Connecting With Your Staff
Leading their staffs through some of the most challenging coverage of their careers, editors and news directors have struggled for the right words and the right advice to deliver at the right time.
Poynter.org has collected a few recent examples from Henry Freeman, editor of The Journal News in White Plains, N.Y. and William E. Schmidt, associate managing editor of The New York Times. You'll also find four memos prepared by Sue Hale and Joe Hight, executive editor and managing editor, respectively, of The Daily Oklahoman following the 1995 bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City.
If you've written notes or memos to the staff you think might be of interest, please add them at the link above.
Note to The Journal News staff
From Editor Henry Freeman
At some point every day for the last week and a half, my thoughts have turned to writing a note to all of you to tell you how proud I am of the work you have been doing and the newspapers you have been producing.
This has been a story of incredible proportions and a story of incredible emotions. And, like all of you, I have been touched by those emotions. Each time when I thought of what I wanted to express to each of you, I fell short of being able to put it on paper.
Instead, I have spoken to many of you individually or in small groups and have told you what a great newspaper you have been producing and asked how you were doing.
In meetings in Harrison and Nyack on Tuesday, I said that when my career was over I always thought I would be most proud of the staff I recruited to start the USA Today sports section. It was an unbelievable effort by a dedicated group of individuals who worked long days and nights to create "the nation's newspaper." And I am very proud of every one of them.
But, as I said in those meetings, that is no longer what makes me the most proud about my almost 35-year career as a journalist. I am most proud of this staff and the newspapers we have produced and continue to produce since the attack on the World Trade Center.
By anyone's standards, what you have done and what you continue to do is journalism at the absolute highest level. At a time when our community needs us to do what we do best, we have responded with one great newspaper after another. This would be worthy of note at any time, but it becomes truly remarkable when you consider that this is a story that has also touched each and every one of us personally.
As journalists, we often take pride in the fact we can cover a story without becoming emotionally involved. It's considered the professional thing to do, so we hold those emotions inside. If you are like me, you have been fine when you are at work. We do what we do, and the adrenaline of working on the big story is pumping and gets us through the day. But, in my case, every morning when I have been watching the news shows and reading the newspapers, there has been some point when my emotions have gotten past the guard I have placed between myself and this story.
And that's OK. It is perfectly natural.
Yesterday, I placed a phone call to Sue Hale, the executive editor of The Daily Oklahoman in Oklahoma City. She gathered some of her top editors in her office and I did the same in mine and we shared our thoughts and feelings through a couple of speaker phones. All of these editors were at the newspaper during the Oklahoma City bombings. They know what we have been experiencing because they've been there themselves.
Metro Editor Tony Thornton later e-mailed this advice: "Reporters and editors may find themselves going along smoothly, perhaps even wondering why they haven't been more affected emotionally. And then out of the blue some quote or conversation or photo will hit them hard, making them wonder how that seemingly benign event could have touched them so deeply when they've been immersed in death for weeks.
"For me it was a line repeated to me by a reporter who had just interviewed the husband of Rebecca Anderson, the only rescue worker killed in the OKC bombing. 'She was the greatest woman God ever made,' he said. Somehow, even though I wasn't married at the time, that one quote brought home all the pain that I imagined every spouse of every single victim must be going through. And suddenly, if only for a few minutes, I was a human being again, not simply a task-driven reporter. When that moment comes, be grateful for it. "
Managing Editor Joe Hight has spoken at the Dart Foundation about the newspaper's experiences following the Oklahoma City bombings and Sue sent me copies of his handouts, along with the note, "Keep the faith!" I have included those handouts with this note and I think you will find them interesting and comforting.
I know that it has been comforting to me and the other editors who were on the phone yesterday to hear from our fellow journalists that the feelings we have been having are normal. It is one thing to hear it from someone else such as a counselor, but there is always something about hearing one's peers that makes it more special. They know what we are going through, and their thoughts are with us. The main thing they want us to know is that they have been where we are and the emotions we are feeling -- and will feel -- are normal.
One of their cautions was that coverage of a story like this begins "as a sprint and then it is followed by a marathon."
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.
To the staff
From William E. Schmidt
The New York Times
Sept. 12, 2001
As reporters, as photographers, as editors, it is our job to bear witness. But the scenes of sheer horror that so many of you experienced Tuesday -- and the tumble of grief, shock and emotion that will surely continue to trail this story -- can leave scars.
We know from the experiences of some of your colleagues -- foreign correspondents back from war, the reporters and photographers who worked the Oklahoma City bombing -- that it can be helpful to discuss your reactions to what you saw and felt.
Pat Drew, who is the director of LifeSKills/EAP at The Times, has offered to lead a discussion where you can share those experiences, if you choose, and learn ways to cope with this kind of trauma. She will also brief you on other resources that can be made available to you and your family members.
To accommodate your schedules, we will offer one session at 9:30 a.m. tomorrow morning, Thursday, Sept. 13, in the Biz/Fin Conference room on the third floor, and another at 5:30 p.m. in the Legal Conference Room on the 12th floor. Other sessions will be scheduled later, as needed.
I encourage you to attend one of these meetings. Please mention this to your colleagues as well.
To the staff
From William E. Schmidt
The New York Times
Sept. 13, 2001
None of us has ever quite lived through a story like this. Everyone in this building, in this city, has been touched by what happened downtown, some of you far more than others. And for those of you actively engaged in the coverage, it has been doubly difficult.
In the last few days, too many of you have seen things, done things, photographed things, that have sucked the emotional wind out of you. And this story is not going away anytime soon.
We all know there is a great tradition among journalists to put your feelings and fears behind you, and just get the job done. We applaud you for that kind of professionalism. But we also know just doing your job -- as a reporter or photographer out in the streets, or as an editor or clerk in the newsroom -- take its toll, on you and your family.
Given that blunt reality, we want you to know we are here to help you get through these difficult days. We can arrange resources and individual counsel. We can organize small sessions, if you choose, where people can come together and share their experiences and reactions. If any of you think such a session would be helpful, please let your supervisor or department head know, and we will organize something.
Pat Drew of the Employee Assistance Program will be available at 5:30 p.m. today in the 12th floor Legal Conference Room, if you have questions or issues. And on Friday, from 4 p.m. to 5 p.m., she will working out of the conference room just off the third floor reception area. We hope to continue that schedule next week.
Victims' Wall of Grief
From Sue Hale and Joe Hight of The Daily Oklahoman
Most victims or victims' relatives face a wall of grief in the aftermath of a death or disaster. The wall blocks them from seeing that their lives may improve tomorrow. They don't see into the past or future; they see the present and feel the pain of the moment.
Then the reporter approaches them and violates their grieving space. Or, in a disaster, several reporters approach them.
So it's important to learn about coverage of victims.
Here are several tips concerning that coverage:
- When approaching a victim, politely and clearly identify yourself before asking questions.
- Treat each victim with dignity and respect. Special AP Correspondent George Esper has said, "We should frame our questions with respect and research. We must be sensitive but not timid."
- Treat each person as an individual, not as part of an overall number. Each person is different and should be treated that way.
- Never ask "How do you feel?" or say "I understand how you feel." Simply say, "My name is ..." and "I sorry for what happened." Then ask questions such as "Could you tell me about your relative's life?" or "How did this occur?"
- Realize that you are violating the victim's space and may receive a harsh or emotional reaction at first. Don't react harshly if you receive this reaction.
- Allow the victim to say "no" after you make the approach and he or she refuses to answer your question. If the answer is "no," simply leave a card or number so the victim can call you later. Sometimes the best stories come this way.
- Know that little things count. Call the victims back to verify quotes and facts. Ensure photos are returned immediately.
- Try to call funeral homes or family representatives first to connect with a victim's family member. In most cases, relatives will want to talk about the victims' lives.
- Avoid words such as "closure" to indicate that victims or members of the community have overcome the trauma connected with a death or disaster. Diane Leonard, whose husband, Secret Service agent Donald Leonard, was killed in the Oklahoma City bombing, said: "This will be a journey we'll be taking the rest of our lives. You can't put a time frame on when the critical time frame will be after a trauma. It's part of us, and always will be."
The 'Wall Effect' for Journalists
From Sue Hale and Joe Hight of The Daily Oklahoman
Most journalists face an inevitability in their careers: They must cover a tragedy and interview people who are pinned against a wall of grief.
The wall blocks victims from seeing that their lives may improve tomorrow. They only see who's in front of them and feel the pain of that moment.
Then comes the phone call or the knock on the door from the journalist. Then the questions. The victim's reaction can vary, but any journalist knows that a good interview involves an outpouring of emotion.
What can happen is what I call "The Wall Effect." Like a tennis ball thrown against a wall, the victim's emotion, all that grief, can bounce back and absorb the person facing the victims -- the journalist.
The effect causes the journalist to feel the victim's pain and loss. The isolation. The guilt feelings. The separation from family members or friends who have died in the past or the anxiety that family members may be lost in the future. Then comes the loss of sleep and the increased feelings of stress.
Journalists usually first encounter the wall of grief at the beginning of their careers. With little or no training, they are assigned the police beat. They learn and gain experience by covering one tragedy. Then another. Then another.
Victims' coverage becomes a repetitive part of journalists' careers that builds into more than just memories.
"The way I look at it is you sort of gather this human obligation,'' journalist Julian Borger, who covered the Bosnian war, told The Washington Post. "You accumulate it. You take this human obligation on your shoulders and do nothing with it except to write out your story. It may be a wonderful story, but that doesn't account for the personal notion of the cumulative obligation on your shoulders. You're left with all this accumulated guilt. It's like a crust you carry about."
That crust can grow by covering mass tragedies in Bosnia or crimes at a local or statewide paper. A journalist who has been with The Oklahoman for more than 20 years may have covered or been involved in the coverage of hundreds of victims. The Oklahoma City bombing, the Edmond Post Office massacre, the Sirloin Stockade and Girl Scout murders, other multiple killings and many other crimes. All tragic. All with
Thirteen years ago, I covered a triple murder at Wynn's IGA in Edmond. Three Wynn's employees were herded into a stockroom early July 3, 1985, and shot at close range. Several hours after I had started covering the killings for The Oklahoman, I learned the victims' names. One was night manager Rick Cast. I hadn't realized until then that Rick, who was a fellow journalism student at Central State University, had taken the job six months earlier to save money so he could open a photography business.
One sidebar that I wrote about the killings included quotes from a friend who said Rick had talked about dying the day before his death. He had said that several of his relatives had died when they were 34. Rick was only five days from his 34th birthday.
Whether it is a mass tragedy or a friend's death, any journalist can suffer from a "Wall Effect."
Cratis Hippocrates, group editorial training manager for Fairfax Publications in Australia, and Dr. Gary Embelton, Queensland University of Technology's head of psychology programs, have studied what happened to journalists who covered a tsunami that hit Papua New Guinea on July 17. The tidal wave killed about 3,000 people.
In a speech at Michigan State University, Hippocrates said, "Trauma in the newsroom exists. It's a real thing." He believes journalists, especially news managers, have difficulty in dealing with that trauma.
"Journalists have a history of denial. There is a perception that you are unprofessional if 'you can't handle it,' '' said Hippocrates, who supervises training at The Sydney Morning Herald and other papers. "Journalists claim they are unaffected to their colleagues. But this false bravado takes its toll."
That's probably what happened to war correspondent Ernie Pyle.
In his story, Washington Post staff writer Paul Hendrickson explained what biographer James Tobin meant in naming his book "Ernie Pyle's War."
"The title refers to two wars: the one he chronicled for millions of American readers stateside, and the one that steel-wooled his insides. The amount of death Pyle saw added up to his own genocide and holocaust."
So much that Pyle predicted to friends that he would die after he arrived in the Pacific in early 1945. Before he was killed by a Japanese machine gunner on April 18, 1945, Pyle wrote: "I've been immersed in it too long. My spirit is wobbly and my mind is confused. The hurt has become too great."
Pyle's example shows what "The Wall Effect" can do to journalists, whether they cover war victims or a victim of a killing in Oklahoma City.
What news managers or editors can do during coverage of a disaster or tragedy:
- Offer meals to reporters and editors during first days or weeks of coverage. Then gradually end these so they will be encouraged to go elsewhere -- a return to their own normalcy.
- Ask and listen. Ask if they have problems and then listen. Encourage them to talk to others who have faced similar situations. And, send e-mails or memos that offer: encouragement; reminders; what day and date it is; tips to alleviate stress; letters and notes from readers.
- Let reporters say "no." I remembered that the next day after the Wynn's IGA murders, Ed Kelley, then a city editor of The Oklahoman (later the National Press Foundation's Editor of the Year), called me early July 4 to ask whether I wanted to cover the arrest of two men in connection with the Wynn's killings. I had just awakened after working 17 hours the day before. After pausing for a few moments, I asked Ed if it would be OK if I didn't cover the arrests. He said OK and assigned another reporter to the coverage.
- Let reporters take breaks. Allow them time to get away from the coverage. To participate in a family gathering. To do a hobby. To attend a sports event. To simply get away. Also, some driven reporters must be ordered to take a day off.
- Encourage staffers to do things to help themselves. Post reminders about relieving stress. Then offer counseling and even group debriefing. Many professions, including police and firefighters, offer debriefing sessions and counseling.
- Know your limits. If you've been given a troublesome assignment, politely express your concerns to your supervisor. Tell the supervisor that you may not be the best person for the assignment. Explain why.
- Take breaks for yourself. A few minutes or a few hours away from the situation may help relieve your stress.
- Find someone who is a sensitive listener. It can be an editor or a peer, but you must trust that the listener will not pass judgment on you. Perhaps it is someone who has faced a similar experience.
- Learn how to deal with your stress.
- Attend functions that teach you about how to deal with stress or with victims' coverage. Oftentimes you can hear advice that will help you deal with your situation.
- Attend a church, find a hobby, or exercise -- or all three. These can be effective for your mental and physical well-being.
5. If your problems become overwhelming, seek counseling from a professional.
REMEMBER, Take Care of Yourself
From Sue Hale and Joe Hight of The Daily Oklahoman
- Get away from your desk and take brief breaks. Look outside to see that the sun is shining and life continues.
- Try deep breathing. The Eastern Connecticut Health Network recommends that you "take a long, slow, deep breath to the count of five, then exhale slowly to the count of five. Imagine breathing out excess tension and breathing in relaxation."
- Talk to a person that you trust about how you're feeling during these times. It can be an editor, a peer or spouse, but you must trust that the listener will not pass judgment on you. Perhaps it is someone who has faced a similar experience.
- Exercise. Twenty minutes of walking and other forms of exercise can be great stress reducers.
- Listen to music. Do your favorite hobby. Go to church. Laugh. Do something that relaxes you or provides you with relief from the pressures.
- Eat right, the most difficult thing to do for any journalist. Foods high in protein or vitamins A, B, or C can help reduce stress. And, yes, the experts say the coffee and doughnuts that we've been chugging down really don't help. (However, they're great in the morning, if you didn't get enough sleep. Oh, that could be another tip: If you can, get enough sleep.)
- As Oklahoma City counselor Charlotte Lankard, who provided counseling to The Oklahoman's newsroom after the 1995 bombing and 1999 tornadoes, advises: "Write about it. Talk about it. Cry about it." However, if your problems become overwhelming, seek counseling from a professional.
Your Community is Important, Too
From Sue Hale and Joe Hight of The Daily Oklahoman
Readers and viewers need outlets to provide help and get help. They need forums to vent their feelings. They need hope in times of turmoil.
Dr. Frank Ochberg, chairman of the Dart Center for Journalism & Trauma's Executive Committee, says: "Journalists and therapists face similar challenges when they realize their subjects are at risk of further injury. Techniques may differ, but objectives are the same: to inform about sources of help."
Here are four tips that may help you cover your community after a tragedy:
- Use your newspaper and website to provide forums on what people are thinking, words of encouragement, etc.; offer lists for ways people can help and how they have helped (acts of kindness).
- Find ways people are helping and report on them throughout the recovery process. (This provides hope for the community.)
- Write "Profiles of Life" about the victims. These can be short stories about the victims' lives, their favorite hobbies, what made them special. In many cases, victims' relatives want to talk when they realize that the reporter is writing a "Profile of Life." Some may lead to bigger stories, too.
- Establish policies that affect your coverage: For example, consider coverage of public memorial services for the victims, instead of private funerals. And, if you do cover private services, call the funeral home to ensure that you will not intrude.