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In the wake of Haiti disaster, Dart Center says newsroom support is key

In the wake of Haiti disaster, Dart Center says newsroom support is key

Sasha Turrentine, IJNet Writer | March 01, 2010

In the aftermath of the Haiti earthquake, news bureaus and wire services are reassessing how to keep their offices efficient through crisis and best communicate with journalists in the field in disaster areas.

In February, U.S. news bureau managers and reporters gathered in Washington, D.C., to discuss proper leadership and management in times of crisis. Bruce Shapiro, Executive Director of the Dart Center for Trauma and Journalists, stressed the importance of communication between bureau management and reporting staff.

While most journalists may be most comfortable talking to other journalists, Shapiro explained, it is crucial that management find a way to bridge the gap and connect and communicate with their reporters. Especially when reporting from disaster or war zones, journalists are prone to trauma and stress, he said.

The Dart Center estimates that 86 to 98 percent of journalists are exposed to traumatic events during their careers. Many of those journalists exhibit symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) after returning home, such as anxiety, flashbacks, insomnia, depression and more.

Dr. Anthony Feinstein, professor of Psychiatry at University of Toronto and author of the book Journalists Under Fire: The Psychological Hazards of Covering War, estimates that 12 percent of journalists have PTSD.

But despite the numbers, the National Center for PTSD states that journalists’ exposure to trauma has often not been taken seriously, as many think of journalists as “unusually tough…immune to the reverberating impact of the human suffering they witness.”

In a career in which resilience is mandatory and toughness prided, it can be difficult for a journalist to admit to a struggle, and for newsroom staff to know how to manage the struggle.

"Bad management," Shapiro warned, “puts journalists at higher risk of PTSD."

In the wake of the disaster in Haiti, Shapiro laid out some important tips for newsroom managers and staff to keep in mind in future times of crisis.

  • Plan in advance: Have journalists prepared—they should go into a disaster area with a clear sense of what they will be doing.
  • Prior training: Make sure journalists and other staff are aware of the risks of exposure to trauma. They should know how to identify traumatic stress reactions and PTSD, as well as what to do about them.
  • Encourage and offer support: If a journalist will be in a disaster situation, establish a contact (preferably the same one) for them at the office—someone that checks up on them regularly and that they may talk to about their day-to-day experiences. Encourage journalists to speak with their families and loved ones. Structure recovery periods after they return home.
  • Pay attention: Be conscious of the traumatic events individual journalists are being exposed to. Observe the behavior of reporters. Shapiro refers to this as “watchful waiting.”
  • Raise awareness: Champion trauma awareness—include information and resources on your bureau’s website, hold workshops and educate others on the effects of trauma in journalism.

Shapiro emphasized the importance of communication and offered specific guidelines for effective listening and dialogue with journalists.

FINE: An active listening methodology.

Facts (What happened?)

Impact (What are your thoughts and feelings?)

Now (How are you now?)

Education (These feelings are normal.)

Do’s and Dont’s

  • Don’t say “I know just how you feel”
  • Don’t diagnose—do not make them feel as if there is something wrong with them.
  • Do establish active eye contact
  • Do provide minimal response—reflect and summarize, but do not offer opinion, and avoid advice.

For more information, go to www.dartcenter.org.

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