Tips for coping after reporting distressing and traumatic stories

byCristiana Bedei
Nov 5, 2020 in Specialized Topics
Candle and pillow

Death, violence, war, terrorism, natural disasters, a pandemic — at some point, almost every journalist will report on a traumatic story and face potentially distressing consequences. 

"You don't even need to be physically present," said Dr. Gail Kinman, visiting professor of occupational health psychology at Birkbeck University of London. Interviewing people about their experiences, viewing horrific images on the computer, or covering stories that hit close to home — both literally and metaphorically — might be enough to wreak emotional havoc. 

Journalists are generally resilient but they are not immune to trauma and distress, which Kinman said can lead to headaches, muscle tension, fatigue, intrusive thoughts, sleeping problems and nightmares. Some may miss deadlines because they can’t concentrate, or their time management skills may also deteriorate. They might experience panic attacks, anxiety, depression or substance abuse. 

Anyone experiencing severe problems should seek professional help, which can be difficult to access. Some bigger media outlets provide mental health services, but under-resourced organizations don't, and freelancers are regularly left to their personal networks and tools. At the same time, journalism schools rarely offer training in crisis reporting.

[Read more: Mental health and journalism, Part 6: A conversation with Mar Cabra]

 

"Those with more education in trauma and crisis reporting in college courses report higher levels of trauma literacy," said Natalee Seely, assistant professor of journalism at Ball State University. "Higher trauma literacy means a healthier workforce and quality journalism."

Seely has explored the mental health effects of reporting on trauma. She encourages journalism programs to address strategies for interviewing trauma victims, recognizing emotional burnout and covering a traumatic event. 

"Journalists fresh out of college may not be prepared for the realities of the job and many are assigned to cover the crime beat or general assignment beat first," she said. "Guest speakers, simulated news events and general reading and discussion on this topic can go a long way to prepare students."

As the industry begins to confront the mental health toll of reporting as an occupational hazard, newsrooms can develop appropriate protocols to protect their workers. Here are some tips from psychology and journalism experts to help shake the effects of intense coverage.

Don't pressure yourself to "get over it”

"Emotional reactions to distressing experiences are normal and expected – in some ways, it would be more problematic if people did not react in this way," said Kinman. 

She recently contributed to guidance published by the British Psychological Society, for anyone taking distressing work home with them. Many journalists may find the advice helpful, especially during this pandemic. 

"We need to prioritize self-care and self-compassion," she says. "We can have excessively high self-expectations for 'pulling ourselves together,' 'not getting emotional' and 'getting over it.'"

Calm your body down

A short-lived stress response is usually harmless, and might even help get the job done. But longer-lasting, more severe reactions can lead to serious mental and physical health problems

It is crucial to try to get the body into a more relaxed state after an intense event, said Dr. Elana Newman, professor of psychology at the University of Tulsa and research director for the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma. "One of the first things to look at is how activated the arousal system is, during the event and the immediate after hours," she explained. "I mean heavy breathing, your body being in alert mode, and not being able to calm down." 

Anything safe, nurturing and soothing might work to get out of the alert state, whether that's practicing mindfulness, deep breathing, exercising or even taking a long bath.

[Read more: Challenging journalistic objectivity: Q&A with Lewis Raven Wallace]

Talk to a trusted someone – when you feel like it

Except for at-risk cases, no one should be forced to talk more than they need to, especially within the first 24 hours following a distressing experience, according to Newman. "Often, I get calls from news organizations saying: 'Someone just got back from a terrible event, will you talk to them?' and I'm like, 'Have they been able to do their laundry first?,”’ she said. 

"One of the things that we know about what makes people more resilient is either giving or receiving support," she added. "But in the early hours, it has truly to be perceived as supportive and not as forced." Let someone know you would happily lend an ear. 

Support at work can be crucial, but it's okay to assess whether you feel comfortable sharing with your team and organization, or would prefer trusted personal connections or professional help outside the newsroom.

Factor in recovery time

"People need recovery time, the science is very clear," said Newman. 

After experiencing something intense, your body and your mind need to recover. Building a healthy routine around your needs — in terms of eating, sleeping, exercising, socializing — is key. 

Everyone has had stressful experiences in the past. "Do a little more of the things that got you through them and a little less of those that were not so good," suggested Newman.

Engage in cathartic activities

In her research, Seely found that cathartic activities like exercising, writing or even having a good cry are common, positive coping mechanisms among journalists. "[They] help release emotion and stress," she said. 

Suppressing or holding feelings in — as reporters often do on the job — can be harmful in the long term. Engaging in cathartic activities allow someone to recognize and process those feelings. "These activities help journalists ‘vent' in a healthy way," said Seely.

Allow a little fun

"Doing something fun, unrelated to work, is a way to engage in self-care," said Seely. "This is particularly important for those who tend to take work home with them, or for those who feel all-consumed in their work, [which may be common for] journalists who are reporting on an in-depth story or building relationships with sources." 

Finding enjoyment in little things — like watching a comedy, baking, doing a puzzle — helps achieve balance and offers a healthy way to decompress and escape negative thoughts.

Put together a before, during and after plan

Think about what you can do before, during and after a distressing event. Prepare several strategie broken down in terms of their time commitment, suggested Newman.  "I love to kayak," she said, "but that's like a five to six hour commitment. What is it that I can do for two minutes? Can I take a walk? Can I look away?”

These interventions might be short, like breathing or coloring, or take longer, like exercising or watching TV. 

“What are the things you can do that fit the circumstances and keep you safe?" said Newman.

Additional resources


Cristiana Bedei is a freelance journalist based in Italy.

Main image CC-licensed by Unsplash via Alisa Anton.