March 15, 2020

I have been hearing from journalists who are stressed out by this nonstop COVID-19 coverage.

Journalists tell me they spend all day talking with experts who are warning that the worst is yet to come and with people who are worrying about how to keep themselves and their families healthy. They report cancellation after cancellation while watching their retirement savings dwindle in the Wall Street storm.

My wife, licensed psychotherapist Sidney Tompkins, and I have been doing a lot of training for newsrooms and media organizations about traumatic stress and trauma. I asked Sidney what she would tell you this morning.

We produced a video for you to share with your newsroom or to link to on journalism-related social media sites. I also produced a text version, below.

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You are nicer to your coffeemaker than you are to yourself. At least you turn the coffeemaker off when you are not using it. This virus story is following you all the time, in your work life and your personal life. You have to consciously unplug from news coverage for a scheduled part of the day.

You probably are not sleeping enough. The last thing you do before you go to sleep is check your phone. You might also check it in the middle of the night and you probably check it as soon as you wake up. Do not allow coverage of the virus to be the last thing you think about before you go to sleep. Ramp down your day. Slow down.

You are looking at disturbing information all day. The repetition underlies traumatic stress. All day long you read about people who are sick, dying and worried. You see disturbing data and forecasts. If this occurred just once, you might be able to dismiss it as something that happened and has ended. But the repetitive nature of this kind of ongoing coverage will take a toll.

Reset. Keep things near you that will remind you of what “normal” looks like. For me, it is a picture of my silly dog. For you, it may be a favorite vacation photo or a love note from your sweetheart. After you have spent time covering whatever unpleasant thing it is you have covered, reset your mind to remember that this situation is not normal. Soldiers and police officers do this. Ask them and you will find they often keep photos of loved ones in their hats and helmets. I know a photographer who keeps a picture of his kids on his press credential lanyard.

Remind yourself that the trauma journalists experience is outweighed by the good work that you do. Researchers have found this can combat our work-related stress. Missionaries and emergency room doctors see awful stuff all the time but if they believe that the good outweighs the discomfort, then they can rationalize why they subject themselves to this discomfort. If journalists believe they are doing vital work — and you are doing vital work — then you will recover from trauma faster than if you are just driven by ratings or pageviews.

Be worried when you are not affected by disturbing images, scenes or interviews. When you can hear stories of pain and not be moved by them, that is when I worry about you most. It means you have disconnected. Temporary disconnection is a survival mechanism to get the job done, but when you shut down, it is a danger sign that you have retreated from reality.

Be aware of your alcohol and food consumption. When I get stressed, I turn to dark chocolate as my meds. Know your tendencies. If they are destructive, you may decide to remove them. Confront your discomfort, don’t medicate it with alcohol or other substances.

Talk to your loved ones. I married a journalist 26 years ago. One of our daughters is a journalist. I tell them all the time that I am not a mind reader. If you covered something awful today, or if you are overwhelmed at work, you have to tell me so I can help you work through it, or at least understand what is up with you.

Don’t wait for your boss to ask you if you need time off. Especially while we are working remotely, the boss may have no clue how you are doing. Speak up. And maybe more importantly, now is a good time to look after your coworkers without including the boss. If you see a coworker has been doing days upon days of tough stories, give them a call and say, “Hey, that is some tough stuff you are covering, how are you?” Al and I have heard from journalists who say that kind of unsolicited peer support means the world to them.

Al Tompkins is senior faculty at Poynter. He can be reached at atompkins@poynter.org or on Twitter, @atompkins.

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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,…
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  • Suffolk University journalism student here! Very interesting and detailed overview of advice. One of the key things that stuck out to me was “repetition re-injures.” This phrase really resonated with me as I think I have found myself subconsciously taking myself out of the stressful situation in order to cope with what is happening right now. If in the future you decide to make another video I would like to know more on how I can keep myself aware of this distance I am building up. Working towards being involved and personal in my stories is something I hope to continue to strengthen and control as my skills are challenged in times like these. Thank you for your insight!

  • This pandemic is unlike anything that any of us have seen in our lives and so there is of course going to be extensive coverage of every possible newsworthy occurrence or piece of information related to it. With that being said, it is nice to watch a video that tells us how to deal with this unprecedented issue as opposed to more information on the issue itself. One thing that really stuck out to me is making sure we are getting enough sleep. The last thing I do before I go to bed and the first thing I do when I wake up is check my phone. This is more true now than ever for so many of us because we are quarantined and don’t have the much needed social interactions or different sources of information we usually depend upon to stay involved. Trying to not worry so much about what I can learn or who I can keep up with over the phone instead of just putting my phone down and going to sleep is definitely something that I need to work on. Thank you for this video.

  • Being a first-generation student at Suffolk University already has its challenges. Being a journalism student who’s constantly glued to the news is an added stress. Decompressing is key right now. The trauma from watching, and importing some much information and not knowing whether it’s truthful or not is an unwanted bonus. This is a chance for me to learn how to reset to normal, I need to find ways to bring myself back down to what I call home, in my home. Journalism and the media industry is brutal enough, but I can’t focus on the future right now. I have to take care of myself first and ensure I am healthy to be there for my family and friends who need me right now.

  • As a Suffolk University student journalist, I really enjoyed watching this and taking notes of the advice given to us. Although many of us haven’t had to cover anything too serious yet, eventually we will and there is no better way than to be prepared beforehand. The crisis we are going through today is crazy, the only conversations being held are about COVID-19 and indeed it does begin to start affecting our mental health as it is the only thing we are feeding ourselves. At home it’s a bit hard to runaway from the news as my mother is a journalist and is constantly updating me with any updates in the news. I will send over this video to her as well, as I believe it is very important to take a step back and BREATHE. Thank you very much!

    -Isabella Martinez

  • Thank you for putting together this video and article offering advice to journalists. This truly is a trying time and if falsely informed by rumors, the pandemic we are currently experiencing can become even more stressful. I appreciate your tips on how to accept that what is going on is not normal and we do not have to act like it is. I feel that sometimes we are expected to act like nothing is shocking anymore and you are right, it is taking away what makes us human–our emotions. I am currently a journalism student at Suffolk University, but I think this video would be helpful for everyone to see whether they are studying/pursuing journalism or not. I have seen many posts bashing the media regarding their coverage of the pandemic and I think the only people that understand the difficulties they are facing are those who have a grasp on the exact measures and experiences they are going through in order to provide the public with information. I believe if everyone saw what you two have to say, maybe more people would gain respect and appreciation for the dedication journalists and reporters have to their work.

  • I’m currently a broadcast journalism major at Suffolk University. As a student, one of the hardest currently ongoing is the struggle to stay focused. As said in the video, there’s multiple potential distractions at home that could affect my ability to stay focused. I think that this challenge is one that many students will struggle with and find difficulty overcoming. Many don’t view home as a workplace environment and will find it hard to stay atop things. As a journalist, I find that I’ve become somewhat desensitized to all the deaths surrounding the coronavirus. Everyday, news comes out from Italy where quite literally hundreds die each day. As both the video and article noted, it’s important that we take a break from the massive influx of information thrown at our faces during the last couple weeks. I thought that the portion on keeping things that remind us of normalcy was a great idea. We all need anchors that’ll keep us grounded during these times.

  • Great advice that everyone can’t take into consideration. What stuck out to me the most was learning to unplug. These past few weeks I have been avoiding the news as much as possible because all I hear from family, friends and the news alerts on my phone is the coronavirus. It’s so tiring and I am over hearing about it. I have taken this time to really take a break from my phone as much as possible over this difficult time.

  • One of the aspects of this video that spoke volumes to me was discussing as individuals ourselves how important it is to talk about mental stress. I am a college student at Suffolk University in Boston and with everything that has happened the last few weeks, saying I am mentally exhausted would be an understatement. However discussing the issue of how much stress it has been with the changes that COVID-19 has brought my education and life, is where we could all start to acknowledge in this society that mental health is extremely important, regardless of the situation. This is a very relevant video that is very relevant to journalism students and even students in general.

  • Great article and video. As a journalism major at Suffolk U in Boston I think it’s important to take note of a lot of things mentioned here. The whole situation with COVID-19 has brought upon a time of unknown and that’s one of the scariest things about it. Talking to others and voicing your thoughts, like mentioned, is important to keep a healthy mind and ease anxieties, especially in this time of lock down. I also really like the point about how we’re all looking at disturbing news all day long. Sometimes you just need to turn everything off and reset with a mental break. Lastly, my favorite part about this article is how to know you’re human. Being disturbed by news and images is normal and there’s no such thing as overreacting these days. Keeping the public’s mental state is important as a journalist, but you also need to make sure to take care of yourself and this article will be helpful to look back on for years to come.

  • I am a journalism student at Suffolk University. Personally, I really connected to the ideas of emotional disconnection and speaking up for yourself to cope with isolation. Often times as journalists we keep pushing forward to finish story or move onto the next project. However, we need to assess out mental health to “check-in” and see how we are. Especially during social distancing, it can be very isolating as the Tompkins’ mentioned. Surrounding yourself with reminders of normalcy is important, as well as advocating for yourself. Letting bosses know that you need more time or are struggling is vital to keeping sane and preserving yourself for now and later.

  • Thanks! I think I’d like to translate it into Russian and spread the word in our part of the world

  • Thank you for this great video. I am going to share with my broadcast journalism students at Suffolk University. I think it is relevant to journalism students, also. – Jane Regan