Dealing with the tsunami of bad news: 13 ways to help journalists cope

Dealing with the tsunami of bad news: 13 ways to help journalists cope

I was hoping for a tsunami.

You remember, like what happened in late 2009 when David Letterman announced that he cheated on his wife with a woman on his staff. He talked about the affair twice on his show. The first time was to confess and tell his fans that he was working with federal authorities to catch the man who was blackmailing him as a result of the affair. He identified himself as a man who had done something terrible, but became the victim of a criminal.

It was really amazing PR. He had an affair, but we felt sorry for him.

The second time Letterman talked about his affair was to correct false information. Media assumed, after he said he had an affair with a woman on his staff, that she still worked there. The name of his mistress had not yet been discovered, and they began “hounding” women who worked for the show. Letterman again made himself the lovable idiot when he corrected the record, informing the public that the woman no longer worked on his show and asking that his staff be left alone.

Soon after an earthquake followed by a series of tsunamis hit Haiti, killing more than 100,000 people, and no one cared who David Letterman was sleeping with.

I didn’t want anyone to get hurt, and I certainly didn’t want anyone to die, but I wanted a tsunami.

I wanted a major news event to come and sweep my nephew’s death out of the news cycle. My 17-year-old nephew died June 10 after an accident on the beach in Panama City. Every news story shared, every interview my sister granted, made me cringe. I like to think I have confidence in journalists. I certainly understand the importance of journalism in a functioning democratic society but, for me, every news story was another chance for someone to get it wrong and, when they got it right, it was just another way to hurt… one more reason to cry. It was a lose/lose situation, and I just wanted it to stop.

Then the wave came, and it was massive.

Forty-nine people were killed in the deadliest mass shooting in the U.S.

A 2-year-old boy was snatched by an alligator and later found dead.

A mass shooting in a cinema in Germany injured at least 25 people.

More than a couple dozen people died in historic flooding in West Virginia.

And it just keeps coming.

The irony is that the deluge of bad news didn’t bump my nephew’s death from the local news. It continued right through the funeral, until it expired on its own. And I understand, that’s the way news works. I understand news value, routines and, frankly, just giving audience the information they’re most willing to view and share.

I know what it’s like to cover a fatality car wreck, a shooting, a natural disaster, and a child abuse death in the same week, maybe even the same day or two, and how it makes you feel like you’re doing your job really well by informing the public of important information they need to know. I also understand how it makes you wonder how some people are just bad and if there’s any end to sadness.

Reporting on traumatic events—death or near death experiences—and the victims of those happenings is one of the most important jobs in the newsroom. It is coverage that impacts people. It’s information they want and need. It’s also one of the most inevitable areas of reporting. Even if you don’t find yourself drawn to cover these events, you will. After all, death happens in every beat.

I have researched the intersection of journalism and trauma for more than a decade and have found that journalists are twice as likely to experience a traumatic event as part of their work as the general population is to experience it in their entire lifetimes. Trauma is a reality, in our profession and in our world.

Despite this reality, journalists rarely receive training to report on traumatic events or emotional support after that reporting.

Journalists are expected to report on all of these tragedies and regulate their feelings so they can move on to the next (perhaps also traumatic) assignment. But It’s normal to feel sad. Yes, even for journalists. No one is immune to the potential impact of a traumatic event. And, since most newsroom managers don’t offer support to journalists covering traumatic events, we’re going to need to take care of ourselves and each other until that changes.

The good news is that there are many ways for you to help yourself and each other through difficult times. Here are 13 ways journalists can cope when covering traumatic news.

1. Understand exposure. You do not have to be exposed directly to a traumatic event to experience negative emotions as a result of it. You can experience emotional trauma after being exposed to a traumatic event through an interview, a court affidavit, or even photos and video, if that exposure is part of your job.

2. Avoid judgment. We cope with trauma in a variety of ways. While there are “typical” responses, there is no “normal” response. Be understanding and supportive of other people’s feelings, even if they don’t make sense to you. Remember, it’s acceptable to cry, be angry or find humor in unusual things.

3. Talk about it. Don’t fall into the professionalism trap that results in thinking you are a robot instead of a human. Talk with your peers, family and/or friends about the potential traumatic impact before and after covering a traumatic event.

4. Provide support. There is expansive research showing that social and organizational support helps people cope more effectively with trauma exposure and its aftermath. Social support can be as simple as reaching out to a coworker and telling her you’re there to talk. Talking it out (what mental health professionals call “debriefing”) is a form of coping with trauma exposure and can be beneficial. Organizational support is as easy as asking an employee if she is ok or if she needs to take a break.

5. Recognize context. You are more likely to be impacted by a traumatic event if you personally were victim of trauma in the past. Be aware of this and recognize if current traumas are bringing up reminders of past experiences.

6. Know the signs. Emotional trauma is so frequently ignored in newsrooms because journalists don’t recognize it in themselves or each other. Emotional trauma manifests itself differently, depending on its victim. However, sleep disturbances, relationship issues, frequent reminders or avoidance of reminders of the traumatic event, angry outburst, and self medicating through alcohol or substances are common signs associated with emotional trauma. The National Center for PTSD and the Dart Center for Journalism & Trauma are great resources for learning the basics about emotional trauma, its levels of severity and methods of self care.

7. Allow them to opt out. If a reporter doesn’t feel emotionally equipped to cover a story, managers should allow them to opt out without fear of penalty. Someone else can cover it. Giving reporters options without fear of repercussions is the right thing to do in these situations.

8. Remain positive. It sounds cliché, but research supports positive thinking leading to happier feelings. It’s called “play acting.” The longer you play act that you’re happy, the happier you will become.

9. Engage hobbies. Alternative tasks like exercise, music, art, reading, etc. can remove your attention from things that trouble you and help you focus on more positive components of life. As a side, spirituality and journaling also have been shown to help in coping with trauma.

10. Monitor intake. I’m not telling you not to have a glass or wine or two at the end of a difficult day. I’d be a hypocrite if I did. But I am telling you to be aware of your alcohol intake (and that of your coworkers) following trauma coverage. Alcohol and other substance abuse is common among people suffering from emotional trauma. Just be aware.

11. Know your staff. Research shows that reporters with past traumatic experiences and those under 25 years old are more likely than their colleagues to experience emotional trauma. Newsroom managers should know their employees. This is the best way to help protect them.

12. Get rest. Everything really does seem worse when you’re tired. If you find yourself becoming weepy, unnecessarily angry or frustrated, consider whether you’re getting enough sleep. Eating well also is a factor. Make sure your diet allows you to focus on your mental health.

13. Limit contact. Limit the amount of exposure you have to traumatic happenings. Be informed about the traumatic events you cover, but don’t obsessively consume information about them. Get away from viewing/reading trauma coverage when you can.

The tsunami of traumatic events is not likely to end, but the way we handle them and support one another can.

The points above may help you cope with trauma exposure. However, if you have feelings of sadness or anxiety for longer than a couple of weeks, especially if they interfere with your ability to function normally, see a doctor. And help each other process emotionally traumatic events.

It’s not just an important thing to do, it’s the only right thing to do.

Dr. Kenna Griffin  @profkrg) is an assistant professor of mass communications and director of student publications at Oklahoma City University. She is the author of the Prof KRG blog, which serves as a practical resource for student journalists and the host of the weekly #EditorTherapy Twitter chat for student media editors. She is a journalist, reader, shoe lover, wife, mother of two, and the spoiler of a couple of adorable dogs. 

Photo: Wave breaking via Shutterstock

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