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.



Distress per se is not a sign of any kind of underlying emotional injury. Stories that involve human cruelty are likely to be upsetting. If you are working with such material, distress reactions – including anger, despair, bad dreams, periods of numbness, feeling agitated or wired, and difficulty concentrating – are far from unusual. Such periodic bouts of emotional “bad weather” can be disruptive and annoying – and do require active self-care – but they are not signs in themselves that one needs to seek external help. 

Do be attentive, though, to any reactions that get stuck and become generalised to other situations. There is a significant difference between feeling numb the first time you encounter traumatic events, and losing enthusiasm for activities outside of work or affection for people who matter to you. In terms of warning signs, be particularly alert to:

  • Marked changes in character
  • Unusual irritability, or explosive anger that fires up without apparent reason
  • Images or thoughts related to a project intruding at unwanted times, which are unusually persistent and don’t diminish over time. Particularly if they involve situations in which you imagine yourself being followed or attacked.
  • Unusual isolation or withdrawal
  • The sense that life has become meaningless or foreshortened
  • A persistent and general feeling of being numb or deadened inside
  • Increase in self-medication (alcohol, drugs, compulsive overworking, etc.)

If you have any concerns, please consult the Dart Centre’s website for more information.


What else should I do to look after myself?

Everybody whose work involves trauma needs a self-care plan. Don’t forget the importance of maintaining a balance between work and other aspects of life. Exercise and finding time for friends and family are important ways of restoring balance. Take time to reflect: the material you are working with could provoke political and moral questions, and challenge certain beliefs. You may find it helpful to talk these through with friends who have similar interests and values. Keeping a journal can also be a good way of both processing one’s reactions and reconnecting with what matters to you. If a story starts to feel all consuming, as if nothing else matters any more, that is an indication that you should seek better balance.