How to balance being both reporters and victims in disaster coverage

March 20, 2018 11:00

By Gretechen Dworznik, Assistant Professor, Kent State University
Hurricane Harvey presented a fair share of logistical challenges as reporters worked to cover the story often without basic necessities like running water. For some, even a shower was hard to come by for more than a week. Dealing with the personal hardship while covering so many who had lost everything began to take its toll. However, there were some things that news managers did that really helped those in the field balance being both reporters and victims.
As part of a study about the effects of covering the storm, 30 reporters spoke about their experiences and provided advice for news managers who may someday find themselves in the path of a hurricane. Part 1 focused on planning and coverage. Here’s part 2, focusing on the trauma of the coverage.
Lesson #6 - Recognition of Personal Hardship
About half of the reporters experienced damage to their homes, cars, or both. Understandably, this added an extra layer of trauma and stress making it difficult to concentrate on helping with coverage right when they were needed most. Sympathetic newsrooms that offered loaner cars and shelter helped ease the burden. The occasional few hours off here and there during the height of aftermath coverage to deal with things at home also helped relieve stress and the reporters felt they did their jobs better as a result.

Lesson #7 - Keep the Paychecks Coming
Those at smaller news outlets were especially fearful that they would stop getting paid as advertising revenue dwindled in the immediate aftermath of the storm. A steady paycheck helped relieve that fear, especially in those who were also dealing with personal property damage. The feeling of security helped them balance the need to report with the need to take care of their families.
Lesson #8 - Positive Newsroom Atmosphere
Newsrooms full of food, bottled water, and cots provided a bit of a safe haven, especially for those who couldn’t stay in their own homes. The shared space created a positive atmosphere that allowed reporters to commiserate, laugh and even cry together as they tried to process all that had happened. For many the newsroom became a welcome and stable place in the midst of the chaos.
Lesson #9 – Clear Backup Plan
As much as the newsroom served as a safe haven for some, the lack of one became a real burden for others. Some newsrooms were uninhabitable for weeks following the hurricane, which meant reporters were communicating stories and coverage by phone or internet from wherever they could get service. The loss of a common space drastically affected the moral of the reporters in those cities. Reporters responded much more positively to being displaced, and churned out better stories, when news managers had a clear Plan B prior to the storm.
Lesson #10 - Counseling & Mental Health Awareness
Half the reporters who spoke about their Harvey experience met the criteria for posttraumatic stress and more than half met the criteria for depression, yet few media outlets offered organized counseling or debriefing sessions. Many relied on impromptu prayer circles or informal group conversations to share what they were feeling. In times of disaster, peer and supervisor support are invaluable when it comes to curbing or alleviating symptoms of traumatic stress. News managers need to take the lead and organize multiple opportunities for debriefing and support, at times when reporters can actually attend. Recognizing the toll that disaster coverage takes and providing outlets for those emotions can prevent long-term burnout and keep a reporting staff mentally healthy and doing their jobs well.
Gretchen Dworznik is a former television reporter now teaching journalism at Kent State University. She specializes in research about how covering trauma impacts journalists.
How to add well-being to a newsroom natural disaster plan
Stress from tragedy affects reporters too