Covering Children and Trauma

The nightmares began for one reporter after reading dozens of gruesome fatality reports about babies who had been suffocated, starved or beaten to death.

The sight of a child’s shoe lying in the rubble of a plane crash haunted a photographer years later.

Children’s innocence makes their suffering all the more disturbing. Journalists who write about violence don’t escape unscathed. We are at risk for post-traumatic stress. It can hit after a couple of years spent covering the child-welfare beat and writing countless stories about abused kids. Or it can be triggered by one horrifying event.

Former Fresno TV news reporter Allison Ash covered the slaughter of nine people at a local home in March 2004. Most of the victims were kids. Afterward, she was interviewed for a story in the Fresno Bee. She told the reporter she had trouble sleeping. And she had trouble getting away from the story because strangers who recognized her would corner her in the grocery store to talk about the murders. One thing that helped Ash cope was reaching out to other reporters and photographers—and even a police officer—at the scene to acknowledge the horror of the event. Hugs were offered, tears were shed. “As for reporters with children, we did what we always do—went home and hugged our children,” Ash said.

Other coping strategies include:

  • Talk about your feelings with other reporters or your editor. Ask a colleague to go for coffee and vent. Have a good cry. Get over the myth that emotional toughness equals good journalism.
  • Take time off to rejuvenate after an emotionally draining story. Try to get away from work: Don’t check e-mails, phone messages or call for updates.
  • Seek to balance your life away from work: Play with your puppy, read fiction, garden, join a baseball team, cook dinner for friends, go camping with your kids.
  • Educate yourself about the symptoms of post-traumatic stress. If you have trouble sleeping or eating, can’t concentrate and find yourself off balance after a week or so, talk to a professional counselor.
  • Ask to cover a different type of story from time to time. Alternatively, ask for a different beat if you need a break from covering emotionally intense subjects like child welfare or the latest domestic-violence-related murder.