January 27, 2023

Late Thursday night, I exchanged messages with an anxious, sleep-deprived broadcast journalist friend in Memphis, who is awaiting the release of the graphic video of Tyre Nichols being beaten by Memphis police officers.

My friend told me about the dread that journalists feel at moments like this when they know they are about to spend days watching horrific video over and over. They know that they will be speaking with grieving family and friends. They know that journalists will eventually become targets of public criticism because they “won’t leave it alone,” and when public protests begin, they will become targets of frustrated police.

My wife — psychotherapist Sidney Tompkins — and I have spoken with thousands of journalists worldwide during and after moments like this. We have talked to journalists after mass shootings, hurricanes, floods and violent demonstrations, and have worked with journalists working in war zones and living in refugee camps. Last year alone we conducted more than 30 workshops about managing journalism stress and trauma, and we have learned some things about what is ahead for the journalists covering Nichols’ death.

MORE FROM POYNTER: Video of Memphis police’s ‘excessive force’ against Tyre Nichols is coming. What should news outlets show?

Repetitious injury is real.

You will likely watch the video of officers beating Nichols many times. You will watch with headphones on to discern what is being said. You will analyze every second of the more than three minutes of horror. Seeing those images once will traumatize you, just as they traumatize the public. But you will not have the luxury to turn away.

After the Jan. 6 insurrection, a video editor told Sidney and me that hours upon hours of editing video of an angry mob left those images burned into his mind. He said he was not sleeping and felt constantly edgy and angry, which was totally out of character for him. We have heard similar stories from producers, photo editors and online editors who watch and edit graphic images over and over, sometimes for days or longer.

Realize that the trauma of seeing graphic images occurs not just when you first experience the images, but every new exposure is a potential new injurious moment. You keep opening the emotional wounds.

How to manage it: Recognize that what you are feeling is real and normal. Recognize that journalists who are not on the street gathering the video and talking to people closest to the story may also experience traumatic stress. Recognize that watching or hearing graphic images over and over may be overwhelming.

Take breaks to reset your emotions. Surround yourself with reminders of what “normal” looks like to you. Soldiers and emergency workers sometimes put photos of loved ones in their helmets to remind them why their work matters. Bosses must pay attention to the mental health of everyone in the newsroom, not just the people working in the field.

Moral injury is common for journalists.

Moral injury is commonly associated with a sense of guilt. Sidney and I often hear journalists who feel a sense of guilt that they are covering people in pain but they, themselves, feel that they are somehow benefitting from the tragedy. They make a living covering tragedy.

Journalists covering the mass murder in Uvalde, Texas, told us they felt a sense of guilt that they spent the day talking with families who lost children when they could go home to their families. We spoke with journalists covering hurricane victims who lost everything, but they felt guilty that they could go to a home that was unharmed.

How to manage it: Recognize that your work matters. Researchers have found that people who work in traumatic situations recover faster and more completely when they see that there is a reason to endure the horrific moments. It is when you no longer believe that journalism matters that you begin to think that what you are doing is opportunistic and exploitive.

Journalists must recognize emotional detachment.

I worry most about journalists who cover traumatic events and tell me that they don’t feel a thing. Emotional detachment is your body’s way of telling you that you have stopped coping with reality. I am most concerned about journalists who can watch graphic video and claim to be coldly professional.

Of course, you have to do your job professionally and calmly. We expect that from emergency medical technicians and doctors and police. But when any of us no longer feels normal human emotion to tragedy, that’s when the troubles begin.

How to manage it: 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.

It is not uncommon for journalists to feel vicarious trauma.

I cannot count the times that Black journalists have told Sidney and me how seeing even still-frame images of George Floyd on the ground at his dying moment is deeply traumatic. We have heard countless stories from Black journalists who say just seeing that image or hearing Floyd’s cry for help reminds them of the terror they have felt while being pulled over by a police officer, or the fear they feel when a patrol car shows up in their rearview mirror. As a white male, they helped me to understand how unnecessary exposure to such images can be even more harmful to people who closely identify with the subjects they are covering.

After a mass shooting that involves small children, therapists like Sidney often hear from journalists 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.

How to manage it: Listen to your colleagues. Be a noticer. Make it safe to talk about mental health. Newsroom leaders, both formal and informal leaders, set a tone for how your newsroom values open conversation about difficult subjects. Journalism can be a macho and lonely craft, especially while so many journalists no longer work in newsrooms surrounded by coworkers.

Reach out to colleagues. Silence does not necessarily mean everything is fine. I have heard about newsroom leaders who schedule routine mental health checks with journalists who are covering traumatic stories.

Your body keeps score.

Just before the pandemic, Sidney and I met a photojournalist who had been suffering from convulsions. Twice he fell to the ground convulsing while on assignment. After our managing trauma workshop, he sought medical help and learned he was suffering from psychogenic nonepileptic seizures. The Epilepsy Foundation says almost a fifth of patients who show up at epilepsy clinics have PNES. And PNES are often associated with overwhelming stress and trauma.

Our photojournalist friend said his doctors told him that years of covering mass shootings, racial unrest and everyday news awfulness had taken a toll on his mental health that he had not dealt with until his body demanded attention.

How to manage it: Sidney says we are nicer to our toasters and vacuum sweepers than we are to ourselves. “At least we unplug them when we are not using them,” she says. “When do journalists unplug?”

Perhaps you share my terrible habit of checking your emails and texts just before you try to go to sleep. Maybe, like me, you check them again when you wake up, or maybe even during the night. Are you reading disturbing news before you go to bed? Maybe, like me, you watch late news then try to sleep? Before I married Sidney, I slept with a police scanner in my bedroom.

You must unplug. When you are off work, be off. Take your vacation time. Bosses, stop sending late-night emails unless they are truly urgent.

When I teach in-person journalism workshops, one of the most stressful parts of the day for participants is when I force them to take an hour to eat lunch without talking about journalism. We joke that some are more comfortable eating at their desk or wolfing down a sandwich in their news car. Normal people unplug. Normal people eat lunch away from their desk. Unplug.

MORE FROM POYNTER: 25 guidelines for journalists to safely cover unrest

Dr. Tara Swart, an MIT professor, studied stress among journalists and found some interesting results:

  • Journalists are undoubtedly subject to a range of pressures at work and home, but the meaning and purpose they attribute to their work contributes to helping them remain mentally resilient despite this.
  • Less than 5% of the journalists drank enough water each day and higher-than-recommended weekly levels of alcohol were consumed, which contributed to poor recovery levels during sleep. On an individual level, where high quantities of caffeine were consumed, this correlated with higher reported stress and physical manifestations of stress (increased heart rate variability and higher cortisol levels). As a group, the journalists also exhibited lower executive functioning scores than the average person, indicating a lower than average ability to regulate emotions, suppress biases, solve complex problems, switch between tasks, and think flexibly and creatively. It is likely that the levels of caffeine/alcohol and the lack of water consumed contributed to the low scores recorded for executive functioning because of the severe impact of dehydration on cognitive ability.
  • Older journalists exhibited less stress than their under 35 year old counterparts and had better recovery data, indicating higher levels of resilience. The conclusion is that older journalists were better able to endure stress and bounce back from pressure, indicating that this can be developed over time.

Perhaps nobody has studied stress and journalists more than Dr. Anthony Feinstein, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Toronto who has been talking with journalists for nearly three decades. He wrote about a conversation he had with a frontline war correspondent who had become progressively more emotionally distressed until she had what he described as a “major breakdown.” Dr. Feinstein wrote:

She did really well in therapy. She made a full recovery, and I remember saying to her at the time, “Why had you not reached out for help earlier? You know, you work for a large news organization — you knew that you were getting into trouble. Why did you not ask for assistance?”

And she said to me: “You don’t understand my profession. If I had told my manager I was feeling this way, they would not have sent me out into the field again and my career as a frontline correspondent would have been over.”

Sidney and I often end our workshops by telling journalists that research shows that one way to manage stress and trauma is to be generous and grateful to others. Multiple academic studies have documented how giving thanks can make you happier.

I am grateful for the brave public servant police officers who do their job professionally every day and who will have tough days ahead because they will be lumped in with the accused. I am thankful for journalists who spend endless days and sleepless nights covering horrific news that we all need to know but would not want to experience ourselves.

I am not asking for public sympathy for journalists who are covering Nichols’ death. I am asking journalists to be aware of how they are feeling in the days ahead. Check on your colleagues. Listen more than you talk. Unplug when you can.

You will do your jobs with courage and care. Your work matters.

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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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