Self-Study Unit 1: Journalism & Trauma

Many journalists who cover "hard news" will come into contact with people who have experienced a traumatic event. At the scene of a fatal car collision, for example, or a neighborhood shooting, or an apartment fire, there are likely to be people present who are suffering from traumatic stress. These same people may also be important sources of news for their community — people who, despite their pain, can help tell the story of a tragedy as it is unfolding.

Other news stories may require contacting and interviewing survivors of trauma weeks, months or even years after a traumatic event has occurred. These contacts may be precipitated by a memorial service, developments in a case (e.g., a trial 10 months after a sexual assault), an anniversary (e.g., commemorating a school shooting or plane crash), or other reasons. This could mean picking up the phone and calling up the father of those murdered children or standing outside of a courtroom waiting for a victim of violence to emerge.

It is important for journalists to know about traumatic stress because those people they interview and write about may still be in a process of healing and recovery. A journalist knowledgeable about traumatic stress will be sensitive to a violent crime victim's need to feel humanized and respected, especially after an intentionally cruel experience. Approaching the person with genuine respect and concern reduces the perception of repeat exploitation.

As noted in Part 1, it is important to keep in mind that discussing a traumatic event soon after exposure may have a detrimental effect on some traumatized individuals. Overriding an individual's need for distance, avoidance of reminders of the trauma, and dissociation in the immediate phase of a trauma, may be associated with increased risk for developing PTSD in some individuals, particularly those with heightened arousal.

Understanding the Potential Effects of Working with Trauma Survivors
In the next section, tips for interviewing trauma victims will be offered. However, another aspect to the traumatic stress question should be addressed here. Research is beginning to show that the effects of covering traumatic events over a long period of time can actually have negative effects on journalists themselves. A number of terms have been coined to describe the changes that occur in those who regularly deal with people who have been exposed to traumatic stress events, and, as a result, become psychologically and emotionally overwhelmed by the many traumas they must bear witness to. These terms are described below as a way for journalists to better understand the changes they may have experienced in themselves as a result of both experiencing traumatic events themselves, and witnessing the effects of those events on others.

The term "burnout" has been applied to across helping professions, and refers to the cumulative psychological strain of working with many different stressors. It often manifests as a gradual wearing down over time.

The factors contributing to burnout include:

  • professional isolation
  • emotional drain of empathy
  • difficult client population
  • long hours with few resources
  • ambiguous or lack of clear success
  • non-reciprocated giving and attentiveness
  • failure to live up to one's own expectations for effecting positive change

The symptoms of burnout include:

  • depression
  • cynicism
  • boredom
  • loss of compassion
  • discouragement

Secondary Traumatic Stress
The term "Secondary Traumatic Stress" has been coined by various authors (e.g., Stamm, 1995), to characterize subclinical or clinical signs and symptoms of PTSD mirroring those experienced by trauma clients, friends, or family members. While it is not currently recognized by the DSM-IV as a clinical disorder, many clinicians note that those who are witnesses to traumatic stress in others may develop symptoms similar to PTSD, such as:

  • Hyperarousal
  • Intrusive symptoms
  • Avoidance, numbing
  • Anxiety
  • Depression

Compassion Stress
Charles Figley (1995) coined this term as a "non-clinical, non-pathological" way to characterize the stress of helping or wanting to help a trauma survivor. Similar to the common stress reactions listed in Part 2, compassion stress is seen as a natural outcome of knowing about trauma experienced by a client, friend, or family member, rather than a pathological process. It can be of sudden onset, and the symptoms include:

  • Helplessness
  • Confusion
  • Isolation
  • Secondary traumatic stress symptoms

Compassion Fatigue
Compassion fatigue, also coined by Figley, was considered a more severe example of cumulative compassion stress. It is a defined as: "a state of exhaustion and dysfunction, biologically, physiologically, and emotionally, as a result of prolonged exposure to compassion stress. (Figley, 1995, p. 34).

Vicarious Traumatization
"Vicarious traumatization" was coined by Pearlman and Saakvitne, (1995) as those permanently transformative, inevitable changes that result from doing therapeutic work with trauma survivors. In their research, they noted that a number of changes were common to those mental health workers who have trauma survivors in their case load. Those changes were considered not pathological, as described in secondary traumatic stress, but more cognitive/emotional changes in meaning and sense of self. The changes were cumulative over time with multiple trauma survivors in caseload, and pervasive in their effects on an individual's life. Vicarious traumatization changes can create detrimental effects in:

  • A person's relationship with meaning, hope
  • Getting ones psychological needs met
  • Intelligence
  • Willpower
  • Sense of humor
  • Ability to make self-protective judgements
  • Memory/Imagery
  • Existential sense of connection to others
  • Self-capacities
  • The enduring ability to maintain a steady sense of self
  • Tolerance for a range of emotional reactions in one's self and in others
  • A sense of inner connection to others
  • A sense of self as viable, worth loving, deserving
  • A sense of self that is grounded

There are a number of possible behavioral changes that might result from vicarious traumatization, including:

  • Becoming judgemental of others
  • Tuning out
  • Reduced sense of connection with loved ones and colleagues
  • Cynicism, anger, loss of hope, meaning
  • Rescue fantasy/overinvolvement/taking on others' problems
  • Developing overly rigid, strict boundaries
  • Heightened protectiveness, as a result of decreased sense of the safety of loved ones
  • Avoiding social contact
  • Avoiding work contact

If You Recognize These Changes in Yourself
It is recommended that an individual take steps toward self-care and lifestyle balance if they are experiencing symptoms of burnout, secondary stress, or vicarious traumatization. These steps are defined in part 5: Journalists — A Self-Care Primer.

Compassion Satisfaction
It is important to note that, while there are a number of risk factors involved in working with trauma survivors, there is also the possibility of a great sense of satisfaction with this work. There can be a satisfaction with this kind of work that is very powerful. Figley has coined the term "Compassion Satisfaction" to describe this process, which involves the devleopment over time of a much stronger:

  • sense of strength
  • self-knowledge
  • confidence
  • meaning
  • spiritual connection
  • respect for human resiliency

Stamm, B. H. (ed.). (1995). Secondary traumatic stress: self-care issues for clinicians, researchers, and educators, Lutherville, Maryland: Sidran Press.

Figley, C. R. (ed.). (1995). Compassion fatigue: coping with secondary traumatic stress disorder in those who treat the traumatized. New York: Brunner/Mazel.

Saakvitne, K. W., & Pearlman, L. A. (ed.). (1996). Transforming the pain: a workbook on vicarious traumatization. New York: Norton.

Pearlman, L. A., & Saakvitne, K. W. (1995). Trauma and the therapist: countertransference and vicarious traumatization in psychotherapy with incest survivors, pp. 295-316. New York: Norton.

Pearlman, L. A., & Mac Ian, P. S. (1995). Vicarious traumatization: an empirical study of the effects of trauma work on trauma therapists. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, v. 26, no. 6, pp. 558-565.