The Newsroom Trauma Equation
The industry has a long way to go in preparing journalists mentally for the field — and getting them help when they need it.
By Amanda Svachula
In September of 1990, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reporter Michael A. Fuoco went out to report at the scene of a sniper stationed atop a tall building in the city. After the sniper handed his gun to the responding police officers, Fuoco looked down at his notes. A moment later, he heard a loud “pop.”
“There he was, falling,” said Fuoco. The sniper had killed himself with another gun he had at hand. Later that night, as Fuoco sat down for dinner, he felt numb. He could not understand how everyone was laughing and talking when he felt “like my insides were ripped out.” Although he didn’t know it at the time, he was suffering from acute stress disorder.
“I think reporters have this attitude that it’s some kind of weakness,” said Fuoco, who recently shared a Pulitzer as part of the team that covered the aftermath of the mass shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue. “That is a stigma that has to be removed. We report on atrocities [but] you can’t carry this.”
Fuoco is one of thousands of reporters who have experienced the short-term and long-term psychological effects of covering tragic events. According to the Dart Center for Journalism & Trauma, a majority of journalists have been exposed to a work-related traumatic event.
Social media and other new technologies, and the growth of freelance and contractor positions, have only made the problem worse. In February, the Verge reported on the secret lives of Facebook moderators in America, uncovering the harrowing, stress-producing images these workers are subjected to on a daily basis. More and more, reporters are also dealing with alarming content while reporting. Those hired as contractors, meanwhile, are more alienated from the editorial process than staffers, and thus enjoy less support, while grappling with traumatic material and experiences.
Most journalists are resilient, as they tend to self-select. The Verge also referenced the phenomenon of “post traumatic growth,” which happens when trauma victims emerge from an experience stronger than before. But a significant minority of journalists suffer longterm post-traumatic stress disorder, especially war correspondents. In a 2016 study, 19 percent of 395 predominantly American journalists questioned suffered from PTSD. According to the Dart Center, journalists in all types of newsroom “may still experience strong reactions to covering harrowing events.”
The Dart Center has gone a long way in providing resources and training to journalists in the field. But with mass shootings and other forms of violence on the uptick, the industry has a long way to go in preparing journalists and proving resources. Most newsrooms fail to provide formal trauma-training resources to their staff members, and often loading trauma-inducing work on small teams of reporters.
When Cait McMahon, the founding managing director of Dart Centre Asia Pacific, started working as a chaplain, or counselor, at The Age, a daily in Melbourne, in the 1980s, the concept of stress management, let alone stress disorders, was new.
Post-traumatic stress disorder was not officially defined until 1980. Early trauma-reporting research focused on war correspondents and those covering mass casualties, said Elana Newman, research director at the Dart Center. When she started talking about trauma among non-war correspondents, people were surprised. But they shouldn’t have been. “The journalist who covers pain and agony in their own communities struggles with the same kinds of things,” she said.
It’s an ugly paradox: Journalists often reach the pinnacle of their profession and win the most prestigious awards in the business for reporting on the most horrific, community-rocking, gut-wrenching events. In April, the Pulitzer Committee awarded one of its most coveted citations to the Capital Gazette in Annapolis, Maryland, for covering a massacre within its own newsroom. Fuoco said the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s staff felt slightly conflicted about winning a Pulitzer for covering such a traumatic local event. At the same time, he said, “The Pulitzer’s citation about our immersive and compassionate coverage for a community that needed it in a time of grief provided some balm for us.”
Several years ago, Fuoco tried to start a peer-support program at his paper after learning more about trauma while researching a story on rape crisis counseling. He was on vacation in California when the Tree of Life tragedy occurred. After he returned and started reporting, he wrote a story, “For those overwhelmed by the Tree of Life massacre — there is help,” instructing people — in the community, and in his own newsroom—on ways to deal with acute and post traumatic disorder.
It’s hard to predict who will be affected by trauma, or how, although being in a high-risk profession and experiencing chronic exposure are big factors. Sometimes the result is full-blown PTSD. More often it takes the form of anxiety or depression. Social support and self-care are key to mitigating their effects.
As a chaplain, McMahon had an office in The Age building and would often go around and talk to the paper’s journalists as part of her work for the company’s employee assistance program. A little more than half of U.S. workers have access to such an employee assistance program, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In this type of program, workers are usually referred to out-of-the-office counselors who help them figure out a treatment plan. However, McMahon said these counselors are often not trauma-trained.
Newman has been studying the effects of trauma on journalists for 23 years, and worked with numerous trauma-training counselors and media employee assistance programs in the aftermath 9/11. She said that despite the Dart center’s efforts, there is still some resistance within the news industry toward these types of programs. (She singled out CNN for praise.)
“When we started the Dart center, I think that there was a lot of pushback,” she said. “Unlike police departments and fire departments, who have this as part of their culture — the importance of taking care of yourself and managing yourself post-exposure—there has been great resistance in the news industry to do this. I think that it’s starting to change.”
One technique that seems to be taking hold are peer-support programs created by reporters, similar to what Fuoco tried to implement years back in Pittsburgh. Scott Blanchard, who worked at the York Daily Record as an editor, for nearly seventeen years, started a peer-support program in his newsroom, owned by Digital First Media at the time, in 2012. After being trained by the Dart Center, he expanded the program to three other newspapers across the country.
Some newsrooms are getting flack for failing to implement formal support systems. In one of the first cases of its kind, an Australian journalist won $180,000 in damages in February against The Age, for post-traumatic stress disorder caused by crime and court reporting. McMahon served as a witness in the case, YZ vs. the Age Company Limited. The court determined The Age breached its duty of care by failing to help the journalist, ignoring her persistent requests. Following the decision, there was a “knee-jerk” reaction of newsrooms vying for training, McMahon noted.
The complex emotional tensions at the center of so much journalistic work only complicates things. As first responders, journalists must take care of their own emotional well-being, while also being sensitive and careful in interviewing sources in the midst of tragedy. The cult of objectivity suggests journalists should suppress any feelings. Many of the Dart Center’s trainings not only help regulate journalists’ mental health, but help them approach trauma-reporting with strategies couched in the language of journalism ethics.
Each year, the Dart center hands out Dart Awards for Excellence in Coverage of Trauma to deserving newsrooms. This April, The Times Picayune won for “The Children of Central City,” a multimedia project that told the stories of New Orleans children impacted by violence and poverty. Michigan Radio won for episodes of “Believed,” a podcast examining the traumatic legacy of Larry Nassar, the sexually abusive USA Gymnastics doctor that wrought havoc on the community.
Blanchard is now working with a nonprofit called the Trust for Trauma Journalism to bring peer-support and trauma awareness to more newsrooms.
“There’s a best practices angle to trauma coverage,” he said. “And that is to [figure out] how people respond to traumatic events, how they do and how they don’t process them.”
Amanda Svachula is a freelance journalist based in New York City. Her work as appeared in the New York Times, Popula, the Cut and the Chicago Sun-Times.
Last edited: May 22, 2019
Author: Amanda Svachula
Editor: Alexander Zaitchik
Artwork: Photo by nikko macaspac on Unsplash