Reporting and Covid-19: Tips for Journalists

Resilience: More than a Buzzword

Wednesday, June 3, 2020

Guest: Steve Southwick, MDProfessor of Psychiatry at the Yale Medical School and the Yale Child Study Center, Adjunct Professor at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine, and Medical Director of the Clinical Neurosciences Division of the National Center for Post-traumatic Stress Disorder.

Resilience is the ability to bend but not break under extreme stress and, in some cases, to bounce back and grow. Drawing from scientific research, Steve Southwick offers advice to journalists covering trauma and outlines methods to increase resilience, develop coping mechanisms, and foster the positive emotions that can help find opportunity within adversity.

Staying Connected

A considerable amount of literature focuses on the adverse effects of isolation and loneliness—the downsides can be as detrimental as smoking and obesity. In contrast, social contact and peer support is extremely positive.

The neurobiology of the buddy system indicates that having someone to watch your back allows for a greater sense of control.

Staying connected, then, is important. The presence of co-workers and caring managers can positively impact the nervous system and reduce physiological responses to stress.

Facing Fear

Southwick emphasizes the importance of learning to acknowledge and face fear. The human nervous system has a built-in negative bias—we all want to back away when we are scared. But positive and problem-solving coping styles are more effective than avoidant behaviors: they are strongly correlated with building resilience and the ability to find opportunity in adversity.

Citing advice espoused by the military, Southwick says that fear itself is not the problem. The problem is letting fear linger for too long without actively coming up with a plan to deal with it. A heightened sense of anxiety increases stress hormones, which reduce both concentration and the likelihood of ethical decision making. And so, it’s important to manage fear proactively and strategically.

Focusing on Recovery

Recovery is critical, and can be achieved by finding varying ways to take a step back, emotionally and physically.

Journalists and newsrooms would improve if they found more ways to give reporters a chance to recover in real-time, with small breaks to practice proven methods like yoga, mindfulness or exercise—even in the middle of a deadline. Whilst this isn’t hard to implement, there’s a culture amongst reporters to think they don’t have the time.

Fostering a Focus Upon Trauma and Resilience in the Newsroom

Journalists often resist admitting the need for help. Southwick says that this myth of rugged anti-authoritarianism needs to be gotten rid of so that they can be happier, healthier, and produce better work.

But reporters are unlikely to handle their trauma well unless leadership is on the same page—indeed, Southwick’s research shows that having supportive leadership translates to fewer people developing debilitating PTSD. Therefore, as with soldiers and doctors, Southwick believes resilience training should be built into the workday. For example, there are very few newsrooms that conduct tabletop, decision-making exercises for reporters facing dangerous assignments, or journalism schools that teach resilience training.

Southwick believes that leadership can help reduce staff stress by being transparent about the reality of fear, acknowledging traumatic events, and normalizing discussion around them. Other recommendations include offering scenario-based training, limiting toxic exposure to digital violence, and strategizing ways to incrementally increase the exposure to danger during assignments.

The aim, Southwick says, is for realistic optimism, not rose-colored, overconfident and underprepared people. Realistic optimists channel positivity, but know how to disengage and to work on strategies to survive regular exposure to trauma.