Journalists Suffering Trauma: Advice from a Professional
Editors and news directors must pay close attention to the impact this tragedy has on their journalists as they cover these horrific stories. Journalists "face the same dangers first responders face, which is the exposure to trauma," says Dr. Martin Cohen a clinical psychologist in Tampa, Fla.. Cohen works with emergency services professionals including law enforcement officers, firefighters, and medical personnel.
Newsroom leaders, particularly those in cities where terrorists hit, must recognize that journalists are not immune to trauma even as they go about their reporting roles.
"Journalists are potential secondary victims because of the nature of their work," Dr. Cohen says, and journalists 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," Cohen says.
I talked with Dr. Cohen on the afternoon of the terrorism.
Bob Steele: What dangers do journalists face in covering a story like this one?
Dr. Cohen: The mere exposure to someone else's trauma can in-and-of itself is traumatic. There are a whole array of symptoms- physical, cognitive, and emotional--that affect a significant portion of people who are exposed to something traumatic.
Steele: What are some of those symptoms?
Cohen: Physical reactions are things like exhaustion, exaggerated startled reactions, nightmares, a whole range of health problems like headaches, digestive system, chills, and dizziness. Typically the closer you are to ground zero the more impacted you are. The more exposure, the more likelihood of symptoms.
Steele: What should editors and news directors in New York City and Washington, in particular, do to make sure their staff members deal appropriately with the trauma?
Cohen: To give people the permission to have these emotional and physical and cognitive reactions and to have some opportunity to talk about them when they return from the field. My bias is to recommend a formal kind of debriefing, but if that is not available then at least an opportunity to sit down and talk with someone to get off their chest and their mind what they have been exposed to.
Steele: How soon should these intervention efforts take place?
Cohen:They can be almost immediate if people are feeling symptoms immediately. Typically, it's not until 24 hours before people begin to feel some things, largely because people have some good defense mechanisms and are in denial or shock. So it's not often until the next day when sleeplessness and nightmares kick in. Or they find the next day they are having difficulty concentrating or making decisions. Or they start feeling guilty or oversensitive. Or they experience numbing or depression, helplessness, anger. Those are among the normal reactions normal people have to this kind of abnormal event.
Steele: What about those newsroom leaders far away from New York City and Washington?
Cohen: They will probably be less affected though the scenes of devastation are pretty impactful. In the next few days when we start seeing bodies and body parts pulled from these buildings it will affect everybody.
Steele: How can an individual journalist deal with this?
Cohen: Find someone to talk to as well as some periods for some strenuous exercise to alleviate some of the physical symptoms. It's a good idea to try to keep their lives as normal as possible. Structure your time. Keep busy. Be aware and stay away from chemicals. Even though it might seem like a good idea., typically it's not. Spend time with other people and co-workers who have been exposed--a sense of support. Helping someone else often has a healing effect. It's also a good time to pamper oneself and do things that feel good because people have been through a significant trauma. It's important to eat even if you don't feel hungry.
Steele: What else is important?
Cohen: A few days or few weeks following exposure to an incident like this is not a good time to make any big changes or life decisions because we are not thinking clearly. Our concentration to think clearly is impaired. So much of our mental energy is on guard duty holding back emotions that our mental energy is compromised. It's like a battery with five light bulbs attached to it. If you try to start your car with that battery, all those light bulbs will get dimmer.
Dr. Cohen says "journalists are injected with a poison, a certain kind of energy that can affect you if you don't deal with it," when exposed to a trauma. He says there is a "window of opportunity between 24 and 72 hours after exposure" to do some kind of debriefing. It is during that critical time, he says, when one "has the opportunity to get that poison out of your system."
Dr. Martin Cohen is a clinical psychologist in Tampa, Fla., who often works with victims of trauma. For the past 15 years he has also been the director of the Tampa Bay region Critical Incident Stress Management Team, assisting professionals in the field of emergency services. Dr. Cohen can be reached at MDCohenPhD@aol.com or by phone at (813) 988-6557.