Self-Study Unit 4: The First 24 Hours
The first 24 hours after a traumatic news event may present a journalist with considerable challenges and opportunities, both professionally and personally. The usual physical and psychological demands of trying to gather facts and write a story under deadline are greatly magnified when trauma is involved, especially when a large number of victims are dead or seriously injured (although even a single victim can be difficult to cover).
The first 24 hours after a traumatic news event may present a journalist with considerable challenges and opportunities, both professionally and personally. The usual physical and psychological demands of trying to gather facts and write a story under deadline are greatly magnified when trauma is involved, especially when a large number of victims are dead or seriously injured (although even a single victim can be difficult to cover). The scene of the event will likely be chaotic if many victims are involved. Conflicting accounts of what happened, difficulty finding appropriate people to interview, and competition to get the news out as quickly as possible all contribute to the stress of covering trauma. The effects of secondary trauma — i.e., vicariously experiencing traumatic stress through someone else's trauma-based suffering — can also take its toll on a journalist, as so many have reported to be the case since the Dart Center for Journalism & Trauma began studying the effects of trauma on journalists.
This module is the fourth in a series of online curricula prepared by the Dart Center and follows one on "Journalism & Traumatic Stress" (Unit 1), "Covering Terrorism" (Unit 2), and "Photography & Trauma" (Unit 3). It is advisable to complete the first three modules before proceeding with this module, although Unit 4 can stand alone as an overview of what journalists can expect to encounter 24 hours after a traumatic news event occurs. Of course, details and specific experiences will differ depending on the circumstances of the event and the people involved. The goal of this unit is to discuss issues, problems and strategies that are commonly found to be salient in the first 24 hours.
Part 1 describes some actual traumatic news events and analyzes some of the news coverage that occurred within the first 24 hours.
I. The Scene
In Littleton, Colorado, scene of the worst school shooting in U.S. history, a number of news organizations began suspecting that something was amiss when they noticed heavy communications traffic over police scanners. There were rumors of a shooting, but at first nobody knew the extent of the casualties.
Reporters began making their way to Columbine High School, where the shootings were supposed to have originated. In time, they began to realize the gravity of the situation — and the difficulty of getting accurate information as emergency response personnel, school officials, news media, parents, curious onlookers and others converged upon the scene. Many people will remember that some of the earliest news reports out of Littleton erroneously estimated that 25 students had been killed. This is a reflection of how even official sources — e.g., police or other governmental spokespersons — can make mistakes when providing information to the news media in a time of panic and confusion.
Meg Moritz, producer of a 57-minute documentary called, "Covering Columbine," funded by the Dart Center, examines the impact of the shootings on journalists, students, family members and others. The shootings were a horrific experience for the students who survived it, their families and community members, but it was also traumatic for the journalists covering the story, especially those who were also members of the Columbine community.
In the documentary, journalists talk about how difficult it was, personally and professionally, to cover the story. One journalist says, "I was one of thousands of people who went home and cried." Another actually broke down on air, while at the scene of the shootings, saying how difficult it was as a parent to see other parents there. Some photographers and photo editors spoke about the gruesome pictures they chose not to use because they were too graphic and would be too upsetting to the families of the victims. Instead they chose photos that characterized the tragedy that occurred without resorting to sensationalism.
The journalists also talked about the importance of gathering facts about what happened, thinking especially about the needs of their community. "Those parents need information," one said as she remembered one of the things that motivated her to cover the shootings in the minutes and hours after they occurred.
Not all journalists who covered Columbine treated the tragedy in an ethical and sensitive manner, especially those who did not have strong community ties. Professional transgressions did occur in an effort to get the story at all costs. Misinformation about the Columbine community was printed. Community members felt harassed and hounded by the news media after a while. Unethical methods of getting information were sometimes employed. When these bad journalistic practices occur, all journalists suffer. After a while, one could sense a generally negative attitude toward "the news media" in Columbine - many people just wanted to be left alone.
Moritz's documentary, however, shows that good journalistic practices also occurred. There was a level of introspection and sensitivity in local newsrooms that may not have been readily apparent in the media frenzy that ensued during those painful days and weeks following the shootings.
Littleton, Colorado, is just one example of a traumatic news event that required journalists to go to a crime scene and start gathering facts for their story. Unfortunately, this was one of a series of school shootings on school campuses over the past decade or so, and only one of dozens of major traumatic events that quickly attracted local and national media attention.
Journalists and assignment editors find out about breaking news stories in different ways. Sometimes they receive a phone call from an eyewitness. Sometimes they see a news flash on television or hear a report on the radio - a hostage situation, for example, or a shooting - that one station is the first to air. Sometimes journalists just happen to be at the scene of an event when something unexpected, like an assault or other act of violence, occurs. Often assignment editors will overhear a dispatch on a police scanner that alerts them to a possible crisis.
By whatever means journalists find out about a breaking news story involving trauma, if it's big enough they will eventually find themselves at the scene of a crisis.
New York Times journalist Rick Bragg wrote an article for The Nieman Reports in 2000 that talked about how he weaved storytelling into breaking news. In 1995, Bragg was on the scene of the Oklahoma City bombing shortly after it occurred. In the midst of that devastation, he had two hours to tell a story about what happened. "As I sat there in front of my laptop," Bragg wrote in Nieman, "I had no time to craft pretty sentences. I just had to reach into my mind for the sadness I had seen and the irony of the situation."
What arose from that sadness and irony was the kind of haunting yet informative prose that Bragg has become known for. Here is his lead:
OKLAHOMA CITY--Before the dust and the rage had a chance to settle, a chilly rain started to fall on the blasted-out wreck of what had once been an office building, and on the shoulders of the small army of police, firefighters and medical technicians that surrounded it.
Bragg then told a story of what he observed in the short time that he had been in Oklahoma City. He talked about rescue workers who were not accustomed to tragedy of this magnitude. He interviewed a medical technician who had participated in the surgery of a boy with a severe head injury. He wrote about the shock and the anger.
Later, analyzing the writing process, Bragg wrote: "I don't even know if that is what pure narrative is supposed to be, but it was the best I could do. I found the images, the detail, the grim, dark color of it, to be just as much a part of hard news reporting as the body count."
Bragg was in Oklahoma City to write another story as a Denver jury was deciding the fate of Timothy McVeigh, one of those held responsible for the bombing. He remembers waiting in a hotel room to receive the jury's decision:
"I don't get shook very easy, on breaking news. I have done it more than half my life. But I was nervous then because of the terrible import the story held. This was a man who had wrecked a city, wrecked lives. My story had to carry that import. It would have failed, otherwise. But I also did not want to overwrite it, to lend drama to a story already so dramatic. It would have been like putting a scary mask on a face already horribly disfigured."
(The entire Nieman Reports article by Rick Bragg can be downloaded here. It is the Fall 2000 report, volume 54, no. 3, page 29.)
Of course not all scenes are as strewn with death and destruction as Oklahoma City, Columbine or the World Trade Center. Sometimes a particularly bad car crash might result in a single death. Other times a natural disaster such as a hurricane or tornado might result in a number of deaths and injuries but also massive physical destruction such as the loss of homes. Regardless of the particulars, a journalist (and this word includes photojournalists) is likely to be exposed to trauma - people who have suffered great emotional injury, and who will become part of a story that attempts to answer the familiar who, what, when, where and why questions, the last one sometimes being most difficult to answer.
Coté and Simpson (2000) provide some practical tips in their book Covering Violence: A Guide to Ethical Reporting About Victims and Trauma. First, getting to the scene might be a challenge. When the news media descended on Littleton, Colorado, after the shootings at Columbine High School, for example, one reporter described it this way: "It was complete chaos. It was a mad house." Typically after a major disaster, journalists will encounter similar conditions.
In Covering Violence, the authors suggest that journalists arrive on the scene and immediately assess their surroundings: "Are there injuries and deaths? How extensive is the damage? You will want to find emergency-response and public safety people who are likely to have credible information later. Determine what other places someone will need to check, such as hospital emergency rooms and field hospitals, temporary morgues, and agency public information offices. Finally, stay out of the way as rescue and relief work goes on, and coordinate your reporting with your city or assignment desk" (61).
1. Expect "convergence" - many people rapidly arriving at the scene by foot, cars, or other vehicles. This physical movement of people and things coming to and leaving the scene may create a sense of chaos
2. Expect "communications convergence," as well, as a firestorm of information circulates about the event and media equipment and technologies accumulate.
3. Expect hordes of observers who are not necessarily related to the traumatic event to arrive to just "look and see." These people may add to the chaos and confusion already caused by the traumatic event.
4. There will be a hierarchy of command set up to control crowds, media and rescue and recovery operations. Boundaries will be set up to keep non-emergency personnel at bay. Usually a public information person will be designated to deal with the news media. Identify who that person is as soon as possible.
5. In a disaster situation, there are a number of organizations such as the American Red Cross that may be helpful with information or with supporting victims who would like to speak with the news media.
6. Anticipate controls to media access and how to deal with official or unofficial requests to limit media coverage.
7. Remember that victims of trauma can respond to the traumatic event in a number of different ways: They may be in shock; they may appear hyperactive; they may be highly emotional; they may be in denial; they may be handling things relatively well. It is important not to make assumptions about people's well being. Be attentive and sensitive interviewers.
In the first module, "Journalism & Traumatic Stress," part 4, tips from Covering Violence are offered to journalists who interview people who have been exposed to a traumatic stressor. Go to that section for a fuller discussion of this topic. A review of some of those important tips is offered here:
Respect the other person's efforts to regain balance after a horrible experience
"Offer as much support to the interviewee as conditions will allow. Suggesting that the interviewee ask a friend, neighbor, or relative to be present may reassure her and may help the two of you talk more usefully."
Watch what you say
"At this stage your words carry a lot of weight. They can lead the victim to seek promises from you, to exaggerate what you will be able to do, and to assume that you are willing to be a friend as well as a reporter...Your manner and your first words will tell the other person whether he should trust you and how sincere you are. Those first impressions may decide whether you are ever again able to interview that person."
Set the stage for the interview
"Your first questions will provide you with two kinds of information. The first kind - details of the other person's knowledge of the situation - will help you begin to grasp what has happened... As you talk, you will be learning about the other person's capacity, or willingness, to talk to you."
Explain the ground rules
"Explain why you are there, what kind of story you are expected to write or report, when it is likely to run, and why it is important for her to speak to you. Do not promise something you cannot guarantee; the comments you are about to write down or tape may never make it into print or on the air."
Share control with the interviewee
"A person jolted by an event may need, and will certainly appreciate, a chance to decide some of the conditions of the interview. Would he like to sit or stand? Does he want to remain here or go somewhere away from the turmoil of the scene? Is there someone he would like to have present during the interview?"
Anticipate emotional responses
Referring to the words of psychiatrist Frank Ochberg: "When survivors cry during interviews, they are not necessarily reluctant to continue. They may have difficulty communicating, but they often want to tell their stories. Interrupting them may be experienced as patronizing and denying an opportunity to testify. Remember, if you terminate an interview unilaterally, because you find it upsetting, or you incorrectly assume that your subject wants to stop, you may be re-victimizing the victim."
"Good listening requires hearing not only the words that are spoken and making sense of them, but also noticing gestures, facial expressions, emotions, and body language. Take the other person fully into account, then remember and make sense of what that person heard and saw."
Review with the interviewee what you have learned.
"This is the time to go back over the facts, to read back statements that you may want to quote, and to arrange to obtain photographs, continue the interview, or check back for other information."
Think through what you have heard and seen
"The interview you have just completed was not a routine one. Think about what made it different. The person with whom you talked was enduring one of the most trying experiences in life. Such an interview can alter many of the assumptions journalists make about the people they talk to. Issues of trust, harm and responsibility to others emerge from such meetings to a degree unmatched in most news interviewing. This is a time for a few moments of reflection about what you have just heard and seen."
II. The People
Writing for the Christian Science Monitor, journalist William A. Babcock reflected on the death of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl. Pearl's bosses at the Wall Street Journal asked their journalistic colleagues to respect the Pearl family's privacy and to allow his family members to grieve in private. Babcock wrote that he knew how it felt to be the focus of media attention because when his own brother was murdered on the job as a welfare worker in New York City in 1967, he and his family had to deal with repeated media calls.
"One morning," Babcock recalled, "after the fifth call asking me how I felt, I heard myself screaming into the receiver, asking the reporter how he thought I felt."
Nevertheless, as a reporter himself years later, Babcock would have to seek out family members of murder victims to get quotes and photos.
Babcock wrote that reporters who aggressively pursue stories often see things differently when they themselves are the subject of other reporters' stories.
"It's one thing to be a light shiner," Babcock wrote, "totally something else when the light's on you."
The people involved in a major traumatic event are connected in a web of social and governmental relations. At the scene of the event, there will be victims, friends and family of victims who have come to the scene, and curious by-standers - some of them valuable witnesses, others eager for media exposure but with little substantive information to offer. (See Part 1 of this module for tips on interviewing victims and their families.) Even with the best of intentions, witnesses will occasionally offer erroneous information. Cross-checking and verifying witness accounts can save a journalist from reporting information as facts when they are not.
Also on the scene are likely to be firemen, policemen, paramedics and possibly even federal agents like the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives officers, depending on the nature of the event. Whenever there is a plane crash, there will also be, eventually, members of the National Transportation Safety Board, Federal Aviation Administration, possibly industry (e.g., Boeing) specialists and others. The Federal Emergency Management Agency, American Red Cross and other organizations would arrive to help coordinate disaster relief when massive destruction and human displacement have occurred. All of the people related to these organizations are potential sources of information, but usually specific people will be identified to deal exclusively with the news media. These spokespeople are important hubs in the information network.
It is also not uncommon for high-profile government officials, both elected and non-elected, to show up at the scene of a major disaster. While their presence may contribute to moral support among the rescuers and family members of victims, they may also create impediments to rescue efforts if their entourages create logistical problems and distractions. They contribute to the "convergence" phenomenon referred to earlier.
Away from the scene of the event, there are numerous people journalists might want to talk to: families and friends of victims, current or former classmates or teachers, neighbors, colleagues, and so forth. If a perpetrator is involved, similar contacts may want to be interviewed. Again, considerable care should be taken when contacting these people. Although this shouldn't be the case, there is always the possibility that even family members may not know the status of their loved ones until they have been contacted by the news media or see or hear something on television or radio. News of a dead or seriously injured family member may itself be traumatic to potential interview subjects.
Because injured survivors will be taken to the hospital, the hospital often becomes another place where the news media descend for information. A hospital presents particular challenges for journalists seeking information about survivors. Family members and medical personnel may not be readily accessible, and journalists are certainly not encouraged to directly approach these people without the proper interventions. Under these restricted conditions, the hospital spokesperson can be a critical "accomplice" to newsgathering.
Larry Zalin, former media relations coordinator for Seattle's Harborview Medical Center, the only level-one trauma hospital in a four-state region, served 10 years as principal spokesperson during fast-breaking news events. He has extensive experience dealing with print and broadcast journalists and offered some tips here for those media professionals who contact a hospital for information about survivors or victims' families.
Dart Center: What is the role of the hospital spokesperson, and how does this person factor into the journalist's work during the first 24 hours after a news event involving trauma?
Zalin: In any major hospital, there will be a spokesperson on duty to field journalists' questions in the aftermath of any newsworthy event involving the hospital. This person will either be a full-time public relations staff member (during normal working hours) or a nursing supervisor on evenings, nights and weekends.
This person's role is to serve as an intermediary between the journalist and the injured patient, family members, and hospital staff. Journalists typically seek information in this order: the name, age, medical condition, extent of injuries, prognosis. Then come the requests to interview the patient or family members. Sometimes the journalists also want to interview a doctor.
The spokesperson abides by certain guidelines in responding to these requests. A medical condition can always be given, as well as the extent of injuries. As for name and age, an age can be given, but no name until legal next-of-kin has been notified. Names of minors cannot be released (ever).
In most cases, any patient who's injured seriously enough to be newsworthy isn't able to be interviewed during the first 24 hours. With family members, it's anybody's guess, but the spokesperson is the person to contact them while they're in the hospital; what happens outside the hospital, of course, is up to the family.
The key concept for journalists is that, though they have deadlines, they can't always get everything they want during those first 24 hours. Any conscientious spokesperson will do what he/she can to help the journalist, but a recognition of what's possible is important. (And, of course, I'm not even getting into the issue of whether it's appropriate to stick a microphone in the face of some parent whose kid was just shot!)
Dart Center: Can you provide some tips to journalists about how to develop productive relations with a hospital spokesperson? What are things that you liked about how a journalist interacted with you? What are things that you didn't like?
Zalin: Journalists who show some respect and understanding for the spokesperson's role will get a lot further, in the long run, than those who try to bulldoze past the spokesperson to get the story. Those who do the latter often cause problems; I never appreciated being told by a nurse that a reporter had walked into a patient room unannounced and upset the patient or family.
I understood the role the journalists played and what their needs were, and I also knew that maintaining a good relationship with them would help the hospital. Of course, it was easier to work with those who understood my role, too.
Things I liked: Approaching me with a sense that I had multiple demands for the same information and that I'd try to be fair to all the journalists.
Understanding that I'd do the best I could for them. A recognition that certain information could not be released; it's OK to ask, but don't grumble when I won't tell you if the driver was drunk or the kid was on drugs.
Things I didn't like: Journalists who were so driven "to get the story" (and beat out the other newspaper or TV stations) that they'd try to run roughshod over hospital staff, patients and families.
Dart Center: What advice can you give a journalist who wants to interview a victim of trauma or family members of the victim who are in the hospital? Are there ways of approaching this task that are more helpful than harmful to those who have just been traumatized?
Zalin: Once the interview was cleared (meaning the doctor or nurse said the patient was well enough to be interviewed and the patient consented to my request), I'd try to tell the reporter what he/she needed to know before walking into the patient's room. Most interviews that went according to this protocol went fairly well. Journalists should (and usually did) show some sensitivity toward the patient. A little empathy never hurts ("I know how I felt when my son was hospitalized.") My being in the room may have helped keep things peaceful; I recall one story when two print reporters let themselves into a teenager's room to ask about how drunk he was when he drove the car that killed one of his friends.
Dart Center: Many people assume that journalists are invasive of crime victims' privacy. Are there instances in which crime victims or their families might want to talk to journalists?
Zalin: Crime victims and their families do want to talk for several reasons. They may want the perpetrator to know how much damage he's done. The perpetrator may still be at large, and there may be family request for someone to come forward who may have information that could lead to an arrest. By and large, these interviews involved crime victims who were recovering; with those who weren't, I rarely facilitated interviews. During the brief period they were in the hospital, it was too soon after the crime for this kind of interview.
Dart Center: In your experience, what has been the most difficult part of being a hospital spokesperson?
Zalin: I felt protective of the patients and their families, but I also tried to keep in mind that the journalists had a job to do. There were hospital staff who had a very jaundiced view of journalists, so I had to tread a fine line between them and the journalists. I had to be on everyone's side, at one time or another, not always an easy thing to do.
The role of the hospital spokesperson, or the spokesperson in general for any organization, should not be underestimated. These people are, in effect, information specialists who are well-connected within their respective organizations. When appropriate, they can provide access to sources, documentation, background information, "walk throughs" and a host of other goods and services that can greatly facilitate and enhance the journalist's work. In many respects, they might also be perceived as the "gatekeepers" to things and people that the journalist is after. Like it or not, spokespersons and journalists have a symbiotic relationship that can be alternately productive and frustrating. In the best case scenario, they help each other to tell the most accurate, fair and balanced story possible.
III. The Stories
Here are some examples of stories that were written soon after a traumatic event. Read this articles to get a sense for what a journalist has to go through after a major catastrophe to write a story for the next day's news.
Airliner Crash Kills All Aboard
A passenger jet crashes into a New York neighborhood, killing all 260 passengers and at least six people on the ground. The crash comes two months after planes were crashed into the World Trade Center, adding a certain urgency and emphasis on security to the reporting of the crash. Witnesses, some of whom were in houses or cars struck by debris from the plane, are interviewed. A woman walking her dog paints a picture of the scene. "Oh, God, it was so horrible," said Eileen Dolan, who was headed home after walking her dog on the beach. "There were flames. There were flames coming out of the plane, and then it fell."
260 Killed in Commercial Jet Crash Off Rockaways
by Beth Holland, Newsday
November 12, 2001
Read the full story
Close Cousins Killed When Scaffolding Falls on Their Car
Two cousins were killed and their mothers were injured when scaffolding from a skyscraper crashed onto their car while they waited at an intersection. A pair of reporters wrote the story based on interviews with family members and witnesses to create a detailed portrait of the young women who also were best friends. Elycce Hanna, a witness to the crash, said, "The young girl driving, she smiled and made the motion with her hand to go ahead," Hanna said. "I smiled at her and just went across the street." Moments later the scaffolding crashed onto the car.
So close, they were like sisters
by Sean D. Hamill and Tom McCann, Chicago Tribune
March 11, 2002
Read the full story
Entrepreneur Killed in His Own Neighborhood
A neighborhood merchant is shot to death during a robbery in his shop. Known affectionately by neighborhood kids as the "sneaker man,' Solomon Sacks opened his shop only four years earlier. Neighborhood residents offer insight into his life while police officials are said to still be in pursuit of the gunmen. The robbery is the fourth in the neighborhood in the last decade in which a shop owner or community leader was killed.
'Sneaker Man' Shot to Death While Struggling with Robber
by William Bunch
Read the full story
Elementary School Students Struck Outside School When a Car Jumps a Curb
A car strikes two girls, 7 and 6, when it jumps a curb while they are waiting outside a school to go home. One girl is killed at the scene. Theother child dies later that day at a hospital. Students and parents arriving to pick up their children witness the accident. Reporters talk to witnesses, including the father of one of the girls who died, and police as well as explain an ongoing concern about the congested pickup and drop-off area where the accident happened. Poignant details include a description of one of the girls as having "short black hair and big round cheeks, loved cooking scrambled eggs and studying."
2 Girls Killed as Car Jumps Curb at School
by Daniel Yi, David Haldane and Kimi Yoshino
IV. Coping Strategies for Victims
The first 24 hours after a traumatic event can be a time of extremely high psychological stress for everyone involved — victims, their families, rescue personnel, medical staff and others. Often left out of this picture of sufferers, however, are the journalists who give witness to tragic situations so that others who are not on the scene have a sense of what happened and what impact it has had (and will continue to have) on the community. It has been said that journalists are the "eyes and ears" of society. To play that role can take a toll on a person's physical and psychological health. There is considerable anecdotal evidence and a growing amount of empirical research that suggest journalists are vulnerable to stress disorders like other first-responders to emergency situations.
If their jobs involve covering traumatic stories over a long period of time, journalists need to be aware of the potential for burnout, secondary traumatic stress, compassion stress, compassion fatigue and vicarious traumatization. (See Module 1, Part 3, "Why Do Journalists Need to Know About Traumatic Stress?" for a more detailed discussion of these effects.)
Reporting in conflict zones requires an online curriculum module all its own, but clearly these situations have an ongoing level of high stress that deserves special attention. The reflective writings of journalists who have been war correspondents or who have been assigned to areas where the threat of conflict is always present have been instructive. The short- and long-term effects on journalists of witnessing (and sometimes experiencing) this level of violence have not been well studied, but inroads are being made. More about covering violence in conflict zones should be forthcoming in future modules.
As for journalists responding to stress within the first 24 hours, there are some helpful points that can be offered here from the stress management/reduction literature and from journalists who have covered traumatic events in the past. These suggestions are not meant to be a substitute for professional clinical treatment but serve more as an informal discussion of what can be done to recognize and manage or reduce stress symptoms before they become detrimental to one's mental and physical health.
Psychological stress is not always harmful. Sometimes it can even save your life, or enhance or improve your performance. Robert M. Sapolsky, author of Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers (1998), has written an extensive book on stress and the stress-response. He writes that when emergencies arise, the body's stress-response rapidly mobilizes energy and decreases many of the body's energy-expending functions (e.g., digestion, growth, reproduction) so that the body can concentrate on survival. Pain may be blunted but your sense become sharper. These are responses that help both humans and animals go into "fight or flight" mode. The stress-response, in the short-term, is a way that the body reacts to a perceived threat or danger.
However, Sapolsky warns, the stress-response can also be damaging when the stressor is long-term or chronic. You may go into a state of exhaustion, feel fatigued and succumb to diseases related to high levels of chronic stress. "Stress increases your risk of getting diseases that make you sick," Sapolsky writes, "or if you have such a disease, stress increases the risk of your defenses being overwhelmed by the disease" (16). Obviously, then, prolonged or chronic stress should be avoided.
During the first 24 hours after covering a traumatic event, journalists may need to take time to self-assess the level of stress they are under. It is easy to ignore signs of stress when one is overwhelmed by a crisis and the demands of newsgathering. Taking "time outs" to gather a different kind of information - specifically, biofeedback from one's own body - is an important part of self-care.
Experts on stress have identified some common symptoms of stress that journalists should be able to recognize if they take time to "listen" to their bodies. The International Critical Incident Stress Foundation provides a list of signs and symptoms on its web site in an attempt to prevent and mitigate disabling stress through a number of interventions. The web site can be accessed at: http://www.icisf.org
The signs and symptoms of stress are grouped by categories. They are as follows:
|fatigue||uncertainty||grief||inability to rest|
|twitches||intrusive images||anxiety||social activity change|
|vomiting||blaming someone||agitation||speech pattern change|
|dizziness||poor problem solving||irritability||appetite change|
|weakness||poor abstract thinking||depression||hyperalert to environment|
|chest pain||poor attention/ decisions||intense anger||increased alcohol consumption|
|headaches||poor concentration||apprehension||usual communication change|
|elevated BP||memory disorientation||emotional shock||etc...|
|rapid heart rate||difficulty identifying objects||emotional outbursts|
|muscle tremors||alertness change||feeling overwhelmed|
|grinding teeth||awareness change||emotional control loss|
|shock symptoms||etc...||inappropriate emotionals|
* Any of these symptoms may indicate the need for medical evaluation. When in doubt, contact a physician.
The International Critical Incident Stress Foundation also recommends ways of mitigating the stress symptoms listed above:
· Within the first 24-48 hours, periods of appropriate physical exercise, alternated with relaxation will alleviate some of the physical reactions.
· Structure your time - keep busy.
· You're normal and having normal reactions - don't label yourself crazy.
· Talk to people - talk is the most healing medicine.
· Be aware of numbing the pain with overuse of drugs or alcohol; you don't need to complicate this with a substance abuse problem.
· Reach out - people do care.
· Maintain as normal a schedule as possible.
· Spend time with others.
· Help your co-workers as much as possible by sharing feelings and checking out how they are doing.
· Give yourself permission to feel rotten and share your feelings with others.
· Keep a journal; write your way through those sleepless hours.
· Do things that feel good to you.
· Realize those around you are also under stress.
· Don't make any big life changes.
· Do make as many daily decisions as possible which will give you a feeling of control over your life, i.e., if someone asks you what you want to eat - answer them even if you're not sure.
· Get plenty of rest.
· Recurring thoughts, dreams or flashbacks are normal - don't try to fight them - they'll decrease over time and become less painful.
· Eat well-balanced and regular meals (even if you don't feel like it).
V. Coping Strategies for Families
Journalists should also be aware of acute stress disorder during this time period and beyond. To find out more about traumatic stress effects on journalists, visit the National Center for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder's web site for journalists.
Penny Owen, formerly a staff correspondent for The Daily Oklahoman and a former Dart Fellow wrote an article entitled, "Managing the Memories: Through the Eyes of a Reporter Who's Been There," for the Dart Center's web site. Owen was one of the key reporters who covered the bombing at the Alfred P. Murrah federal building. In reflecting on what she experienced after the bombing, she uses her experience to give advice to journalists covering the WTO terrorist attacks:
"The journalists covering the Sept. 11 attacks are doing a terrific job, but I am sure they will feel fallout, if some haven't already. My advice is to seek out other journalists to talk to — and to do so before they are tired of talking about it. A main regret of mine was waiting until we slowed down to talk it out. When we finally did slow down, everyone was so sick of the bombing they didn't want to talk about it. I felt really lonesome after that. Also, pamper yourself between the tough stuff. Get a massage, take a day off to shop, whatever. Anything de-stressing is weird, but helpful."
Sapolsky outlines five things that can make stressors more difficult to deal with. They are loss of control, loss of predictability, loss of outlets for frustration, loss of sources of support and a perception that things are getting worse. On the other hand, if people feel they have some control, predictability, outlets for frustration, sources of support and a perception that things are going to get better, these things can mitigate the damaging effects of stress. (Of course not everyone reacts the same to stressors; factors such as personality type and past experiences affect a person's stress-response.) It is hoped that this lesson will help journalists feel as though they have some control over job-related stress — i.e., that there are things they can do to mitigate the stress-response.
Knowing what to expect at the scene of a tragedy can help with the predictability factor. No amount of words on a page can fully prepare someone for the reality of some kinds of trauma, but it is better to have some preparation than none at all. Journalists can also prepare for such traumatic events by making sure they have outlets for their frustrations - as Sapolsky recommends: "punch a wall, take a run, find solace in a hobby."
As importantly, mental relaxation and visualization can play a role in relieving stress. He writes, "We are even cerebral enough to imagine those outlets and derive some relief ... ." This is a good argument for learning meditation, visualization, tai chi, yoga and other calming exercises. The cultivation of a support network of friends and family, as well as an optimistic attitude, can also help mitigate the negative effects of stress.
The first 24 hours after a traumatic news event will require tremendous reserves of mental and physical energy. Depending on what the nature of the event is like, the journalist himself or herself may experience things during that time period that can lead to psychological and physical problems later. This module is not meant to be a clinical manual for diagnosing mental illness. It is meant to create an awareness of potential dangerous signs and to suggest ways to pre-empt or mitigate escalation of stress symptoms. If problems are such that professional interventions seem warranted, see your physician or a mental health professional immediately.
Sources and Resources
Babcock, William A. "Grieving in the Media Spotlight." Christian Science Monitor (February 25, 2002), p. 11.
Bragg, Rick. "Weaving Storytelling Into Breaking News." Nieman Reports (Fall 2000), Volume 54, No. 3, pp. 29-30.
Coté, William and Simpson, Roger. Covering Violence: A Guide to Ethical Reporting About Victims & Trauma. New York: Columbia University Press, 2000.
International Critical Incident Stress Foundation
National Center for PTSD
Salpolsky, Robert M. Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers: An Updated Guide to Stress, Stress-Related Diseases, and Coping. New York: W.H. Freeman and Co., 1998.
References for Further Reading
Don't Sweat the Small Stuff - and It's All Small Stuff (1997) by Richard Carlson.
Stress: Living and Working in a Changing World (1999) by George Manning, Kent Curtis, Steve McMillen.
The Unofficial Guide to Managing Stress (2000) by Pat Goudey.
The Complete Idiot's Guide to Managing Stress (1989) by Jeffrey P. Davidson, Jeff Davidson and Robin S. Sharma.
Stress Management for Dummies (1999) by Allen Elkin.