A global pandemic, never-ending mass shootings, heartbreaking patient stories, an opioid epidemic, legislation that endangers people’s lives … there’s no shortage of traumatic stories in the news every day, and the journalists who report it are affected by secondary trauma from that reporting.
The Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma has been promoting ethical news reporting on trauma and helping journalists process that trauma for more than two decades, yet the idea of trauma-informed reporting and self-care in journalism has been slow to take hold in the industry.
At Health Journalism 2023, in St. Louis, Felice Freyer, AHCJ board president and health care reporter at the Boston Globe, moderated a panel focused on how journalists can recognize their own trauma and take steps to protect their mental health. Naseem Miller, the senior health editor at The Journalist’s Resource and a former Orlando Sentinel reporter who covered the Pulse night club mass shooting, first spoke about trauma and self-care.
“I had never had an education on trauma, and there were no protocols on covering these tragedies,” she said. Seeing how the reporting and the one-year anniversary affected herself and others, Miller began a Facebook group for Journalists Covering Trauma and has since become passionate about raising awareness about journalists’ wellbeing.
Miller discussed trauma-informed journalism, which involves understanding how trauma affects people and what we as journalists can do to reduce harm during our interviews and reporting. Trauma-informed journalism also protects journalists’ own mental health since research has shown that our work can affect our mental health and even contribute to anxiety and PTSD.
Miller offered tips on recognizing when you’re in trouble and what you can do to help yourself, reminding attendees “It’s okay to feel how you feel, know your limits, and it’s okay to seek help.”
Signs of trouble:
- Can’t concentrate
- On edge all the time
- Can’t feel compassion for your sources
- Can’t sleep
- Turning to alcohol to cope with how you’re feeling
What you can do:
- Eat well.
- Build good relationships and support systems.
- Create boundaries at work.
- Take breaks, often.
- Find hobbies that make you happy and allow you to disconnect from work.
Miller also referenced a study by another panelist, Matthew Pearson, an assistant professor of journalism and communication at Carleton University in Ottawa. Pearson shared his findings from a survey of more than 1,200 Canadian journalists during the pandemic. His report, Taking Care, found that more than half of respondents felt overworked and found it difficult to take a break during the work day.
One startling finding was that 69% of media workers reported regularly feeling anxiety, compared to 25% of Canadians in general. Additionally, 28% of media workers had been clinically diagnosed with anxiety, compared to just 2.6% of Canadians. Similarly, 21% of media workers have been clinically diagnosed with depression, compared to 4.7% of Canadians.
Yet 90% of journalists responding to the survey said they had never received training on how to report on trauma while in journalism school. Pearson also addressed the concept of moral injury, which is more often discussed in health care but can occur in journalism as well. Moral injury occurs when a person’s conscience or moral compass is harmed by witnessing, perpetrating or failing to prevent an act that violates their own moral or ethical values or codes of conduct.
Pearson offered several recommendations to addressing these issues:
- Improve education & training.
- Improve culture & work/life balance.
- Establish protocols to protect health.
- Rethink alcohol.
- Launch peer support programs.
- Improve & expand benefits.
- Seek employee input.
Desiree Hill, an assistant professor at the University of Central Oklahoma who covered the Oklahoma City bombing, then discussed what she had learned when she wrote her dissertation on journalists’ experiences covering the tragedy. Hill focused particularly on “circles of support” that journalists need and can rely upon while reporting on traumatic events and stories.
Circles of support can include peer support from other journalists, supervisory support from editors and other supervisors, and departmental support, such as individuals from other departments offering to answer phones, transport food and offer other ways of helping journalists during reporting of a traumatic event.
Hill also discussed the simple ways people can show support: listening, telling someone “it’s okay,” helping with a task, coming together, and providing quiet spaces. It’s also important to think about those who don’t have natural support mechanisms so you can recognize those people and offer specific ways to help and support them, Hill said. It’s particularly helpful to practice non-judgmental listening, ask people how you can help if you’re not sure, and make specific gestures instead of vague offerings without follow-through.
Hill also made recommendations on what newsrooms and journalism organizations can do to improve support:
- Provide trauma support materials during hiring.
- Provide trauma mentors.
- Don’t forget staff/peers who may not be getting support.
- More training on peer-to-peer (and self-care) support
- Frequent training (yearly)