Caring for yourself while covering distressing topics

Jan 29, 2021 in Digital and Physical Safety

Having conducted sensitive interviews with survivors of certain traumas, I’ve found that sometimes I’m simply not able to shake the memories of those conversations. I’ve felt tortured, sometimes for weeks at a time, by the unbearable injustices my interview subjects have recounted. Yet, I find it difficult to talk about these feelings with my colleagues.

At the same time, I have had concerns about whether my behavior as a journalist has been appropriate, and whether the questions I’ve asked were insensitive. I’ve even questioned why I was conducting my reporting at all.

I managed one day to find a clear-cut answer to this question, which gave me greater confidence: All of these people, often women, had done a colossal amount of work: they requested help from specialists, they sought out therapy, they found the courage to file a report with the police. Their stories of great strength and courage must be told — they can serve as an example for others, and help to break the vicious cycle of violence. 

Journalists shouldn’t avoid such topics. Instead, they should strive to cover them well, and they need to sufficiently prepare to do so.

[Read more: Advice for interviewing survivors of sexual violence]


I spoke with psychologist, human rights activist, coach and founder of the Center for Women’s Perspectives Martha Chumalo for advice on how journalists can care for themselves while conducting this difficult reporting. Chumalo has worked with women survivors of violence and abuse for over 20 years. In December 2020, she received the annual Human Rights Tulip award from the Netherlands. 

You can find the first part of our conversation here, which explores best practices for speaking with people who survived sexual violence. In this second article, you’ll find advice for journalists to avoid emotional and professional burnout when they cover such challenging or distressing topics.

Maintain your mental health

Chumalo recommends a combination of short-term and long-term approaches to help maintain your mental health. 

In the short term, external events have the greatest impact when we are already weakened by something else, Chumalo said, whether that be an illness, sleep deprivation, work overload or another external stressor. In these cases, we have a difficult time managing potentially traumatizing experiences. “If you feel psychologically exhausted, save the difficult conversation for later. Get some rest,” she said. “It’s best to plan such work for the start of the week, after the weekend, when you’ve had a chance to recover.”

Right before the interview, give yourself time to get into the right mindset, to plan and think everything through. If you’re new to journalism, don’t work with such difficult stories right away, recommended Chumalo. 

In the long term, a number of psychological hygiene practices such as meditation, stress resistance or mindfulness courses for journalists can help enhance your stress tolerance. “If your work is accompanied by regular stress, it’s good to have a therapist or an intervision group,” said Chumalo.

[Read more: Need support? Here are 10 mental health podcasts to listen to right now.]

Be cognizant of your wellbeing during the interview

Journalists’ work can require close contact with human suffering. To prevent this reality from overwhelming you, you should develop routines that can help ground you, said Chumalo.

For example, if you’re conducting an interview and you notice that you are breathing with your chest, which increases stress, or when you feel that you are ready to tear up in response to the story you are hearing, Chumalo recommends adopting the “Five Points” practice.

“During our training sessions for the journalists who work with subjects of violence, I tell them about the ‘Five Points’ practice. You sit in a chair and feel how your two feet, your buttocks and your back are planted into the ground and the chair,” explained Chumalo. “When you sit down, try to focus on the sensations you feel at each of those points. The body must have the maximum support so as to not waste any additional resources. After that, breathe in and out with your abdomen, and move your attention from the conversation to your breathing. The person you are talking to is unlikely to even notice this, but your resilience to stress will be enhanced.”

Recover after the interview

After a difficult interview, journalists should give themselves an opportunity to recover, said Chumalo. This may mean some time alone in nature or taking care of your physiological needs, such as sleeping and eating well, drinking lots of water and making sure you feel safe: “A shower or a hot tub can help a lot. The more senses are engaged, the better.”

If the story traumatized you, speak with a professional. “If you feel yourself constantly revisiting this conversation, speak with a therapist,” Chumalo advised. “At the very least, it’s good to have a person with whom you can share the issues and concerns you may be dealing with. You don’t necessarily need to hear any advice from them — it’s important to simply be heard.”

Mariana Verbovska is a journalist who lives and works in Lviv, Ukraine. She was a Milena Jesenská Visiting Fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna, Austria, where she researched how the media covers climate change. Last year, Verbovska was named an IJNet Journalist of the Month.

This article was originally published by our Russian site. It was translated to English by Marina Pustilnik.

If you've found this content distressing or difficult to discuss, you're not alone. There are resources available to help. Start by exploring the resources from the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, and please seek psychological support if needed.

Main image CC-licensed by Unsplash via Jenny Hill.