Are you ready for trauma in your newsroom? New research may help

July 30, 2018 11:00

“Some people were crying.  Some people were visibly shaken.  Some people…just kind of looked stunned.” – Station Manager
“Some people were crying later in the day, so I think it was kind of a roller coaster ride starting from practically no emotion up until – yeah, there was kind of extreme emotion.” – News Director
Journalists have experienced and reported on a wide range of traumatic events in the past year in the U.S. – from mass shootings to post-hurricane evacuations.  The latest trauma became more personal this summer when a gunman shot and killed five employees of the Capital Gazette newspaper in Annapolis.  The events of the past year should be a warning bell for leaders in journalism organizations across the country to evaluate the support they provide journalists to reduce the emotional toll.

Several studies demonstrate what many journalists already know. Reporters, photographers and other media professionals can be exposed to emotionally distressing situations on any given day.  It doesn’t have to be major. The smaller traumas of everyday coverage can be especially scarring including one of the most routine assignments, fatal car accidents.  In Simpson and Boggs’ (1999) landmark study one journalist recalled decades later, “Car struck by train.  I can still see the two victims dead in the front seat, even though this happened in 1967.”

I’ve recently completed extensive research on journalism and trauma. I interviewed 13 station managers, news directors, editors, and one station owner who worked through multiple traumatic events, including the Oklahoma City bombing.  The study included two data sets: the first, journalists who covered the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, and the second, the top organizational leaders who worked from the time of the bombing through other traumatic events in Oklahoma City, including a deadly tornado outbreak and death of a local sportscaster.  I wanted to understand what leaders learned from their experience and whether they improved their trauma response for journalists. 

I analyzed the data through the lens of organizational support research.  Based on a wide body of that research, newsrooms which provide much-needed support will have employees who are more productive, with less turnover and less absenteeism. 

My study and others confirm journalists experience a wide-range of emotions post-trauma.  A typical memory from a videographer who worked during the Oklahoma City bombing illustrated the distress.
“And sometime things may look different -- well, how we’re looking at it through a little black and white viewfinder.  But when you see the whole picture of the thing, it’s a whole lot that we are suppressing while we’re trying to get our job done…And every now and then, after a while, sometime it just hits you.  And out of the blue, you know, you don’t know why <laughs>, but all of a sudden all this stuff you suppress just coming to the surface, and out of the blue you may start crying for some unnecessary reason.”
The distressing emotions can remain with a journalist for an entire career.  The early emotions may include observable reactions, such as tears, anger, negativity, increased startle responses (loud noises, for example).  But some of the reactions may not be visible in the workplace: avoidance (trying not to think about what happened), intrusive memories (the inability to stop thinking about what happened), and triggers (smells, sounds, visuals).  These symptoms can further manifest themselves into such outcomes as inability to cry, inability to sleep, and addictive behaviors. 

So, what did I learn from the Oklahoma City organizational leaders?  Experience with multiple traumatic events improved their support overall.  These findings are positive for the Oklahoma City journalists.  But managers who may have never experienced large-scale shocking events may lack needed experience to successfully navigate staff through unexpected emotional landmines.  In Oklahoma City the leaders learned:
  • Counseling needs to be offered immediately post-trauma (“Standard operating procedure.  We’ve learned that you have to do this.” – Station manager)
  • Counseling needs to fit different personality styles: in-person, group, email, phone
  • Some journalists won’t seek counseling. (“We posted tip sheets on the bulletin board with the understanding that some people will be unapproachable.” – Newspaper editor)
  • Managers and newsroom leaders can model the way in seeking mental health support (When one top organizational leader “started crying.  Everybody started crying, you know.  It was a release.” – News director)
  • To be attuned to smaller traumas that may only affect a small number of staff members (“Here’s an EAP pamphlet.  I keep a huge stack of those in my office, because I hand them out like candy.” – News director)
  • Interdepartmental support is invaluable emotionally for journalists (“I said, ‘I need you to follow me to the news department, because right now you’re becoming news people. You’re no longer sales people, and you’re going to work for the television station.’” -- Station manager)
  • To have an open-door policy, but also a “go-to” policy (“You’re on the floor more.  You’re walking up to people.  ‘How are you doing?’  A lot of checking in goes on.” – Newspaper editor)
  • To approach staff with a listening attitude and understanding that each individual will cope differently (“Some people will appear to bounce back in a week and there are some people -- you have to be supportive for the long haul. It’s not something that you can say ‘I’m going to give this newsroom a month and everything’s going to be fine and dandy.’” – News director)
  • Debriefing is powerful (“When we got back, they had an entire station meeting and they let us debrief the entire station on what we saw and what we learned.  Everybody.  Marketing.  Sales.  The whole shebang.  Everybody.  I remember that.  That was very therapeutic for us.” – Middle manager who became news director)  
A counselor can make a difference and should be chosen wisely.  The Oklahoman brought in a counselor the day of the bombing.  Over time, she customized her approach, allowing for phone and email consultation for those who initially wanted to avoid meeting in person.  She remained available for other traumas, bombing anniversaries (which never end), and even became a columnist.

Comforts such as food (not just pizza and sandwiches), raincoats and other gestures are important.  In the Oklahoma City newsrooms, leaders learned journalists “need meals.  That’s one thing you can do. You can FEED people.  One thing, it keeps them going, but around those food tables they connect with their peers, and where they share their feelings, and they talk more, so it’s really, really important” (Newspaper editor).

My research calls for more to be done.  Training is one area in the Oklahoma City example that didn’t show growth. 
  • Workers in stressful occupations can improve emotional responses with mental preparation.
  • Top leaders should seek specialized training to refine their knowledge of trauma and mental health. 
  • Colleagues can learn how to best support one another by working with mental health professionals. 
  • Tip sheets can be posted. One resource is the Dart Center for Journalism & Trauma.
  • Programs can be devised for mentoring new hires, to promote support in times of trauma. 
  • Middle managers, news directors, and station managers need to take care of themselves and each other; they are also vulnerable emotionally.
News directors and editors shouldn’t hesitate to request small amounts of funding to begin or improve trauma preparation, with the understanding that many actions don’t cost anything.  The station managers and one station owner in my study were optimistic and supportive about funding trauma training, although two of the top leaders admitted that such training could only be funded in a positive budget year.

The next traumatic event will be in a place like Parkland, Las Vegas, the Gulf Coast, Oklahoma City.  But with careful planning by newsroom leaders, journalists can be emotionally prepared to face the unknown.

Hill was the executive producer at KWTV in Oklahoma City during the Oklahoma City bombing. Stay tuned for more insights from this research, including how trauma also imacts - and is even more often overlooked in - newsroom managers.