In the safety of a newsroom thousands of miles from a conflict scene, editors make judgment calls that could ease anxiety or else push a correspondent over the edge.
Sit down with any group of veteran correspondents and you’ll hear some variation on these stories:
- The editor often ignored time-zone differences and awakened stressedout reporters in Baghdad to demand copy changes.
- The correspondents risked their lives to get into position in Fallujah and then were ordered to cover something entirely different somewhere else.
- The lonely, stressed-out reporter called the newsroom from Afghanistan, only to be told that the editors were too busy to talk.
Talk to some editors, though, and you hear an emerging sensitivity about their responsibilities for the emotional health of teams they have dispatched to dangerous places.
Santiago Lyon, the AP photography director, has taken part in both sides of the conversation. A decade ago, when he was traveling on assignment, awareness of mental-health needs was woefully limited in newsrooms. Now the media culture is changing, he says. The Dart Center and concerned veteran war correspondents have raised the consciousness of the journalistic community, Lyon said, and “that’s a tremendously useful thing.” What’s needed next, he said, is for media leaders to parlay the heightened awareness into lasting change in newsrooms.
Change is taking hold in Europe, says Mark Brayne, a BBC and Reuters correspondent before he became director of the Dart Centre in the UK.
“This agenda is very new,” Brayne says. “Ten years ago it just wasn’t on the consciousness. When I was a correspondent, nobody ever thought of this, and nobody is to blame for that. There just wasn’t any awareness. We simply didn’t know what we didn’t know. But there really is a rapid shift now. ... The lights are going on.”
One reason is that first responders in other lines of work – police, fire and ambulance crews – increasingly are trained in handling their own trauma. Recent lawsuits filed in the UK have claimed that news organizations failed to keep pace and take reasonable steps to protect their workers. The upshot is that a former sense of “macho journalism” is giving way to a smarter approach that is grounded in scientific wisdom about trauma and its costs to people and job performance. The value of trauma sensitivity is catching hold, Brayne says, “for bottomline reasons, for quality reasons, for good management reasons, for ethical reasons, for moral reasons.”
Consider the example of David Clark Scott, international news editor at the Christian Science Monitor. He was working with freelancer Jill Carroll when she was kidnapped in Iraq in 2006, and he played a key role on the Monitor team that secured her safe release.
Even before the kidnapping crisis, Scott had earned respect and affection from correspondents who filed from dangerous and highly emotional settings. Working under tough deadlines, he held tenaciously to the highest professional standards while also taking a deep interest in the personal well-being of the correspondents.
“If you sound tired on the phone, he notes it,” Carroll says. “If you’ve been away from your family too long, he insisted you get back home,” Carroll says.
Scott never failed to say “Thank you.” after Carroll filed a story, she says.
In 2007, Scott was honored as the first recipient of the Dart Society’s Mimi Award, which recognizes exceptional work by an editor.
In that spirit, here are some concrete steps editors can take:
Before the Assignment
Editors and news organizations can take the lead in preparations for coverage of dangerous situations.
- Negotiate a firm deal on exactly what the company will insure and what costs will be covered. Make sure the correspondents and their families understand the terms.
- Initiate a contact plan with correspondents and also with their families. Designate an editor and backup editors to be available to listen at all hours and to relay news to the family, even word that everyone is safe.
- Define expectations in advance. How long is the assignment likely to last? How often are the correspondents expected to file stories and photos? How often should they check in? Emphasize that flexibility is important and plans could change, but at least set a framework of expectations.
- Frankly discuss the risks, the security plan and the need for protective equipment. Understand and discuss the limitations that may be imposed by security rules or by conditions on the ground. Clearly define limits of the risks the company considers acceptable for employees.
- Train key editors and staff members in trauma awareness. Issue periodic reminders for them to be alert for symptoms of serious stress. Develop routine checks such as asking the correspondent whether it’s time to take a break or come home. Learn the differences between normal responses to danger and true trouble signs.
- If possible, plan to send at least one editor to the danger zone during a prolonged assignment. It can be reassuring for the correspondents while also improving communication and providing a reality check for the newsroom.
During the Assignment
- Say “thank you” often and mean it. Be generous with praise and appreciation from throughout the news organization.
- Make the correspondents feel connected with the newsroom.
- Ask regularly about their health, how well they are eating and sleeping and their state of mind.
- Listen. Several of the correspondents described a deeply troubling psychic disconnect with editors on the other end of phone conversations. Bombs could be going off in the distance, bodies bleeding on the ground and the correspondent struggling to express the full measure of the stress. But the multitasking editor too often could be heard typing while saying, “Umhuh, umhuh. OK. I have to get to a meeting.”
- Try to provide context to reporters who may be isolated from the news. Tell how their reports fit into the big picture of the story. This can ease their feeling of being cut off, reduce anxiety that they aren’t doing enough and also inspire more ideas about how they can contribute.
- Be mindful of time zones. If you wake a reporter in the middle of the night asking for more copy on a grisly story, bear in mind that you probably have ended any chance for sleep that night.
- Network with the correspondents’ buddies and colleagues in the field so that a concerned friend will have a basis for alerting you about trouble signs.
After the Assignment
Some newsrooms are setting up homecoming routines. They send welcoming committees to the airport, stage luncheons and schedule appearances before staff groups. Whatever the routine, the key is to be generous with praise.
Formal debriefing. Discuss what went well and what did not. Watch for signals of the journalist’s overall response to the assignment. This conversation is about journalism, but it also is a time when you may see subtle signs of lingering trauma. Here are some tips for structuring the conversation.
- Discuss the facts of what happened on an assignment, allowing time for correspondents to think through the what, where, when and how. Be careful, though, about getting into why something happened. Keep questions open ended. What did they like or not like? What did they find frustrating? What could the desk have done better? What was the most difficult?
- Discuss the impact of the events, the correspondent’s thoughts and feelings at the time. Don’t say you know how they feel. Listen and allow time for the reporter or photographer to think and talk.
- Discuss the impact now. What are you doing? How are you feeling?
- Discuss the normal responses. Watch for signs of stress.
Offer mental health benefits, but don’t insist. Even if the answer is no, think of this as the beginning of a conversation you should have again in a few weeks.
Try to come up with a plan for easing and enriching the transition to a lower gear. A letdown is common after a dangerous and intense assignment. It can lead to depression, abusive behavior, lethargy on the job and other problems. But it doesn’t have to. Offer time off after the debriefing, but don’t insist on it. Some journalists do better when they continue to work, albeit on lighter projects.
Encourage and sponsor gettogethers with others who have worked in danger zones – allow time off for retreats and send the correspondents to conferences where they will have a chance to meet others with similar experiences.
Signs to watch for:
- Someone is no longer himself or herself
- They might shut themselves away, or take the opposite approach and talk constantly about the experience
- They might be unusually irritable and angry
- They may talk of feeling guilty or confused
- They may be more accident prone
- They might be sick a lot, or late for work or miss deadlines
- They might be obsessive about work
- Lack of interest and concentration
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