“I was still looking for the news director’s manual. I keep telling people – you know, when they make you news director, they really need to leave you with a shop manual that’s about 600-700 pages that tells you: here’s what you need to do when a staff member dies. Here’s what you do when a major big calamity happens. There’s no book for that, unfortunately, and a lot of what you have to figure out, you have to figure out for yourself.” - News director
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News Leadership: At the Head of the Class
Terror attacks, natural disasters, and other deadly events send shockwaves of trauma throughout newsrooms and entire organizations. Managers can feel guilt, regret, and secondary stress reactions when the journalists they manage suffer from traumatic events.
For the first time in a journalism study, the trauma experience for journalism leaders is emerging. I interviewed 13 station (or general) managers, news directors, editors, and one station owner who worked through the Oklahoma City bombing, deadly tornadoes, and the death of a popular sportscaster. I also analyzed transcripts of interviews with 60 local journalists who covered the Oklahoma City bombing. The extent of the emotional impacts for managers is troubling, because it remains unacknowledged for the most part in our industry and in journalism research.
In the Oklahoma City bombing, for example, leaders and others watched helplessly as reporters, photographers and others ran for their lives during secondary bomb scares. One station manager said, “You’re scared to death…I can remember it like it was yesterday…And you sit here and think ‘Oh my God, if that thing went off how many people are going to be killed in this deal, including some of the people that we know.’”
The initial goal of the study was to understand how multiple traumatic events affected organizational leaders’ management skills. Early in the interviews, I discovered most of the leaders framed their discussions of trauma to journalists by talking about their own emotional reactions. Historically, journalism supervisors, and the journalists themselves, believed they were able to cover difficult assignments without emotional consequences. Journalistic culture has traditionally disallowed acknowledgement of emotional pain.
Studies about journalists and trauma often rightly conclude with recommendations to leaders on how to reduce the negative emotional impact for staff (see recommendations here, here and here). But the advice treats journalism leaders as superheroes without feelings. The data from my study identified multiple outcomes of the trauma experience for journalism leaders:
- Secondary traumatic stress (STS). During the Oklahoma City bombing, journalists became primary victims of trauma during secondary bomb scares. Journalists in the field frequently experience STS when they interview primary victims of trauma or arrive at disaster and accidents scenes. But when the journalist becomes a primary victim, newsroom colleagues, including leaders, can suffer STS reactions.
“We sent these people in – there were two bomb scares – we didn’t even know what we were sending them into, so I think it’s with each year that goes by you think…your responsibility and how you should have been treating those people gets magnified.” - News director
- PTSD symptoms. The goal of my study was not to determine whether journalists and managers should be diagnosed with PTSD. But in analyzing the transcripts of journalists from the bombing it was clear that the journalists discussed their reactions in terms of classic PTSD symptoms: avoidance, intrusive memories, negative affect, and increased startle and reactivity. News directors and station managers were not immune to the PTSD reactions. In the most pronounced case, a number of the leaders discussed their heightened startle response to large trucks that resembled the one which carried out the bombing.
“Anytime I see a yellow box truck, I flinch…I keep my eye on it. I’m serious. I look for fuses…(My office is) on the second floor. Whenever I see a yellow box truck drive by where I can just barely see the top of it go by under my window I stand up and I watch it to see where it’s going.” - News Director
- Depression. Some leaders may seek medical interventions, and the event may affect them for years or even permanently.
“I actually in 2001 was not sleeping and had gone to the doctor for sleeping pills. He gave me a psychological exam and said I was depressed and put me on an antidepressant that year. I know the invasive memories happened after the bombing. Absolutely it happened. It still happens.” - News director
- Crying. Some managers (particularly women) believe if they express emotion they will be perceived as weak or unfit for the job. So, for those individuals, tears are shed alone and in private. One manager described how she coped after the newsroom learned many children were killed when a tornado struck their school.
“I said I need three minutes and I got up and I walked to…(an) office and I closed the door…I just cried and I prayed and I literally said, ‘God, please give me the strength to get through this and to have everybody help everybody else,’ and then I went back out and I was back on…I bawled alone in there for three minutes – hard.” - News director
My study focused on the top organizational leaders and department heads in news organizations, but more a specific study of middle managers (assistant news directors, executive producers, chief photographers) is needed. Middle managers are expected to execute care strategies for staff, but often no one is looking out for those sandwiched between the staff and upper management.
In one example, I learned of a managing editor in Oklahoma City who carried extreme guilt after the death of a local reporter in a plane crash. He believed he was partly responsible because he assigned the story. He tried to cope in the year between the reporter’s death and the bombing; a month after the bombing he tried to take his own life (learn about warning signs and symptoms here).
“I was the guy that was supposed to be the tough guy that kept everyone else in line that kept everyone from breaking down and whatnot. I’m the guy who’s not supposed to do that. It was rough. It was really, really rough.” – Managing editor
The ripple effects of trauma not only reverberate from the field to top management offices; they also ripple across a career. Like many other journalism managers, he started his career in the field where the traumatic stories piled one atop the other.
“All the tragedy you see – the grieving people. I’m guessing all this affected me a tiny little bit at a time. It all builds.”
Today, he is open about his struggles with colleagues and younger staff members. This can create a culture where emotions and emotional problems are not taboo topics in newsrooms.
My research suggests other solutions.
- Understand that trauma response planning is not just for staff – it’s also necessary for managers. Research shows that cognitive preparation, counseling, and spiritual outlets can all mitigate emotional distress at work. Being prepared with a counselor on standby, staff trained to support one another, and a basic understanding of trauma symptoms can help.
- Be transparent with authentic emotion. When top leaders share feelings, others have permission to show emotion and it can serve to normalize these outlets in the workplace. As employees of one television station grieved over the death of a sports journalist, the station manager cried openly. “Everybody started crying, you know. It was a release.” – News director
- Create a culture of support through all levels of the organization, including peer, supervisor, interdepartmental, organizational, and corporate. Oklahoma City leaders valued supportive notes, phone calls, and positive words from corporate colleagues. In Oklahoma City it has become routine in newsrooms that when a large-scale breaking story occurs, staff from other departments come to the newsroom to help. After a deadly tornado, one station manager told his sales staff “to come prepared the next day to be news people, to wear jeans, to wear boots, be prepared to go out in the field.”
Unfortunately, this is not an industry norm. In one case, an Oklahoma City manager moved to another market, where she suggested interdepartmental support to her station manager. But the reaction was “really upsetting…The response I got to that is they do have work to do.”
The culture of caring also crosses competitive lines when a singular tragedy strikes one particular news organization in the Oklahoma City market. After the death of a local sportscaster one station manager called his counterpart at a competing station and said “‘Whatever you need.’ I just want to let you know, if you need stories, if you need people to go over there to cover it… You know that we compete every day, but not in this case.” Stations also support one another by sharing personnel so as many people as possible can attend the funeral when a staff member dies.
My study indicates that every small gesture of kindness accumulates to a larger feeling of comfort and support. When managers feel the support, they perform better. One news director described the feeling as “being so loved and so supported and there’s something comforting in that, that you’re better able to do your job.” Managers and journalists can also become more unified during these times, leading to less formal, less hierarchal supportive interactions.
I started this study wanting to understand how Oklahoma City managers provided trauma support after multiple difficult local events. But I came away with a new understanding regarding the emotional turmoil leaders experience alongside the journalists they manage. Corporate leaders, station managers, and publishers bear a responsibility to understand trauma’s impact on managers and to take actions to provide support. Finally, it is essential that newsroom leaders recognize their own emotions, so they can provide the care and support journalists need.
Hill was the executive producer at KWTV in Oklahoma City during the Oklahoma City bombing. See part one of her research, with insights for newsroom managers on helping staff through trauma here. Stay tuned for more insights from this research, including how instituting counseling in newsrooms is more difficult than it sounds.