BY TAYLOR BLACKLEY
For 15 years, Tamara Cherry worked as a reporter for Toronto newspapers and TV broadcasts on the crime beat. Her fellow reporters relied on dark humor, coffee and chain smoking to deal with the hard stories they explored day in, day out.
“Our job was just go, go, go. You [didn’t] really have time to let it sink in … Then I would rinse and repeat the next day…but I was never really coping,” said Cherry. “I wanted to tell stories that made people care, and that could potentially affect change. But especially near the end of my journalism career, I really started thinking about how there had to be a better way to do certain things.”
Cherry left journalism to found Pickup Communications, a trauma-informed public relations firm. She exited the field tormented by the emotional fallout from her stories, and motivated to do whatever she could to prevent more harm to reporters and traumatized interviewees in the future.
At the time Cherry was working in the field, she didn’t have the vocabulary to describe what she was experiencing. Everything would come crashing down during the times she wasn’t reporting. Often, it wasn’t until her drive home, leaving behind the neighborhoods that she frequented as a crime reporter, that feelings of guilt would overflow.
“Sometimes, I would just sort of crumble down and just start sobbing, just thinking about everything that I witnessed or heard that day,” she said. “You’re there for the day and you’re taking their stories. And then at the end of the day, you get to go home to your safe home to your complete family, while there’s all this suffering left behind.”
While she was working in broadcast news for CTV News Toronto, something pivotally shifted within Cherry five Octobers ago. She still remembers a particularly disquieting “door knock,” (a fairly standard and generally uncomfortable reporting technique where the reporter shows up at someone’s residence in hopes of scoring an interview) with painful clarity.
Four people were killed in a car crash, including two sisters who were in one of the two cars. A colleague gave her a tip that the girls’ father had agreed to give him a comment on the developing story. By the time Cherry arrived with her camera guy, her colleague was just finishing interviewing the father, who was being filmed outside of his house.
“As they walked away, I sort of whispered ‘thank you’ and then walked up to the father and asked him to do it all over again,” said Cherry. “And we left. Another media outlet was there – I have no idea how many interviews he did that day.”
Cherry was appalled at the fact that a trauma survivor had to “go through this over and over and over again and relive the trauma.” She became increasingly distraught over the harm her profession had caused until she hit “rock bottom.” Things she had once enjoyed now repulsed her—she could no longer enjoy true crime podcasts or TV shows, she had difficulty regulating her emotions and became irritable.
“I’ve learned a lot about vicarious trauma, moral injury and the importance of protecting yourself as a journalist when you’re on the job. You just don’t always realize what’s happening until it’s too late,” said Cherry.
Trauma in Journalists
For a journalist, hyper-vigilance can be an asset to their work. But if they are constantly attuned to the terrible things that are happening in the world, a narrative of the world as a terrible place overall can develop and be reinforced with each horrific story.
For just over a year now, Cherry has been regularly seeing a therapist, something she said she regrets putting off for so long. According to Cherry, everyone covering traumatic subjects should be setting aside time for regular maintenance where they sit and work through what they hear or witness. By talking to a therapist, peer or loved one, journalists can make sense of their vicarious trauma. But Cherry cautioned against unloading on loved ones, and said it’s better to seek guidance from a professional who can protect themselves and offer more long-term strategies and specialized treatments for healing.
Another network of support exists for journalists to lean on—other journalists. The advent of worldwide internet and social media allows individuals to connect at any time of day, regardless of their physical distance from one another.
Naseem Miller, former reporter and current editor at The Journalist’s Resource, is also the founder of a Facebook group for journalists covering trauma. Over five years ago when writing for the Orlando Sentinel, Miller covered the second-deadliest mass shooting by a single shooter in U.S. history. Miller reported in depth on the massacre and terrorist attack at the Pulse Nightclub that left 39 (including the shooter) dead at the scene, 11 more victims who died in local hospitals, dozens injured and countless traumatized. She still holds onto certain events and objects—what she heard stuck with her as vicarious trauma.
“You kind of do your job, then on to the next story. A lot of times journalists really don’t talk about how covering certain stories affects them, partly because it’s not the newsroom culture, and sometimes people think they’re the only ones who are feeling this way,” said Miller.
About a year later, a conversation with another journalist who was covering a different mass shooting in Texas made them wonder about other journalists who might share in their experience.
“So we started a Facebook group, the two of us … we just wanted to create a space for journalists to be able to talk about trauma, covering trauma,” she said. Back then in 2017, Miller said there was less discussion of the resources that were out there to support journalists. They started by inviting their newsrooms to join, and now their group’s membership has expanded to include a global network of more than 1,000 journalists, mental health professionals and trauma awareness advocates.
“Unfortunately, the group has stayed relevant,” said Miller. The nonstop news cycle, filled in recent years with “bad news” surrounding the pandemic, and now Russia’s war in Ukraine.
Through the online community, journalists have been able to share the tips that have helped them through tough stories to benefit others who may also be struggling.
Some tips for self-care that apply to reporters recommended by mental health and journalism experts:
- Stay hydrated and try to incorporate some form of physical movement throughout your day.
- Shut down and cover your computer and turn off work-related notifications after clocking out.
- Take news and social media breaks when necessary.
- Create physical space or barriers between yourself and your work.
- Light a candle or change locations to create a new environment to help you refocus.
- Take a few minutes to focus on your physical body and your breathing.
- Try incorporating an activity to stimulate mindfulness or relaxation, like yoga, meditation or visualization, into your daily schedule.
- Explore different therapy techniques (with a trained professional) specifically geared towards treating trauma, such as EMDR.
- Nurture other parts of your life that may have been neglected by focusing too much on work.
- Build a supportive social network with trusted friends that are emotionally nourishing.
For Cherry, who still thinks about the survivors and the further harm she feels she inflicted on them by the very nature of her job, even her best intentions to be compassionate and kind can’t undo the moral injury that still pains her.
In May of 2020, she began researching the harmful impacts the media can have by working with over 100 trauma survivors and journalists who report on their stories from the U.S. and Canada. She is currently writing a book based on what she’s learned from those who share their experiences, and recently published literature (a quantitative and qualitative analysis) of the surveys and interviews. Cherry integrates these recommendations from survivors of homicides, traffic fatalities, sexual violence, and mass violence into workshops on best reporting practices to support both interviewees and reporters.
“The way I’m trying to repair that is by changing the system (by which trauma survivors are impacted by the media),” she said. By educating journalists, victim service providers and investigators, Cherry aims to support survivors and restore their agency by giving them more control over their own narratives.
Trauma in Sources
Journalism can inherently harm the people it touches. Stories can have fallout and sources can be burned. People can be hurt in an untold number of ways, sometimes irreparably. When those sources have witnessed or experienced a traumatic event, interactions with reporters can be like picking at a scab that barely conceals an exposed nerve.
In order to fulfill journalism’s central tenet of minimizing harm (as outlined in the Society of Professional Journalists’ code of ethics), Cherry said journalists have to forget everything they think they know about journalism in favor of a trauma-informed model of news gathering and distribution. Traditional approaches must be revised to prioritize compassion and empathy with the understanding that “when it comes to trauma, it’s just different.”
One of the cognitive processes most affected by Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) can be memory. Survivors may recount events out of order or confuse crucial details as their mind struggles to process the shock of a traumatic event.
Because of these well documented symptoms, Cherry recommended to give traumatized interviewees notice of the questions ahead of time and if possible, let them review the contents of what will be included from their interview before it airs. Although these reporting practices are generally frowned upon in newsrooms, she said when it comes to trauma-informed journalism, providing agency to the person that you are reporting on leads to more ethical—and accurate—journalism.
“We cannot be treating trauma survivors how we treat politicians or school board trustees or national athletes who have media training,” said Cherry. Instead, she recommends a collaborative approach between journalists, victims, service providers, and investigators. As an alternative to showing up at someone’s doorstep, she said the media should consult with the local victim service agency or police department about working together to support the survivor.
“When somebody suffers from trauma, the impact on the brain can be very profound,” Cherry said. “These are not accountability interviews questioning them on what they did, we’re asking them to share their trauma with us.”
Experts agree that a nuanced understanding of what someone who has experienced trauma will enhance the quality of reporting. Trauma awareness will not only facilitate more health interactions between reporters and interviewees. It will allow newsmakers to tell more complex and impactful stories.
“If journalists can be trauma literate and understand the ebbs and flows of trauma, it allows you to calibrate your interviews and really get a fabulous story, which means you can then inform the community in a deeper way too about what’s going on,” said Cait McMahon, who is based in Melbourne and has served as the founding managing director Dart Centre Asia Pacific (a regional hub for the international Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma) since 2003. McMahon said that if journalists “understand the machinations of trauma” and have the appropriate language to explain it, their journalism will go deeper to better serve its basic purpose.
The Dart Center is a unique collaboration of journalists, health professionals, and researchers that provides extensive trauma-informed resources to media professionals such as training sessions, an online database compiling scholarship on journalism and trauma, and a style-guide for news writing. They also offer extensive resources on topics ranging from self-care and peer support to best practices for journalists covering war, natural disasters, terrorism, homicide, suicide and other violent conflicts and interviewing vulnerable populations such as survivors of intimate partner violence, veterans, refugees and youth.
“There are no other groups that bring science and journalism practice together in the same way Dart does,” said McMahon. This sustained collaboration among media, mental health clinicians, academics and others who are working within spheres impacted by violence and conflict allows for systemic advancement of strategies to implement trauma-aware frameworks across disciplines.
According to McMahon, the Dart Center has always been a global thought leader on the intersection of trauma and journalism. Prior to its formation in 1999, a few people were starting to talk about the issue, but on an individual rather than organizational level. Aside from offering a collection of resources for journalists and newsrooms to increase their trauma awareness, Dart Center provides a professional forum for media to share in discussions to “advance strategies related to the craft of reporting on violence and tragedy.”
McMahon noted that recently, “there’s a lot of other people that are starting to come on board with this now.” She thinks this increase in attention is terrific as it will lend more depth to the analysis of reporting.
Like Cherry, another former journalist is using her time in the field to inform her current work, which is focused on educating reporters and publishers about the impacts of media interactions on sources who have been through horrible things. After implementing a trauma-awareness workshop in house when she was at the BBC, the results were “so overwhelmingly successful” that she was motivated to share it with journalists and newsrooms around the world.
“I’ve trained hundreds, if not thousands, of journalists now,” said the Founder and director of Trauma Reporting, Jo Healy, who also published a book on the subject in 2020 titled “ Trauma Reporting, A Journalist’s Guide to Covering Sensitive Stories.”
“At the heart of the training that I do are the sources, the contributors who choose to talk to us in these terrible times,” said Healy. Reflections she has compiled from an array of “correspondents” which includes bereaved parents, survivors of abuse, and people “to whom terrible things have happened who shared with me how best they how they wish to be treated by journalists,” add heart, authenticity and immense value to Trauma Reporting. For Healy, the element of interviewing correspondents is what makes the work so credible—by stopping assumptions on how journalists feel someone who is traumatized would like to be treated and replacing them with insights from survivors who have actually interacted with the media.
“We tell our stories best through the people they affect, don’t we?” she pointed out. “Their voices are something that journalists find fascinating to listen to; it’s like hearing our interviewees talk back at us,” said Healy.
Through her interviews with correspondents, Healy aims to amplify the voices of people who are very often unheard or underrepresented by distilling their collective feedback into key things that make working with journalists a positive (or negative) experience.
“There is no doubt that we can do harm. We can do damage. We can distress our interviewees by handling them in an ill-informed, inept way—unwittingly, but still inappropriately,” Healy said. For her, journalism that is unaware of trauma is “a lose-lose situation.” A clumsy approach is not only likely to upset your interviewee, but they will probably lose any interest in speaking with you, making for a lost interview, or potentially, a story killed.
“Trauma is exhausting … trauma can distort thoughts,” said Healy. In order for reporters to have tools for interacting with someone who has been exposed to trauma, Healy coined the acronym “HAACCC,” which stands for “honesty, acknowledgment, accuracy, consent, control and compassion.” Some of her and other trauma specialists’ specific recommendations that support these values include the following:
- Avoid rushing the interviewee.
- Don’t expect survivors to be able to provide a detailed or accurate chronological account.
- Don’t attempt to relate to the survivor’s grief.
- Be understanding if strong emotions (like anger) emerge or the interviewee abruptly shuts down and don’t take it personally.
- Don’t question, dismiss or minimize a survivor’s emotions or experience.
- If verification is necessary, look for alternative sources that could corroborate.
- Avoid phrases like, “I know how you feel,” “everything is going to be ok,” and “they’re in a better place,” (in reference to the deceased).
- Try not to ask questions without easy answers in reference to an interviewee’s current state such as, “How are you doing? How did it make you feel?”
- Don’t promise any results or particular outcome from the interview or story.
- Be as transparent and specific as possible about the production and distribution process, methods and timeline.
Cherry said that many survivors are unprepared to assess the effects commenting on a story may have, either because they are unfamiliar with newsmaking and distribution, or because their shock in response to tragedy affects their decision making or ability to clearly verbalize their concerns. Her research has also shown that many survivors agree to comment despite their desire for privacy out of a sense of obligation or powerlessness. Before hitting the record button, reporters should have a conversation with any survivors to find out topics to avoid and any other ways they can help them feel more comfortable as they are interviewed.
“Informed consent doesn’t just mean that they’re asking questions and you’re answering. It’s you making sure that they understand all the implications of the story that you’re doing,” Cherry said. Her numerous interviews with survivors are evidence that journalists cannot expect survivors to know what questions to ask. She said a better strategy is for journalists to put themselves in the mindset of someone who has experienced an emotional upheaval to imagine what questions they would have as a survivor.
Some questions she and the other experts interviewed suggest reporters address with survivors to help ensure their consent is fully informed and ongoing include:
- What context will this interview take?
- How can I help survivors choose a setting that feels safe?
- Who is a trusted intermediary that could attend the interview to support them?
- Where might parts of their interview be shared and in what format? What networks might reproduce the content?
- What is the plan if an interviewee becomes too emotional to continue?
- What other consequences might come from sharing details of a traumatic event?
- How might your reporting affect your audience? What details might be better left out of news coverage?
In short, survivors should be provided with safe and predictable circumstances. The media has an ethical obligation to minimize harm to survivors if they consent to sharing upsetting, personal accounts of horrible accidents, homicides, illness, sexual assaults, and loss of loved ones.
However, journalists are not mental health professionals. Reporters need to construct boundaries to protect themselves from taking on the trauma they are exposed to through their sources, who may very well still be in the early stages of processing what happened.
Trauma in Journalists, Part 2
While the symptoms of trauma and how they may manifest in people who have directly experienced or witnessed a traumatic event or loss may be more apparent, the secondary trauma experienced by those who hear their stories can be just as significant in its effects. Anna Mortimer, a therapist, journalist and the co-founder of The Mind Field has witnessed that her clients, most of them humanitarian aid workers or journalists covering traumatic events, are deeply affected—and many experience symptoms of trauma themselves.
“People who come to us, they’re lonely, very lonely because they have to keep a mask on all the time, pretending to be fine, pretending to be able to cope,” she said. “They’re in a heightened emotional state all the time.”
Since 2018 (before telehealth was popularized as a result of pandemic-related isolation), the Mind Field’s team of mental health professionals have offered specialized remote therapy sessions to patients worldwide, most of them journalists and humanitarian workers. Now, Mortimer works with about 15 other therapists who together cover most major world languages.
Growing up the child of a war correspondent left Mortimer with a skewed view of the world as a terrifying, dangerous place. She and her mother’s lives were threatened by the IRA, so they had to remove their phone number from phone books. Her father, decorated British journalist David Blundy, was a glamorous and influential figure throughout her life and they would speak nearly every day despite the fact he was often “on the other side of the world.” But her father’s high-drama lifestyle rippled into his personal life, negatively affecting his relationships.
Mortimer started in the world of journalism herself, but by the age of 24 ended up in psychotherapy and psychoanalysis. Driven to learn more about the theory that had benefited her as a patient, she ended up practicing as a clinician. Her journey was very linked to the life-altering loss of her father who was killed on assignment in El Salvador in 1989. She was 19 years old at the time.
“Violent death is something that affects people for the rest of their lives. It’s something so shocking, even when vaguely expected,” said Mortimer. “I certainly expected [my father] to be killed all my life, and it was no huge surprise—of course, it was in a way, but in another way not.”
Mortimer reflected that her father, like many others reporting from similarly high-risk environments, probably felt more relaxed in a war zone than at home. In order to feel sane, someone experiencing an internal war in their head will often seek an external world to match.
“It’s a bit like being an adrenaline junkie, or indeed any kind of junkie,” she said. “Now I realize [my father] was probably unwell already, actually, before going into it. I think a lot of the people who choose these careers are on the run from unwanted feelings and are already trying to kind of distract themselves,” she said. Because of this pattern she has observed in her own family and her clients’ lives, she believes that journalism can attract people who perhaps grew up in a household filled with uncertainty and resort to investigative strategies to defend against helplessness.
“When you are dealing with people in their life’s most extreme situations, it’s very hard actually to take your feelings of stress and trauma seriously in the evening … You’ll be thinking, ‘I feel terrible. I need a drink. I’m so anxious that really freaked me out.’” Mortimer said. She noted that her father, like many others in his profession, would often turn to unhealthy means of coping such as abusing alcohol or sex, but few actually acknowledge they need help because the people that surround them on a daily basis “are suffering, in [their] view, so much more.”
Another therapist, Stephanie Baird, is based in Hadley, Massachusetts, and has over 20 years of clinical experience with a specialization in treating people with symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). As a graduate student at University of North Texas in 2002, Baird co-authored a validational study of secondary traumatic stress and vicarious trauma. At the time, there was not much existing academic literature delineating or quantifying the differences between compassion fatigue versus vicarious trauma and burnout (a more universal mental health issue not necessarily linked to trauma).
The experiment tested the cumulative effects of repeated exposure to trauma survivors by administering a series of questionnaires and interviews to a group of 99 subjects who were routinely exposed to trauma secondhand, such as crisis counselors and staff at domestic violence shelters.
“Even though that person didn’t experience that direct trauma directly nor did they witness it, they have been told enough about it,” said Baird. The resulting “vicarious trauma” has many of the same symptoms as PTSD, such as hypervigilance, nightmares, intrusive thoughts and avoidance. And like other mental and emotional disorders, harmful effects are manifested in the body as well.
Baird advised that journalists who are dealing with people who are talking about trauma should have additional safeguards in place to protect themselves from developing vicarious trauma. She hypothesized that similarly to mental health professionals, journalists who cover traumatic events are more likely to have their own personal trauma history. If not adequately treated, past trauma exposure can put someone at greater risk of developing or worsening symptoms of vicarious trauma.
“Someone came to me the other day and she said she’d just been white knuckling the past decade,” said Mortimer regarding a journalist patient. “If you feel that you’re coping. Go and get some help because coping is not a way to live … Trouble deserves a dignified, honest conversation and thought—collaborative thought.”
A reluctance among journalists to acknowledge internal struggles is one of the reasons Mortimer said that witnessing trauma can actually be worse because it results in terrible feelings of helplessness. Such powerlessness in the face of the worst situations often culminates in what is referred to as moral injury, another common symptom in those with PTSD. This term points to the moral pressures that those who experience vicarious trauma often confront.
“Whatever [journalists and aid workers are able to] do is not very much,” she said. “You can’t help everybody. [Death and torture and misery are] still going on. It’s a bit of a drop in the ocean and you’re just kind of watching these awful things happen.”
Healy echoed this sentiment, and said her best advice for journalists to recognize and sort through vicarious trauma is simply to talk openly.
“People are crying or bleeding emotion into our faces … In all these situations, never lose sight of your humanity and no matter what you’re up against,” said Healy. She stressed the importance of giving careful consideration to the ways stories may have impacted you, and taking yourself and the feelings you are experiencing seriously.
“We’re a resilient bunch, journalists,” said Healy. “We need to learn to open up and talk to each other, to trusted colleagues soon after the event, unpack the emotions that you may well have helped your interviewee unpack.”
Recommendations for Reporters
A growing body of research has established that the journalistic profession can impact reporters’ mental health and well-being. It has become clear that reporters need to be intentional in seeking additional support and practicing self-care.
“There’s a lot of shame really about all sorts of issues that women face quite apart from the risk of violence and assault, which they face in ways that men don’t. … They’re often working in countries that have extremely macho cultures, where there is certainly an attitude towards women that leaves them feeling just kind of denigrated,” said Mortimer.
Women are often condemned for emotional vulnerability, stigmatized as too sensitive or unstable. However, based on what Mortimer has observed in her clients, the flipside to this gender bias is that women are more likely to come early on when they feel traumatized, depressed, anxious or burnt out in order to support themselves so that they can continue working.
“By the time men come, they’re often very, very unwell indeed,” she said. “They’re not going to be able to continue … having been at this point for a while.”
Trauma-informed reporting requires intentional work to learn and practice. Thankfully, basic guidelines are now readily accessible for reporters to educate themselves if their universities or managers fail to do so sufficiently. Some tips from experts for reporters who interview traumatized sources are as follows:
- Educate yourself before the interview to gain a basic understanding of how people can respond to and be impacted by trauma.
- Don’t assume that because a survivor speaks to another news outlet that they are open to more interviews. Avoid repeated requests for comment or otherwise pressuring them to speak.
- Confirm the source is aware of the deadline to withdraw their consent before their story airs. •Prepare survivors for potentially triggering questions.
- Allow the interviewee to decide where they would prefer to begin rather than following a chronological line of questioning.
- Gently transition the interviewee into recounting traumatic memories.
- Don’t surprise survivors with graphic images included in the story.
- Don’t leave immediately after the interview—bring trauma survivors back to a safer place after recounting traumatic details.
- Have a plan ready to unwind after a tough interview and maybe take a break before delving back into the story.
- Follow up with the source after the story goes out.
- If you feel like a story has caused harm to interviewees, revisit them to have a conversation. If appropriate, apologize.
Recommendations for Newsrooms
There is no universal handbook for newsrooms on how to respond to trauma exposure. However, with the growing body of evidence for the impact of trauma in sources and reporters and ever-increasing accessibility to informational resources, many mental health and media experts advocate for trauma awareness as a basic duty for any reputable newsroom.
When the story airs that includes contributions from a person who has experienced trauma related to the piece, newsrooms have an ethical duty to take note of and avoid harmful distribution practices.
“It’s not about the pure byline, the stories that you’re telling about trauma … you have to pay attention to the person you’re interviewing and really respect what they’ve been through. It’s just not another story,” said Miller. According to Miller, an important aspect of minimizing harm is resisting the temptation of a splashy or SEO-friendly headline.
Cherry found that additional trauma can be created if a survivor encounters their story within an unexpected timing or context. She stressed the importance of being intentional with periodical “roundup” stories and exercising sensitivity that the resurfacing of a tragic or violent event in the news could potentially trigger “dozens, if not hundreds” of people’s trauma.
A newsroom that prioritizes the mental and emotional wellbeing of its sources—let alone its employees—is a fairly novel concept, and more sustained commitment is critical to actually integrating strategies into the practice.
A toxic mix can easily come out of pressures to meet deadlines and deliver copy pieces, especially when mental health risks remain unaddressed. Many veteran reporters experienced the negative effects of a work environment that was dismissive of the importance of trauma awareness.
“If I’d tried to introduce anything like [trauma training], I would have been laughed out of the newsroom,” said Healy, remembering a similarly trauma-averse newsroom atmosphere when she was writing for a newspaper in the ’80s. “In fact, it would never have occurred to me to think about introducing anything like [my current work].”
Another reporter-turned-educator, Desiree Hill has been working in media from the age of 18. It was only a few months into her first job that she was covering trauma, a theme that would follow her as she reported on multiple traumatic events including the Oklahoma City bombing. When she obtained her PhD in journalism within the past decade, she was already reevaluating the stance of her generation of journalists that assumed journalists would be stoically impervious to trauma.
Hill’s work now (such as an article published Feb. 25, 2020 aptly titled “Preparing Future Journalists for Trauma on the Job”) connects trauma theory to journalistic practice by incorporating medical and psychological knowledge. She also serves as the North American leader for a recently formed international group called Journalism Education and Trauma Research Group, which employs empirically grounded and theoretically focused research on the persistent work-related problems of emotional and psychological stress in journalism practice into educational agendas.
Although she no longer manages a newsroom, Hill said after being exposed to all the information she has now, she would feel an ethical call to be responsive to how her reporters were experiencing stories. In her view, managers should be held responsible for creating environments to support communication and healing, as the norm.
“I would see things so very differently,” said Hill. “I would be watching people, I would be asking. I would hopefully be an empathetic manager.” Without empathetic management in place, she said the research shows newsrooms will lose employees, and those who remain will be more sick and absent and less productive or insightful.
In 1993, McMahon had a similar experience as she was finalizing her psychology degree and working at The Age, an independent newspaper based in Melbourne. She found the inspiration for her postgraduate thesis, which she said was one of the first studies worldwide of its kind. It came from the dynamics and behaviors she witnessed in the journalists working there.
“At 4:00 when the ‘journos’ were coming back and filing their stories for the next day, I could really see the stress, and at times, trauma,” she said. “I could just see the journalists really struggling in the newsroom.” Witnessing these dynamics also confirmed for her early on the importance of trauma literacy at managerial and organizational levels within the media.
“It’s important that the duty of care comes from those that are engaging journalists, not just put all the onus of care on the [journalist, not the organization],” said McMahon. She said that the scope of managerial comprehension of trauma-informed reporting should also encompass social media safety, online trolling or harassment and security provisions for when journalists enter the field. Because of this, Dart Center teaches managers to look after staff rather than expecting them to solely implement self-care.
According to McMahon, an important consideration around trauma exposure among journalists presently regards graphic digital (often user-generated) content. As journalism has included more online sources, and established reporters have moved away from traditional media roles into content moderation and audience engagement, Dart has given more attention to the impact of journalists on the receiving end of user-generated content.
Developing a better understanding of how emotional stress can impact both sources and journalists can make media seem more credible to audiences if they see the organization as empathetic and compassionate to people’s needs. Additionally, fostering a workplace that is trauma aware would benefit media organizations from a business standpoint as it would reduce the rate of staff turnover.
“You won’t have people getting to a point where they can no longer handle it and just leave the business altogether,” said Miller. Reporters concealing their stress for extended periods of time in the name of getting work done can not only harm their mental health, but also their professional relationships and career trajectory.
“There were certainly days in my career where … I really don’t want to go back to this one (story), but I kept my mouth shut because I didn’t want to be seen as weak,” said Cherry. “I didn’t want them to think that I couldn’t handle my beat.”
When it comes to communication between reporters and newsroom managers, according to Cherry, “it’s very important to foster an environment where a reporter is not afraid to go to their assignment editor or their producer or their editor and say, ‘you know what, I’ve got to sit this one out.’” She said many of the reporters she has interviewed fear being sidelined or seen as weak if they speak up, a feeling she was familiar with herself.
Opening up about personal struggles may seem counter to the traditional ideal of reporters as unbiased, objective observers, but honesty regarding the toll a story is taking could alternatively give reporters the space they need to approach a story with more genuine interest, perspective and clarity. Miller hopes these barriers can be broken over time so journalists can feel free of the stigma of disclosing an impaired mental or emotional state to their managers so they can get the time off they need to recover, then come back and still get their assignment.
Given the elevated risk of developing symptoms of vicarious trauma among journalists, employers “really have to really then figure out systems to help their employees,” according to Baird. She believes it would be wise for editors to take notice of who they are assigning particularly violent or disturbing stories and for them to rotate reporters through different beats to give them time away from stories where they need to speak to people about traumatic events. She also suggested that giving journalists freedom to cover a wide variety of topics could be an ameliorating factor for preserving their mental health.
Other mental health professionals also advocate for integration of experience-informed trauma responses within organizational workflows and budgets. Some even recommend regular therapy be compensated by the organization to make care more economically and practically accessible to employees.
Hill suggested newsrooms can normalize interventions such as counseling and make them more convenient to employees by folding them into the organization, perhaps even bringing them physically into the office. This is with the caveat that the therapists come with a solid understanding of journalism, as standard recommendations may not apply to people under the demands of the news cycle.
“If I ran a newsroom, I would make sure that absolutely everybody was in weekly therapy on the house,” said Mortimer. “It has to be confidential … and not traceable. It should be an ordinary provision. It isn’t, though, and it’s expensive and it’s exclusive.”
According to Healy, “we’re not there yet,” particularly when it comes to interviewing survivors. However, advocates for trauma-informed reporting are seeing movement in the right direction—an unexpected silver lining to the vicious news cycle of the past several years.
Recommendations for Journalism Schools
Despite the importance of being educated on how trauma intersects with journalism, experts are concerned that very few academic programs offer courses with a designated focus on best practices for trauma-informed reporting.
“When we’re talking about J-schools, they need to be talking about this stuff so that people are trauma aware going into the job so they can recognize things in themselves,” said Cherry. As a young journalist and student, she said trauma was “certainly never discussed,” so she is glad the conversation is growing, albeit incrementally. But for many trauma-aware reporting advocates and educators, this growth is just a fraction of the changes they wish to see.
Healy also believes that trauma reporting ought to be a fundamental part of student learning, but frustratingly, accessible courses on trauma for future media professionals still tend to be “the exception rather than the rule.”
“There is no question in my mind … the current situation is not without risk,” said Healy. “It is also burdensome and troublesome for a number of students who suddenly get thrown out on these stories from their new newsrooms, under pressure to deliver and ill-equipped to handle these high-octane emotional situations.”
From the numerous workshops and presentations she has done at universities, she has sensed “a desire, an appetite and hunger to learn about this work” among the students soon to enter the field. This is doubly frustrating to Healy, as the open reception and willingness to learn proves to her that trauma-aware reporting should be a core element to the curriculum. Not to mention, trauma awareness is a crucial consideration for journalism schools because many journalists will experience vicarious trauma even before entering the industry as a professional.
“We’ve got to be vigilant for our students … These things can happen while you are a student journalist,” said Hill. After students enter the field, chances they will encounter trauma are even more bleak—in studies Hill references in her work, nearly 100% of journalists experienced trauma on the job. Given this probability, she emphasized the psychological concept of cognitive preparation as another impetus for trauma awareness among journalists in training.
Mimicking the experiences reporters might encounter, such as through role play exercises, can help provide them with the tools they need to respond when the situation occurs in real life. Hill also recommends journalism programs host guest speakers, particularly alumni who are recent graduates, to build a bridge between those who are on the cusp of entering the industry and those recently initiated. Trauma-informed reporting should also encompass social media safety, online trolling or harassment and security provisions for when journalists enter the field. For these and other important topics, it can be helpful for instructors to reference case studies and outside resources, such as the Dart Center.
As for the Dart Center’s recommendations, McMahon says that journalism programs including trauma awareness into their curriculum is “an imperative.” Despite this, she said there is still an avoidance of the topic within academia, perhaps because universities feel unprepared to handle students’ responses or frank conversations about trauma.
“By and large, the majority [of journalism universities] sort of dabble and say it’s an important thing—and not do anything about it,” said McMahon.
- Taylor Blackley is a multimedia journalist, freelance photographer, and documentary filmmaker based in Boston, MA. She recently graduated with a Master of Arts in Journalism from Northeastern University, and received her Bachelor of Arts in Writing & Rhetoric Studies from the University of Utah. She covers a range of topics including social and political issues, arts and culture, reproductive and racial justice, and mental health. The majority of her work is community-based with the aim of creating positive social impact and serving underrepresented and marginalized peoples. Her work can be found in the digital social justice magazine The Scope: Boston where she worked as a staff writer as well as GBH News, PBS, DigBoston, PrideSource, The Twiza Project and The Boston Globe. If you would like to find out more or get in touch with the author, visit taylorblackleymedia.com.
Image by Hugo Jehanne on Unsplash