Managing Stress & Trauma on Investigative Projects

A tip sheet from Executive Director Bruce Shapiro, originally released at the 2005 Investigative Reporters & Editors Annual Conference.


  • Anybody who has regular contact with severely traumatized people is at risk for becoming emotionally injured themselves. Investigative reporters may not be on the front lines of war or tragedy. But interviewing victims and witnesses, reviewing records of tragedy, viewing photos and video and assembling the stories of traumatic events all can have a profound emotional impact. Psychologists describe this as "vicarious traumatization," which can result in the symptoms of PTSD, depression, anxiety and other difficulties.
  • Emotional injury is not not a matter of being strong or weak. Recent neuroscience shows that PTSD, depression and other issues reflect biological changes as well as psychological changes, particularly in response to overwhelming events or horror.
  • Research indicates that prior exposure to trauma significantly increases the risk of developing PTSD and related difficulties. An individual who has always coped well may suddenly find themselves overwhelmed by a seemingly managable incident or story. "Trauma load" is cumulative.
  • Emotional injury interferes with news judgement and reporting capacity as well as with "private life."
  • Conversely, awareness of the psychological issues behind investigative stories will make you a better interviewer, and better at building trust with deeply traumatized sources.


  • If you have listened to a trauma survivor's story or immersed yourself in records, photos or other documents with traumatic, horrifying or haunting content, find a way to relax within a day or two. No matter how demanding or engrossing the project, build in distancing mechanisms every day - planned activities which take you away from the story. If you have a favorite stress-reduction technique (exercise, yoga, art, etc.), do it.
  • Regulate your "trauma load." If your project involves multiple interviews with victims, witnesses or survivors, space them out. If you are reviewing upsetting photos or documents, don't try to absorb everything at once. Take breaks.
  • Maintain a sleep schedule. Shortchanging yourself on sleep during an investigative project not only increases your emotional vulnerability; it also interferes vith your news judgement and professional capacity.
  • Beware of isolation. If you are working the story alone, talk regularly to a trusted individual who is a sensitive listener. If you are working in a team, check in with one another, and be alert for changes in your team members' behavior or news judgement.
  • Know your limits. If you've been given a troublesome assignment that you feel you cannot perform, politely express your concerns to your supervisor. Tell the supervisor that you may not be the best person for the assignment. Explain why.
  • It's common to experience emotional distress if immersed in a story involving traumatic content. If the distress doesn't subside over time, however, it can become toxic. Before he died in April 1945, war correspondent Ernie Pyle wrote, "I've been immersed in it too long. My spirit is wobbly and my mind is confused. The hurt has become too great." If this happens to you, seek counseling fiom a professional.



Whether for yourself or team members, while on a demanding project pay attention to changes in behavior, news judgement, work habits and alcohol or drug use. Particularly be alert to:

  • Difficulties concentrating
  • Unusual irritability or short temper
  • Images or thoughts related to a project intruding at unwanted times
  • Unusual isolation or withdrawal
  • Disruptions of sleep
  • Increase in self-medication

The following is a list of ways individuals may respond emotionally to a traumatic event, and which can indicate whether a person is suffering from acute stress reaction. Generally, six "yes" responses indicate the presence of acute stress.

  1. Upsetting thoughts or memories about the event that have come into your mind against your will
  2. Upsetting dreams about the event
  3. Acting or feeling as though the event were happening again
  4. Feeling upset by reminders of the event
  5. Bodily reactions (such as fast heartbeat, stomach churning, sweatiness, dizziness) when reminded of the event
  6. Difficulty falling or staying asleep
  7. Irritability or outbursts of anger
  8. Difficulty concentrating
  9. Heightened awareness of potential dangers to yourself and others
  10. Being jumpy or being startled at something unexpected


RESOURCES: Definition
Post-traumatic Stress Disorder

The person has been exposed to a traumatic event in which both of the following were present:

  1. the person experienced, witnessed, or was confronted with an event or events that involved actual or threatened death or serious injury, or a threat to the physical integrity of self or others, and
  2. the person's response involved intense fear, helplessness, or horror. Note: In children, this may be expressed instead by disorganizad or agitated behavior.

The traumatic event is persistently re-experienced in one (or more) of the following ways:

  1. recurrent and intrusive distressing recollections of the event, including images, thoughts, or perceptions. note: I n young children, mpatltive play may occur in which tharnas or aspects of the trauma are axpmMad
  2. recurrent distressing dreams of the event. Note: I n children, there may be frightening dreams without recognizable content
  3. acting or feeling as if the traumatic event were recurring (includes a sense of reliving the experience, illusions, hallucinations, and dissociative flashback episodes, including those that occur on awakening or when intoxicated). Note: In young children, trauma-mpecific raanmctmmnt may occur
  4. intense psychological distress at exposure to internal or eternal cues that symbolize or resemble an aspect of the traumatic event.
  5. physiolog~carleactivity on exposure to internal or external cures that symbolize or resemble an aspect of the traumatic event.

Persistent avoidance of stimuli associated with the trauma and numbing of general responsiveness (not present before the trauma), as indicated by three (or more) of the following:

  1. efforts to avoid thoughts, feelings, or conversations associated with the trauma
  2. efforts to avoid activities, places, or people that arouse recollections of the trauma
  3. inability to recall an important aspect of the trauma
  4. markedly diminished interest or participation in significant activities
  5. feeling of detachment or estrangement from others
  6. restricted range of affect (e.g. unable to have loving feelings)
  7. sense of a foreshortened future (e.g. does not expect to have a career, marriage, children, or a normal life span)

Persistent symptoms of increased arousal (not present before the trauma), as indicated by two (or more) of the following:

  1. difficulty falling or staying asleep
  2. irritability or outbursts of anger
  3. difficulty concentrating
  4. hypervigilance
  5. exaggerated startle response

Duration for the disturbance (symptoms in criteria B, C and D) is more than one month.

The disturbance causes clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning.

- duration of symptoms is kss than three months
Chronic - duration of symptoms is morethan three months