Trauma in the Newsroom: Tips for Managers

In response to the WDBJ shooting, the Dart Center has released a tip sheet for managers for coping with the death of a colleague.

In times of crisis, leadership matters. 

When a journalist dies unexpectedly, grief management is central to the leadership team’s job. As an editor, you cannot micromanage the emotional needs of every staff member, but you can set a tone that will make it easier for co-workers to find stable ground.

The murder or other sudden death of a newsroom colleague violates the inherent sense of safety and trust upon which our personal and working relationships are built. During such a crisis, reporters look to their editors and managers for structure and direction. Journalists will do better in a newsroom environment that feels accepting and supportive, where the leadership is perceived as consistent and fair, and where newsroom staff feel they are bound by a common mission.

Newsrooms may also need to take additional safety precautions, which can play a part in restoring a sense of psychological safety and organizational cohesion.

 

BREAKING THE NEWS

If you will be breaking the news of a colleague’s death to newsroom staff, try to do so before the information is available elsewhere. It is best to do so in person, either individually or by calling a newsroom meeting. If neither is possible, use the phone. Email should be a last resort. If you must use electronic communication, make sure the subject line indicates that the email contains disturbing news. (In a large news organization, a general email will be necessary at some stage to reach staff in different offices or locations.)

 

SETTING THE TONE

As a manager you’ll need to show clear leadership at the same time as ensuring that staff feel that their needs and perspectives are being respected. 

To do so, consider the following:

  • Be visibly in charge. Visit the newsroom and talk to staff more often than you usually would. Make clear decisions.
  • Don’t stifle your own honest reactions. An overly stiff upper lip may send an unhelpful message, that you don’t care or it’s not right to be affected. Instead, if you are finding the situation personally difficult, demonstrate leadership by showing that one can be upset while still effectively in control of the situation. 
  • Keep staff informed, even if you don’t have all the answers. It is better to say that you don’t know than to generate a perception of secrecy around an issue. 
  • Consult. People will respond better to difficult decisions, even ones they disagree with, if they feel that their views and needs have been taken into consideration. Bear in mind, too, that your colleagues may not be comfortable talking about death and therefore may not articulate their own issues and needs, however important they might be, unless asked directly.
  • Reach out to other news organizations that have been in a similar situation. There may be other news managers or editors who would be willing to share some practical experience, or even provide ongoing support during the crisis.  
  • Remember: you can’t do everything. Create an environment around which responsible staff can self-organize. (Organizing a collection, or agreeing how and when to clear the deceased’s desk, are examples of ways that staff might feel empowered to take on important roles.) Effectively handling sensitive, private conversations with distressed staff members is not part of everyone’s natural skill set. If that is the case for you consider sharing some of this responsibility with trusted deputies. 
  • Be a role model for self-care. By taking care of yourself and sending out reminders to others to do the same, you encourage your staff to adopt healthy practices. This is not only a matter of occupational health but of preserving good news judgment. It is hard to lead effectively, if you become exhausted or burnt out.
  • Watch out for people. Small acts of courtesy, such as paying for travel expenses to attend funerals, are often what is remembered with gratitude after the fact. Thank individuals personally for good work despite the trying circumstances. You’ll need to take account of different staff needs: some individuals are more likely to be affected than others. They may need time off work or lighter duties. 
  • Be scrupulously fair. It is even more important than usual to be seen as transparent, fair and even-handed, particularly in how assignments and other opportunities are allocated. 
  • Be open to the positives without denying the negatives. In general, the tone to set would be this is bad but we can get through it. Avoid the opposite trap of either underplaying the gravity of the situation or endlessly repeating how awful the situation is.

 

MANAGING GRIEF 

A workplace is not an individual; it is a collection of people with different needs and different levels of connection to the deceased. It is still useful, however, to make a comparison with how a person who has lost a partner or a close relative grieves. Bereavement experts say that they go through two initial phases: first acceptance, the process of believing that somebody has actual died, and secondly restoration, getting life moving again, in the sense of returning to work, and dealing with the financial and legal implications of a death, and so on. The first stage can be surprisingly challenging. This is why rituals such as funerals and receiving condolence cards are so important: they help the reality sink in that the person is no longer there. 

The challenge for a newsroom is that it never stops working; it continues to publish more or less whatever the circumstances. In such an environment, it can be easy to overlook the importance of taking stock. Skip that stage, and the sense of confusion and insecurity may persist for longer than it would have otherwise. 

These are some questions that may come up:

  1. Should the funeral be the focus of a newsroom’s grief, or is a separate commemoration service needed? This depends on the size of the newsroom, relationships with the deceased, and wishes of the family. Generally, it is a good idea to have an additional secular commemoration service, which might include family members, but celebrates the working life and friendships of the person who has died. In the case of a funeral, clearly the wishes of the family would be paramount. This is something that may be appropriate for the news organization to pay for. (Note the family may be hostile to the news organization if they feel that it was the journalist’s job that exposed them to risk.)
  2. Who from the newsroom should be consulted on the planning of a service, and who should speak in their colleague’s memory? It would make sense to include colleagues who have a close connection and could speak meaningfully in personal terms. A service that is dominated too heavily by senior management is likely to be perceived as grandstanding and be less effective. Work time should be allocated to those working on this - it should not be an extra duty. 
  3. What should be done with the deceased’s desk and when? This is not a trivial issue: it has been a flashpoint for newsrooms in the past. Some may want to preserve it as a shrine; others may find it too upsetting to work in the same space. If the deceased was a public figure, such as a radio presenter, you may find members of the public turning up and asking to see it. Clearing the desk is something you will want to talk about. You might want to clear it over a weekend or involve members of the newsroom in setting a timetable and a ritual for clearing the desk. Consider whether there is a need to redecorate the room or change the space by moving furniture around. Giving the deceased’s actual desk to his or her replacement is usually a bad idea. 
  4. What is the appropriate level of commemoration? Colleagues may have differing ideas. Too many compulsory rituals or periods of silence can be onerous, but there may be other ways of creating small islands of reflection and commemoration in the work place. Local culture may play a big part in this. In general it is a good idea to create a space outside of the newsroom to be used as a space for private reflection, or in the case of a high-profile situation, a site where members of the public can pay their respects without intruding on the newsroom. Colleagues may want to organize more private acts on their own, such as meals together or collections for the family or charities. In the longer term, there may be the option to create a fund or a commemorative project in the journalist’s name. 
  5. What is best practice for covering the story itself? In some cases colleagues may feel a sense of purpose and mission in covering the death of a colleague. In others, depending on the situation and how others in the newsroom feel, you might involve a trusted freelancer in the coverage team who can take on aspects of the breaking news or follow-up investigation that might be especially arduous. Make sure that no graphic imagery of the incident that led to the death is readily available on an internal server so that staff could stumble upon it. If needed, sensitive material should be encrypted or kept on a separate hard drive. 

 

MENTAL HEALTH NEEDS OF STAFF

Journalists are resilient people with experience working in demanding situations. Nevertheless, such an extreme situation as the sudden death of a colleague brings with it the possibility that some staff may encounter significant mental health issues, such as depression or post-traumatic stress disorder. In the case of a murder or targeted killing it can be hard to decipher whether people are struggling because they are having trouble processing the loss, or because their minds and bodies have become locked in a trauma response mode, leaving them primed for the possibility of future attacks. 

As an editor, it will be hard to know where colleagues are on the risk map. The ripple effect from a traumatic incident may spread out more widely than first assumed: 

  • Generally, the closer someone is to the deceased and the more involved they were in the incident that led to the death, the higher the risk might be. 
  • There is also evidence to suggest that people at the outset of their careers (particularly those who had a strong mentoring relationship with the journalist who was killed) and more senior staff with many years of trauma exposure may have elevated risks compared to colleagues in the middle of their careers.  
  • Remember to think about the entire staff:
    • Everyone can be affected. For an office receptionist, for example, the impact could result from handling a large volume of disturbing conversations from distraught members of the public without adequate training to help them respond effectively and contextualize their own reactions.

Distress is normal: one would expect a significant proportion of people in a newsroom to be upset or more emotionally reactive in the aftermath of such an incident. It only becomes an issue in mental health terms, if people still are not functioning well four to six weeks after a death. For most people, the most troubling reactions will decline by themselves. 

For this reason, it is not a good idea to bring in a mental health professional to run a group debriefing session in the immediate aftermath. It used to be thought that this kind of intervention helped a group process their emotional reactions better. But what works best for each person is highly individual. 

Researchers have now concluded that psychological debriefing, particularly if it is compulsory, may even be harmful. For those happy to share feelings publicly it can be very helpful; but for others, a sense of being forced to listen to other people’s memories of an event or feeling pressure to divulge their own feelings can disrupt their personal coping process. 

Rushing to bring in an outside expert or organization to come in and directly manage the grief reactions of staff is suspect for another reason is well. It can send a message to the newsroom: that it does not have the social support resources to cope by itself. 

The Dart Center follows other international health guidelines in recommending “watchful waiting.” The idea is to monitor how individuals are doing in a low-key way, and to check back with them if they are still not functioning well. Ideally, you will already have a trauma management policy in place with access to external support and advice. Your Employee Assistance Program, if you have one, should be able to advise on this.

Some staff members are likely to be hit harder than others. They may need additional support, perhaps lighter duties or specific time off to mourn - sending people off on long holidays away from the newsroom is not recommended as it can leave them feeling isolated. 

Again, it is not a good idea to push people into seeing an outside specialist in the first four to six weeks after an incident. This has to be a matter of personal choice and, strictly speaking, it is too early to tell whether their reactions indicate the possibility of longer-term psychological injury. For someone who expresses that they want external help, referrals should be facilitated and supported by management.