in brain chemistry and function, and that the use of antidepressants is effective in reducing both PTSD and depressive symptoms in individuals who are unable to manage their symptoms behaviorally. Individuals have also shown partial or full relief from post-traumatic stress symptoms through certain types of cognitive-behavioral treatment. As stated in Part 2, seeking assistance from your medical doctor or a mental health professional who is skilled in trauma is recommended if:
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The Dart Center is a project of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.