September 1, 2002

Journalists from New York to the heart of America are trying to cope with the trauma of the last week. Reporters, photojournalists, engineers, soundmen, and field producers often work elbow to elbow with emergency workers. Journalists’ symptoms of traumatic stress are remarkably similar to those of police officers and firefighters who work in the immediate aftermath of tragedy, yet journalists typically receive little support after they file their stories. While public-safety workers are offered debriefings and counseling after a trauma, journalists are merely assigned another story.

A newly formed organization has started with the goal of helping journalists who experience trauma in the course of their work. You can read about it at:

This group conducted an extensive program at the National Press Photographers Association national convention in Memphis this summer. That program, for many, underscored the need for trauma training to become far more accessible and routine.

The Dart Center conducted a survey among journalists that shows the longer a person works as a journalist the more likely that person is to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder:

Dart now has a bulletin board for conversations about this topic:

This story is not over by a long shot. Our airwaves and papers and websites will be filled for months with stories of grief, fear and anxiety. Make it safe, in your newsroom, to have conversations about sadness. Be sure your Human Resources department is clued in to the need to have ready resources for your colleagues, including those who do not work in the field, to be able to get the help they need.

It is normal for you to be sad as anyone else would be. Producers and directors spend endless hours staring at a wall full of monitors filled with tragic pictures and wonder why they feel depressed. Photo editors scan thousands of horror-filled images. Videotape editors search through miles of tape of gruesome scenes every day. Reporters, even those a thousand miles from the rescue scene, talk with anxious families of the missing or dead.

I recommend that you NOT go home after a long shift and watch more coverage. Find some balance and spirituality. Watch children play in a park. A reporter friend of mine went to a baby ward to watch new life being born.

Journalists, I think it is important for your to remember what they tell you when you board an airplane. Remember the speech the flight attendants give. They tell you “in the event that the cabin loses pressure, a mask will drop from a compartment above your head. Secure your mask to your face and breathe normally, oxygen will flow even if the bag does not inflate. Put YOUR mask on first before you try to assist anyone else, including children sitting near you.”

It is a metaphor to help you through the days ahead. Put your mask on first. Then help your community through these trying days.


Stress and the Press:

Trauma and the Press:

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and Journalists:

Coping with Stress and Covering Horror, from American Journalism Review:

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Al Tompkins is one of America's most requested broadcast journalism and multimedia teachers and coaches. After nearly 30 years working as a reporter, photojournalist, producer,…
Al Tompkins

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