Remember, journalists, to take care of yourselves

My wife, who is a therapist, and I have spoken to so many reporters over the past month who are suffering, usually quietly and often in private, as they cover one mass shooting after another. When the higher number of deaths in Texas became public knowledge, a news director friend wrote to me, “I can’t believe we’re doing this again.

Sidney and I can’t stop heartbreak, but we can suggest ways to overcome it.

We won’t be surprised when more and more calls come from journalists suffering from what psychologists call “moral damage”. It is a condition that is usually associated with feelings of guilt.

We won’t be surprised to hear journalists wondering if we’re doing more harm than good by covering mass shootings. Journalists often tell us that they wonder if they should approach the families of the victims. They wonder if journalism still matters.

Clinical studies clearly show that the more journalists believe they are doing important work, the faster they can heal from the traumatic stress of what they witnessed. I cannot stress this enough: you are do important work. Don’t leave deaths undocumented. Journalists document and report the truth. Others set policy and make decisions based on this documentation. Journalism matters. Your work matters. You count.

Realize that the fact that you’re still emotional about yet another mass shooting is, almost perversely, a good sign that your emotions haven’t died down. Emotional detachment is your body’s way of telling you that you’ve stopped dealing with the reality that someone killed some school kids or opened fire on a neighborhood supermarket. If your emotions have cooled, seek professional help. Now. It’s not just a mental health issue; emotional detachment leads to some of the worst journalistic decisions. You’ll ask questions, stream or post videos and photos, or approach people in an insensitive way that feels normal to you.

Realize that it is not just the people at the scene of these horrific events who suffer traumatic injuries. Research is increasingly compelling that producers, online editors and photo editors who are exposed to repeated images and hours of video and audio also suffer from traumatic stress. Repetitive emotional wounds are real. Bosses need to recognize that they need to pay attention to everyone in the newsroom, not just the people working in the field.

Be sure to talk about your feelings safely. Sidney and I often hear young journalists and women journalists say that they are reluctant to talk about traumatic stress because they fear they will be seen as too soft and too weak. So they hold him back. When the most experienced members of your staff talk openly about their symptoms of stress, it is safer for others to talk openly.

Check your colleagues. Don’t wait for the boss to check everyone. Bosses may be reluctant to ask workers how they are feeling because they want to respect people’s privacy. Check your colleagues. Calm does not mean OK. Sometimes the best approach is to simply say, “I feel overwhelmed by all of this. How are you?” So shut up and listen. Resist the temptation to solve their problems or tell them that things will get better or could get worse. Now is not the time to tell them exactly how they feel. Listen.

It is not uncommon for journalists to experience vicarious trauma. After a mass shooting involving young children, therapists like Sidney often hear from clients who have children of their own and are devastated by the thought of losing a child. Vicarious trauma also affects journalists who come to know the people they cover. They feel the pain they talk about. It’s a signal that journalists really connect with the people they cover. But know that you can and probably will feel a loss too. You will need time to heal from this.

Traumatic stress can overwhelm you. Just when you think you’ve worked on it, you’ll remember the pain again. Sidney and I hear stories of New York journalists who can’t stand to hear the bagpipes because it reminds them of the hundreds of 9/11 funerals they’ve been through. I know a reporter who covered the mass shooting in Las Vegas and remembers that day when she smelled burnt tires because it reminded her of the smell of screaming police cars arriving at the scene of the shooting.

When you go to cover another funeral, talk to another grieving family, or cover an anniversary, know that it will hurt. Get ready and at least the pain won’t come as a surprise.

Everyone handles stress and trauma differently. Some will want to talk about it. Others need quiet and solitude. Some of your colleagues will persevere in the next few days, but in a week or two the weight of the work will crumble. Everyone handles stress and trauma differently.

As a therapist, Sidney often advises people suffering from traumatic stress to write down – in effect pick up a pen and write down – a list of things they are feeling. Then she asks them to write down some things they are grateful for. Gratitude heals. Feeling gratitude allows us to see the good around us. This is not to whitewash the pain, but to add some perspective.

When you’re feeling particularly stressed, the simple act of doing something nice for another person can heal you. It doesn’t have to be a big dramatic act. Hold an open door, say something sincerely thoughtful to a stranger, donate your blood, or send a note to someone who might need encouragement. I know a senior photographer who has a bulletin board full of notes of encouragement written by colleagues over the years and she says it gives her relief on bad days.

Journalists tell Sidney and I that they’ve been less inclined lately to talk about their work with family and friends. Journalists who proudly wore shirts and jackets with company logos no longer do so to avoid confrontation or questioning. Your families worry about you when you don’t communicate how you feel. Avoidance leaves loved ones guessing why you feel the way you do. When you share your feelings, it sends a signal that you trust them with your vulnerabilities.

Pay particular attention to the signals you send to your children when they know you are covering difficult stories. They will learn to manage the stress in their lives by watching you.

Journalists, these are difficult days. A recent study by the Reuters Institute compared the traumatic stress journalists experienced during COVID-19 to what first responders experience. But there is an essential difference. First responders usually work as a team, whereas many of you are working alone these days. First responders get to an emergency, then leave. You stay put for days. You are there for the funeral and meet the families of the victims. You feel the criticism that you sensationalise their loss. You are the first responders… and the last responders.

You are vital.

You are human.

The stress is real. Pay attention to each other and be kind to yourself.

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