Journalists Need Help Overcoming Stress

12/19/12 – When I posted this article back in July little did any of us who live in or near Newtown know it would have so much meaning to those in the media who have covered the horrific tragedy at the Sandy Hook Elementary School.

Anyone who has watched the coverage can’t help but see the noticeable toll it has taken on journalists both in studio and on location not to forget those working behind the scenes.

Just about any journalist, myself included, at least once in their career is going to cover some sort of human tragedy.

I think just as with the public in general what is tearing at the heart of those who are covering this is not just the loss of human life but the life of those so young.

As I have said to many over the past days this is the one time I’m glad I’m not currently a part of the local media, as I’m sure I too would be covering the day Evil came among us.

Just as those directly and indirectly affected by this tragic event will need to seek out some sort of counseling so too will those whose job it is to report the senselessness of what mankind can do upon itself.

The following is the original post from July 30, 2012.

Whether covering the recent shooting in Aurora, CO or what transpired on September 11, 2001, these events can and often do cause stress on reporters, crew and those doing the background work in newsrooms around the country and the world.

The website CPJ recently ran an article written by Frank Smyth discussing the subject on emotional stress and trauma on staff.

The rampage inside a Colorado movie theater that killed 12 people and injured dozens more is the most recent reminder that a journalist anywhere can face sudden, great emotional stress. Any story involving tragedy–from domestic violence to natural disasters–can inflict an emotional toll on field journalists. The very empathy that makes a journalist a good storyteller puts him or her at risk.

Today’s newsrooms managers are increasingly attuned to the problem of stress among their staff members and are willing to provide help. Yet there remains the legacy of newsrooms past, when stress was ignored or even derided. And with news organizations cutting staff, freelancers are increasingly doing frontline reporting. These freelancers often don’t enjoy the same level of organizational support, even as they confront the same level of stress.

Field journalists and newsroom managers alike need to be aware of the signs of stress. They include insomnia, nightmares, anxiousness, irritability, difficulty concentrating, confusion, numbness, or withdrawal, along with compulsive behaviors involving perhaps food, alcohol, drugs, sex, or even work. Many symptoms are normal, but if they persist for more a month there may be need for help. Certainly after three months, these symptoms deserve attention.

Journalists need three things to process stress and recover from any prolonged condition. First, they need support without judgment from their colleagues and superiors. Some people are ashamed of needing help–that somehow they don’t measure up to the image of a thick-skinned correspondent.

Second, they need the space and time to take care of themselves. Trauma affects every individual differently, and pre-existing conditions may be triggered by recent events. Unpacking complicated emotions is a process, and it takes time to recover and heal.

Third, journalists need the privacy to share only what they want, when they want to share it, with others, even if it means sharing nothing at all. Newsrooms should provide support from behind a firewall, so that managers do not necessarily even know who is receiving newsroom-provided support.

I’m often reminded during events which cause death and mayhem to people of a car accident I came across many years ago. To this day some thirty years later I can still see the three victims who were killed and their faces, or what was left of two of them and the passenger in the rear seat as if it were yesterday.

While we the viewing, reading and listening public don’t think about it, there are the invisible victims of such tragedies, those who do the reporting or are witness to tragedy as events unfold before the public’s eyes and ears as coverage is provided either live or after the fact.

Doing a reporter’s job comes with a paycheck but can also come with deep rooted emotional stress and scarring which can last a lifetime.

From the “grunts” in the field to video/photo editors to news anchors, we all have nightmares from time to time of what we have seen while “doing our job” bringing the news to the public at large. Much more than what the public actually sees or needs to see on the nightly news.

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