Stress From Tragedy Affects Reporters, Too

By Vince Duffy, RTDNA Chairman
Last Friday, like many newsrooms across the country, Michigan Radio had the TV monitor on the wall running non-stop coverage of the school shooting events in Newton, Connecticut. As the reality of what took place began to set in, even the gallows humor typical of a newsroom disappeared and concern and disbelief took its place.  
One of my veteran reporters, a tough lady who is also the mother of a boy in kindergarten, kept stepping out of the office for a few minutes. When I asked her if she was alright, she broke down.  She was embarrassed and quickly pulled herself together, saying she was fine, but clearly she wanted to be at home with her son, not in the newsroom where turning off the TV was not going to be an option. I gave her the rest of the day off. 
The stress of just being exposed to this story all day was having an effect on her, and as news managers we need to be sensitive to that. It’s even more important to pay attention when your reporters are the ones covering awful events.
When tragedy strikes a community, whether it’s a big story like the school shooting last week in Connecticut, or a smaller story like a fatal car accident involving area teens, the reactions of the public are often the same.
Survivors and family members get hugs and expressions of support. First Responders are applauded for their courage and willingness to help. Grief counselors are made available to both.
And those of us in the media? Well, let’s just say we’re not universally welcomed at these events. The residents of Newton, CT say they feel like they are being stalked by the press, and the cameras, trucks, satellite dishes and constant questions are only making their situation worse.
Some of the criticism is deserved. In Newtown a woman looking for peace in a church complained of being surrounded by rude reporters. In Detroit, a TV photographer without logos on his car or clothing, caused a panic as he pulled on many locked doors of a grade school last Monday, trying to record how easy it was to get into the school. (He didn’t get in.)
So what the press gets is lots of grief for the way we operate during and after tragedies, and we’re much less likely to be sought after by grief counselors. That’s a problem.
The horrors and tragedies witnessed by first responders are frequently witnessed and experienced by reporters as well. At the EIJ Conference in New Orleans in 2011, there was a session featuring reporters who experienced PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) after covering Hurricane Katrina. If there was one take-away from that session for me, it’s that News Directors need to be on the lookout for signs of traumatic stress among their staff, because it’s the rare reporter who will directly ask for help. (We’re also supposed to be tough and hardened, right?)
It’s not always going to be the obvious events like witnessing a death or being threatened themselves that create the stress. Sometimes it can be as simple as sitting in a newsroom where the phrase “at least a dozen young children are believed to have been killed” is heard every few minutes by a person who has a child the same age in school at the time.
If you are a news director who has sent a reporter to cover a school shooting, a gruesome accident, a deadly riot or terrorist attack, there are some resources you can turn to for guidance in helping your staff deal with how that may affect them.
One of the best is the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma. It’s an excellent resource not only for journalists who cover violence, but for their managers as well. Another resource is PTSD Media Consultants.
Both of these sites will give managers some clues to identify problems and suggested solutions. They also give managers ideas about how to start those conversations.
Whether the public realizes it or not, journalists are often first responders to events too. We bury our emotions and do our jobs in the face of tragedy, horror and disbelief. On top of that, many people in the audience second guess how we gather the news, how we present it, what we got right and wrong, and heap criticism on top of what may already be open mental health wounds. While a police officer will get a thumbs up or a hug, a reporter will get emails about everything they did wrong or might have done better.
To the reporters covering the events in Newtown, CT, and reporters across the country who do excellent work and service to the audience by covering tragic events in a professional way….please know that RTDNA stands by you…and don’t ever be afraid to ask for help if you need it, or even just an afternoon off to hug your kid.