May 25, 2022

My wife, who is a therapist, and I have spoken to so many journalists in the last month who are hurting, usually quietly and often privately, as they cover mass shootings, one after another. When the higher death count in Texas became public, a news director friend wrote to me, “I can’t believe we are doing this again.”

Sidney and I can’t stop the grief, but we can offer some ways to work through it.

We will not be surprised when an increasing number of calls come from journalists who suffer from what psychologists call “moral injury.” That is a condition that is commonly associated with feelings of guilt.

We will not be surprised when we hear from journalists who wonder if we are doing more harm than good by blanket covering mass shootings. Journalists often tell us they wonder if they should approach the families of victims. They wonder if journalism matters anymore.

Clinical studies are clear that the more that journalists believe that they are doing important work, the more quickly they can heal from the traumatic stress of what they have witnessed. I can not stress this enough: You are doing important work. Do not let deaths go undocumented. Journalists document and report truth. Others set policy and make decisions based on that documentation. Journalism matters. Your work matters. You matter.

Realize that the fact that you are still moved by another mass shooting is, in an almost perverse way, a good sign that your emotions have not shut down. Emotional detachment is your body’s way of telling you that you have stopped coping with the reality that somebody has killed schoolchildren or opened fire on a neighborhood supermarket. If your emotions have gone cold, get professional help. Now. It is not only a matter of mental health; emotional detachment leads to some of the worst journalistic decisions. You will ask questions, air or publish videos and photos, or approach people in unfeeling ways that seem normal to you.

Realize that it is not just people who are at the scene of these horrific events that suffer traumatic injuries. Research is increasingly convincing that producers, online editors and photo editors who are exposed to repeated images and hours of video and audio also suffer traumatic stress. Repetitive emotional injury is real. Bosses have to recognize that they must pay attention to everyone in the newsroom, not just the people working in the field.

Make it safe to talk about your feelings. Sidney and I often hear from younger journalists and female journalists who say they are reluctant to talk about traumatic stress because they fear they will be judged as too tender and weak. So they hold it in. When more senior members of your staff are open about their stress symptoms, it makes it safer for others to talk openly.

Check on your coworkers. Don’t wait for the boss to check on everyone. Bosses can be reluctant to ask workers how they are feeling because they want to respect people’s privacy. Check on your coworkers. Quiet does not mean OK. Sometimes the best approach is just to say, “I am feeling wiped out by all of this. How are you doing?” Then shut up and listen. Resist the temptation to fix their problems or tell them things will get better or could be worse. This is not the time to tell them exactly how they feel. Just listen.

It is not uncommon for journalists to feel vicarious trauma. After a mass shooting that involves small children, therapists like Sidney often hear from clients who have children themselves and are devastated by the idea of losing a child. Vicarious trauma also affects journalists who come to know the people they are covering. They feel the pain they are reporting about. It is a signal that journalists truly connect with the people they cover. But be aware that you may and likely will feel a loss, too. You will need time to heal from that.

Traumatic stress can sneak up on you. Just when you think you have worked through it, you will be reminded of the pain again. Sidney and I hear stories from New York reporters who can’t stand to hear bagpipes because it reminds them of the hundreds of 9/11 funerals they experienced. I know a journalist who covered the mass shooting in Las Vegas and is reminded of that day when she smells burning tires because it prompts memories of the scent of screeching police cars arriving at the shooting scene.

When you are going to cover another funeral, speak to another grieving family or cover an anniversary event, be aware that it will hurt. Prepare yourself and at least the pain won’t be a surprise.

Everyone deals with stress and trauma differently. Some people will want to talk about it. Others need quiet and solitude. Some of your coworkers will soldier through the next few days but, in a week or two, the weight of the work will crash down. Everyone deals with stress and trauma differently.

As a therapist, Sidney often advises people suffering from traumatic stress to write down — actually take a pen and write down — a list of things they are feeling. Then she asks them to write down some things they are grateful for. Gratitude is healing. Feeling gratitude allows us to see the good around us. It is not whitewashing the pain, but it is adding some perspective.

When you are feeling particularly stressed, just doing something kind for another person can be healing. It does not have to be a big dramatic act. Hold a door open, say something genuinely caring to a stranger, donate blood or drop a note to a person who could use encouragement. I know a senior photographer who has a bulletin board filled with notes of encouragement written by coworkers over the years and she says it lifts her on bad days.

Journalists tell Sidney and me that they are less likely lately to talk about their work with family members and friends. Journalists who used to proudly wear shirts and jackets with company logos on them don’t anymore to avoid confrontation or questions. Your families worry about you when you do not communicate what you are feeling. Avoidance leaves loved ones guessing about why you feel the way you do. When you share your feelings, it sends a signal that you trust them with your vulnerabilities.

Be particularly aware of the signals you send to your children when they know you are covering difficult stories. They will learn how to deal with stresses in their life by watching you.

Journalists, these are tough days. A recent study by the Reuters Institute compared the traumatic stress that journalists experienced during COVID-19 to what first responders experience. But there is a key difference. First responders usually work in teams, while many of you work alone these days. First responders get to an emergency and then leave. You stay on the scene for days. You are there for funerals and meet the families of victims. You feel the criticism that you are sensationalizing their loss. You are first responders … and last responders.

You are vital.

You are human.

The stress is real. Look out for each other and be easy on yourself.

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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
Sidney is a licensed psychotherapist with more than 40 years of clinical experience. She and her husband, Poynter senior faculty Al Tompkins, have worked with…
Sidney Tompkins

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  • Thank you, Al and Sidney, for this. Some vitally important reminders to share around.