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The Impact of Covering Trauma on Reporters

Sirens wail as a story of trauma unfolds, but before the ambulances arrive, journalists are already on the scene. Journalists are not traditional first responders, but during a tragedy, they are the eyes and ears of the community, which means they cannot look away.

TU McFarlin Professor of Psychology Elana Newman is the research director at the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma. “It is mostly a journalism run organization whose goal is to improve the ethical and responsible reporting of stories about trauma,” Newman said. She and her students ask the question:  How does covering trauma impact the mental health and work performance of journalists?

Journalists are unaccustomed to being observed, and discussing mental health risks is not welcome. When Newman began her research 15 years ago, she would receive notes from disgruntled reporters: “Now that women have entered the profession, we are getting all touchy feely.”

A culture of health is engrained in police academies and fire houses, but journalists are too often handling PTSD alone or undiagnosed. There is a high stigma among journalists that they don’t seek help. From war zones to car accidents, journalists prioritize the story above all else. “How do you get back in your car after you just covered a car crash?” Newman questioned.

Newman shared a story of a journalist taking pictures of a man drowning in a lake. Finally, the journalist dives in to save the man. “His face was on the picture of every paper,” Newman said. “But, he got in trouble because there was no image of him for his paper.”  The rule is if no one else is around, reporters come to the rescue, but the pressure of the 24-hour news cycle is an exhausting race to be the most relevant and timely. With internet also comes comments looming at the end of every story, journalists are subject to harassment. “I do think that our public civility has gone down. Does it lead to self-censoring? Does harassment affect freedom of the press?” Newman said.

Telecommuting hinders the camaraderie in the journalism community. They communicate from screen to screen, and the days of meeting up at the bar after work are few. “Good social support is a predictor of everything good in mental health and quality of life and lack of it is bad,” Newman said. Journalists are not processing trauma within a supportive community, and PTSD preys on the isolated. Journalists often struggle with guilt too. Tragedy must be covered in the news, but that means reporters profit from someone else’s pain.

Newman and her colleagues at the Dart Center are working to dispel the myth of the tough and emotionless reporter. Emotional awareness and literacy can be an effective tool to uncover the best story.  “Journalists are trained in how to interview people in power who are withholding something,” Newman explained. Those same tactics will not work on grieving family members or witnesses in shock. By providing journalists with psychological resources and tips on how to speak to the disempowered, news will be more accurate.

Newman researches how news coverage influences reporters, interviewees and even the public. Looking to the future, Newman and her students are armed with a new question: “How do different depictions of traumatic events effect the mental health of the public?”