Journalists and Trauma: Secondary Victims
Dr. Martin Cohen is a psychologist in Tampa, Florida, who often works with victims of trauma. Among those individuals he assists are professionals in the field of emergency services--law enforcement officers, firefighters, medical personnel, and other first responders to critical incidents and crisis.
Dr. Cohen says journalists are vulnerable to the same types of traumatic stress given the nature of their work. He urges editors and news managers to be aware of the very difficult situation that reporters and photographers face in covering stories about tragedy. He says "journalists are potential secondary victims because of the nature of their work," and they can suffer from some form of post-traumatic-stress-syndrome after they cover a tragedy or crisis.
"Recognize that to be exposed to tragedy is traumatic. Your heart is exposed even if you are looking through a lens."
Dr. Cohen suggests it is best for journalists who have covered a tragedy to share their trauma with others. "You are injected with a poison--a certain kind of energy that can affect you for a long time if you don't deal with it."
He says that when individuals are exposed to a trauma there is a "window of opportunity between 24 and 72 hours after exposure" to do some kind of de-briefing. It is during that critical time, he says, when one "has the opportunity to get that poison out of your system."
Dr. Cohen says photographers are especially vulnerable to delayed trauma. "Photojournalists tend to be more like cops and other first responders when covering tragedy. There's a tendency at first to deny symptoms. After 24-hours post-incident the symptoms set in--physical, emotional, behavioral, cognitive, hyper-sensitivity to anything."
He says it is essential for photojournalists and reporters, and especially their managers, to be aware of these trauma factors and to show appropriate concern. In the absence of such concern the problems only magnify.
"After 72-hours people start compensating in some way for the symptoms, by drinking or escaping in some other way."
Dr. Cohen also believes that newsroom managers have a responsibility in assigning stories about tragedy to recognize which staff members are best equipped to cover stories as both storytellers and human beings. "Managers must themselves have compassion so they can recognize it in others. Even experienced managers need to discern over time how their people handle stories."