Journalists know trauma, but COVID-19 might expose them to something new: anticipatory trauma

“We are anticipating the unknown losses. Will they be our friends?”

May 1, 2020

Covering tragedy is in every reporter’s job description, starting even on our first days on the job. Tragedy happens, and then journalists cover the fallout.

But when covering COVID-19, the traumatic event is not just protracted — it gets worse with time.

Reporters covering the coronavirus wrote about the hypothetical and watched it come to fruition. They saw death tolls increase in daily reports, then in their communities.

We talked with two journalists who now work in the mental health arena — one conducting research on mental health in journalism, the other coordinating a fellowship program for reporters covering mental health — on how to identify what they’re experiencing and how to manage it.

Elana Newman is the research director for the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma and a psychology professor at the University of Tulsa. Her research has held many focuses, including the psychological and physical response to traumatic life events, journalism and trauma, and understanding the impact of participating in trauma-related research from the trauma survivor’s perspective.

She said that there is a difference from the outset of covering something ongoing like COVID-19, compared to something more predictable.

“Normally, we can pull it together for one event, or weeks,” she said. “This is an everyday dread. I think that the challenging thing about this event is that we have to sort of rally our resources.”

When tragedy strikes a community, reporters cover a collective kind of grief, Newman said. They also cover individual grief, such as that of a mother who lost a child. Balancing those is always difficult. But in covering the coronavirus, reporters also have to keep their own “anticipatory grief” at bay.

“We are anticipating the unknown losses,” she said. “Will they be our friends?”

She offered a few tips on dealing with ongoing stress, anticipatory grief and the grief that comes from covering death. The first step is realizing these feelings are a good sign.

“The fact that people are distressed means that they’re moral, socially engaged beings who care,” she said. “As long as the distress is not paralyzing you, I think we need to honor the distress as a badge of engagement with the world.”

Still, ongoing newsworthy situations can cause undeserved guilt. Reporters might fear that taking a break or enjoying something could mean they’re callous.

“You don’t have to be as miserable,” Newman said. “In order for you to do the work, and do meaningful work, it’s important to tell yourself, ‘I don’t have to suffer.’”

Some of the management comes from knowing yourself. For those with preexisting issues with anxiety or depression, this time is going to more difficult. For those whose anxiety manifests physically, exercise is critical.

A proven strategy to handle worries such as those presented in the pandemic is setting a worry timer. It might sound silly, Newman said, but it’s effective. The practice entails scheduling 10 minutes or half an hour as a formal worry time. When intrusive thoughts creep in, resolve to explore that worry in the scheduled time instead of focusing on it at that moment.

Two practices are especially critical during this work-from-home time. Creating barriers between the workday and the rest of it — such as lighting a candle only after work or covering the computer — can reinforce the idea the day is over. The other: keeping a list of accomplishments. When the days blend together, it’s easy to forget what you’ve done. This isn’t just keeping track of stories published. It should include steps along the way, such as transcribing an interview or developing a new source.

Kari Cobham is the senior associate director of The Rosalynn Carter Fellowships for Mental Health Journalism and Media. The program gives journalists tools to cover mental health and mental health care effectively and without stigma. The fellowship program is administered by the Carter Center, a non-governmental organization that aims to promote human rights.

Cobham said that she’s learned, from her own experiences as a reporter covering trauma and from the fellowship program she coordinates, how critical it is for journalists to take their own mental health seriously, especially covering something like the coronavirus.

One of the first steps she recommends is remembering what brought you to and keeps you in journalism.

“Obviously you’re going to feel discomfort,” she said. “Walk yourself through why you’re subjecting yourself to that. If you believe you’re doing vital work, that might help you through it.”

Some of the more obvious ways to take care of yourself — getting enough sleep, exercise and healthy food — can seem at best tedious and at worst impossible, she said. But the lack of them compounds the physical and emotional issues that ongoing trauma can cause.

Mental breaks are critical, and they can be no-frills.

“Meditation is helpful,” she said. “Even if it doesn’t mean sitting in lotus pose and completely clearing your mind. Giving yourself a quiet moment to breathe.”

Working through this kind of event takes all kinds of supports, she said, but don’t discount how helpful it can be to commiserate with others in the field.

“By all means if you’re able to, talk to a therapist,” she said. “By all means, talk to people in your family. We are reporters, and so we approach situations as reporters. I think we can approach trauma in the same way, in terms of interrogating it.”

What does it feel like? How does it play out over time? What are the stumbling blocks? How can you pace yourself? These are questions to investigate.

“It’s the difference between being sucker-punched versus knowing the punch is coming,” she said.

Catherine Sweeney is a freelance reporter covering COVID-19 for Poynter. You can reach her at catherinejsweeney@gmail.com or @CathJSweeney on Twitter.