Tragedies & Journalists

Tips for managing those who cover traumatic events:
1. Remember:

  • Everyone in your newsroom may be affected differently. Some may be affected immediately while others will take days, weeks, months or even years to see the effect. The journalists who either claim or seem to be the most unfazed by the event may, in fact, be affected the most. Others may have developed mechanisms to help them deal with tragedy, and they may have minimal effects.
  • Personal problems will exacerbate an individual's reaction. For example, a staff member who is going through a divorce may be affected more than others.
  • Your staff members may show signs when they have been particularly affected. Tiredness, irritability and lashing out are three common ones, whether they occur inside or outside the newsroom. Encourage supervisors and reporters alike to listen and watch for them.

2. Appoint a person to monitor the staff's well-being who can make recommendations to you about it. After September 11, 2001, two "internal staff ombudsmen" were appointed at New Jersey's Asbury Park Press. Elaine Silvestrini, a reporter and one of the ombudsmen, wrote that she and Carol Gorga Williams advocated for sensitive coverage and attention to the staff's personal needs. "We attended news meetings, helped get answers to questions, kept an eye out for people who were overloaded and arranged for others to be rotated in to relieve them. We also talked to people when others alerted us they might be having problems."

3. Offer individual counseling. Also, plan group meetings to explain available resources, tone of coverage, what staff members can do to help themselves and each other, and possible outlets, such as peer support. Do not expect staff members to reveal intimate details about themselves during these gatherings.

4. Provide e-mails or memos that offer: encouragement; acknowledgment that their work is having an impact on the community; reminders; what day and date it is; tips to alleviate stress, and positive letters and notes from readers about their coverage. Examples after September 11, 2001, include memos from William E. Schmidt, associate managing editor of The New York Times, and the following excerpt from a memo by Henry Freeman, editor of The Journal News in White Plains, N.Y.:

"We will cover the news, and we will continue to perform at the highest journalist levels. Our readers need us now more than ever. What we do every day - especially now - is important.

"But, it is also important that you take care of yourself. And that we take care of each other.

"Thank you for the privilege and honor of being your editor."

5. Encourage staffers to do things to help themselves. Post tips on bulletin boards and include in memos and e-mails.