How journalists can take care of themselves while covering trauma

Journalists can't properly cover trauma if they're suffering themselves — here's a guide to self-care

May 29, 2019

The replies to Jareen Imam’s tweet were a hundred deep by the time she got home, 14 hours after a gunman attacked The Capital Gazette newspaper.

They wanted her dead. Knew where she lived. Where her mom lived, they wrote.

Imam, director of social newsgathering at NBC News, was one of the first to reach out to Gazette intern Anthony Messenger after his Twitter SOS from the Annapolis, Maryland, newsroom.

Then came the hate.

Imam spent the day covering the fatal shooting and checking in to make sure her weary team of “digital first responders” stayed afloat. She stopped to take a walk. Grief for fellow journalists was a constant.

“This isn’t the first time we’ve covered a horrible mass shooting situation, but it was different in that it was journalists being attacked,” Imam said in a recent interview.

She’s used to dealing with stress and trauma as just another part of the job. But at home in her New York apartment, she was finally able to breathe — and take extra measures to protect herself.

Like first responders, journalists need to ensure their own well-being to be effective in their jobs. Coping strategies are crucial in the face of persistent pressures.

And more and more, journalists are being open about mental health.

In March 2019, Los Angeles Times reporter Sonali Kohli’s Twitter thread about self-care and taking time off to deal with secondary trauma struck a chord with thousands of users.

CNN’s Anderson Cooper led national discourse around suicide. Well-known journalist, correspondent and author Sebastian Junger has been open about his post-traumatic stress disorder.  

“If we really believe in the importance of our work in journalism and our responsibility to the communities we cover, we need a responsible self-care plan,” said Bruce Shapiro, executive director of Columbia Journalism School’s Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma.

I heard from almost 20 journalists via Facebook, email and phone, all willing to share how they’ve coped or wanting to hear more about how others do.

Here is a roundup of how they look out for themselves and their teams.

 

Don’t underestimate the power of a good therapist. There’s a reason this is first on the list. If you had a chronic illness, you’d treat it regularly. Our brains need care and attention, too.

“If you’re finding yourself changed in ways that are interfering with life or work, don’t wait for it to go away,” Shapiro said. “Talk to a qualified counselor or therapist.”

 

Find out if the company you work for has resources. If you haven’t gotten training on handling trauma, ask about it.

If your newsroom hasn’t communicated safety protocol, ask about it.

If you want to be proactive, The Dart Center has a wealth of resources on trauma, self-care and peer support.

Many news organizations also have employee assistance programs that can connect you with mental health resources before, during or after the fact.

If those resources aren’t widely communicated or offered, ask. Therapy dogs? Yes, please.

 

There’s more to life — and us — than news. Too often, we breathe, eat and sleep journalism and the news. It’s part of our identity, the fabric of who we are.

It is relentless, this steady diet of often-toxic social media content, notifications, images, crises, competition and platforms in an industry shifting under our feet.

In its own way, the work sustains us, but it can also blind us to its true impact on our health, said Thomas Curwen, staff writer at the Los Angeles Times.

So what can you do beyond work? What can help you breathe?

It’s yoga, guided meditation and getting lost in Bravo reality shows for Katy Huggins, digital content manager at FOX23 in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

Think about an outlet that works for you.

“If you look out for yourself, you’ll be a better watchdog for the folks you cover,” said Heath Druzin, Boise State Public Radio’s Guns & America reporter, who has covered wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

 

Lean on your village. Conflict or crime might not be your beat, but sooner or later you’ll be involved in covering a traumatic story.

Have a few trusted colleagues with whom you can decompress and talk about how you’re feeling. If a friend is covering a difficult story, check in to see how they’re doing.

“Reporters need to rely on one another to help them through difficult assignments,” said Curwen, a Rosalynn Carter Fellow for Mental Health Journalism.

Having a friend tell her when she’s acting out of character has been helpful for Kim Bui, director of audience innovation at The Arizona Republic.

We hold the powerful accountable, let’s do the same for each other, too.

 

Pay attention to your body. Tension is real. Try exercising to tap into those mood-lifting endorphins. It doesn’t have to be intense.

Even using a standing desk, going for a short walk, holding walking meetings, stretching or taking deep breaths helps.

As elusive as a healthy meal, sleep and staying hydrated can seem in the thick of it, remember that your body needs fuel and rest when it’s in distress.

 

But pay attention to your mind, too. The mind and body are connected. When you don’t take care of the former, the latter shuts down.

Kohli talked about this in her mental health Twitter thread — how she got sicker than she had in years and her body “went on strike.”

Multiple journalists I talked to felt that their own trauma almost didn’t seem legitimate compared to what the people in their stories went through.

And yes, it’s hard to step back and really think about the personal impact a story or consecutive stories may have had. But don’t fall into the trap.

Your stress levels, your feelings and your trauma are real and they need to be addressed. Do a quick self-check-in for burnout or depression.

  • Are you isolating yourself instead of connecting with friends or family?
  • Are you not enjoying the things you usually do?
  • Is your rest fitful?
  • Do you spontaneously cry?
  • Is it hard to concentrate?
  • Has your productivity slipped?
  • Do you dread going into work?
  • Do you feel disillusioned about work?
  • What’s your body telling you?

If putting it in a work context helps, here’s a gem from Druzin: “Figuring out how pain and trauma affect you means you’ll have that much of a better understanding of how it’s affecting the people you cover.”

 

All coping mechanisms are not created equal. It’s easy to reach for readily available donuts and newsroom pizza or fall into overindulging in alcohol or other stimulants just to feel — or not feel — but it’s no good for your physical or mental health in the long run.

Instead, Hannah Storm, director and CEO of the Ethical Journalism Network, identifies “islands” or activities she looks forward to and swims toward when she feels like she’s drowning, like road trips and date nights.

 

Look out for your team. “You wouldn’t send a reporter to cover Congress who doesn’t know how a bill becomes law,” said Shapiro with Dart. “Why would we cover a crime or disaster or war with no knowledge of trauma?”

Boise State Public Radio’s Druzin recommends laying the groundwork when someone joins the organization so they’re trained in trauma, they know their wellbeing is important and they understand where to get help.  

It’s not just for journalists who cover harrowing assignments or mass shootings, he added. “Ordinary” beats that involve car wrecks or courts or social media take their toll, too.  

Acknowledge difficult situations as well as your team’s hard work. Check in. Point employees to the right resources. Make it clear that getting help won’t affect their professional standing. Consider being flexible with hours and time off after tough breaking news.

And acknowledge coverage that inevitably impacts certain groups in your newsroom as they process emotions to produce fair, accurate stories that serve the community.

Covering race as a person of color or consuming it in the news is heavy with collective trauma. Likewise, immigration for an immigrant reporter, LGBTQ rights for LGBTQ journalists, being a woman in the news. The list goes on.

They could be facing gendered and racial attacks or attempts to discredit their reputations because of the topics they cover, said Dr. Michelle Ferrier, dean of the School of Journalism & Graphic Communication at Florida Agricultural & Mechanical University.

The cultural environment itself also can be emotionally draining.

“It’s a double whammy,” said Ferrier, who also founded TrollBusters, a service that supports the targets of online harassment and combats trolling.  

Overseeing story progress is just part of the job. Taking time to listen and speak to team members’ personal concerns is important, too, Curwen said.

“Your job isn’t to diagnose,” Shapiro said, “but you can encourage folks to get confidential support if they need it.”

Rotate heavy assignments whenever possible. Look out for changes in newsroom performance in the aftermath of traumatic assignments like missed deadlines, more people calling out sick or conflict among team members.

Druzin said he remembered reporting on a series of tragedies as a cub reporter covering night cops in Boise, Idaho.

He was hurting and he didn’t say a word. But his editor knew and she made sure he got a break from tragedy for a while.

“I needed it and as a guy in my mid-20s who fancied himself emotionally bullet-proof, I wouldn’t have asked,” said Druzin, a Rosalynn Carter Fellow for Mental Health Journalism.

 

Managers, be the change. Be mindful that you’re setting an example. Are you taking care of yourself, too? Are you emailing staff at odd hours?

It’s OK to talk openly about your own self-care and supporting your team’s mental health.

After the shootings at two Christchurch mosques in New Zealand, Radio New Zealand’s head of digital content Megan Whelan was open about how hard it might be to cope and told her team she’d be going to counseling.

“I try to speak to everyone individually when covering stressful or traumatic news, just to hear how people are doing and remind them they can always come to me for help or just to connect,” said Imam of NBC News.

 

You are not immune. My social feeds are full of self-care conversations, mostly from women and LGBTQ journalists.  

And it could just be who I’m connected to, but Shapiro said male news professionals are socialized to avoid expressing emotion or showing vulnerability.

“That adds a layer of challenge in facing up to the need to take care of ourselves,” he said.

But Shapiro also noted that many respected male journalists like Cooper, Junger and other local or regional editors continue to show real leadership in trauma awareness.

“It shows courage to ask for help,” Druzin said.

 

Make small changes. Think of self-care as a mental and emotional exercise. It doesn’t have to be fancy or take up a lot of time.

Bui at The Arizona Republic keeps a folder of cute photos and GIFs. A Slack channel for adorable animals works for Rachel Wise, regional editor of video and audio for McClatchy.

What’s one thing that makes you happy? Try to do that thing for an extra 10 minutes every day, especially on hard days.

“There will always be more journalism to do and the world needs us to focus on problems and uncover ‘bad’ things, but the world also needs solutions and light — and we have needs to tell those stories as humans, too,” said Kelsey Proud, managing editor of digital at WAMU 88.5 in Washington, D.C.

 

Additional help: Resources for journalists

 

 

Kari Cobham is the senior associate director for The Rosalynn Carter Fellowships for Mental Health Journalism at The Carter Center. She’s an award-winning journalist who has spent the past several years at the intersection of product and content for Cox Media Group newsrooms. You can follow her @KariWrites and fellows’ mental health reporting @CarterFellows.