a. Spend the time you need to process your thoughts and feelings
b. Take mini-breaks whenever possible
c. Derive confidence from your skills and experiment
d. Learn about trauma
e. Turn to supportive peers
f. Turn to family and friends
g. Explore opportunities for spiritual and creative expression
h. Make the time to work out
i. Take care of your body
j. Seek help sooner rather than later
What Journalists Can Do To Take Care of Themselves
The Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma in Seattle looked at how journalists are affected by their work and the risk factors that can make them more vulnerable to problems. Research Director Elana Newman noted that a study of 131 journalists in Washington and Michigan in 1999 showed that the majority of journalists studied (86 percent) had witnessed traumatic events and subsequent research tends to confirm those findings.
Newman found that the good news is that many journalists are relatively resilient. Less than 6 percent of 875 photojournalists surveyed and less than 5 percent of 906 print journalists studied in 2003 appeared to suffer symptoms of PTSD (posttraumatic stress disorder). (It should be noted, however, the study samples were not randomized so the actual rates remain unknown. Newman also notes there is concern that rates of PTSD may rise over time.)
Other research shows that reporters exposed to higher numbers of traumatic assignments had a greater likelihood of suffering PTSD. Both novice reporters and veterans also appear to be at higher risk of problems. Reporters who were also exposed to trauma in their personal lives may also be more vulnerable.
The challenge for news organizations and journalists themselves is to understand the risk of secondary victimization and take steps to prevent problems. Michigan State University’s Victims and the Media Program guarantees that all journalism students will receive specialized training in reporting on victims of violence and catastrophe, as well as advice on how to protect themselves when doing these stories.
The following advice is adapted from materials available on the program’s Web site (http://www.victims.jrn.msu.edu). This advice is not just for reporters but also for photographers, videographers, editors, and anyone at a news organization who deals with disturbing text or images.
When dealing with crime and crime victims, journalists should—
- Spend the time you need to process your thoughts and feelings. Particularly under the pressure of deadlines with Act I stories, reporters may need to go on “auto-pilot” to complete their assignments. Part of being a professional is producing under pressure and despite adversity. Getting though a tough assignment often means promising yourself you will deal with the feelings later. While recent research raises questions about the effectiveness (or harm) related to various debriefing strategies, the best advice appears to be to take the time you feel you need to work through what happened to you. The effects of stress are cumulative. As Psychologist Dr. Gary Embelton warns, “You can play tricks with your mind but your body keeps score.”15
- Take mini-breaks whenever possible. Even during tough assignments, you can benefit from snatching a few moments here and there to clear your head. Take a moment to enjoy the sunshine (or the rain). Savor positive times whenever you can.
- Derive confidence from your skills and experience. Reporting on crime victims is one of the toughest assignments a journalist will face. You may break down. You may make mistakes. You should never, however, beat yourself up for doing your best. Just remember to learn from your experiences. There can also be tremendous satisfaction in doing good work that honors victims.
- Learn about trauma. Doing so will help you do a better job of reporting on crime victims and it will help you understand what secondary trauma can do to you. Your victim advocate sources can provide reliable information about trauma and strategies to cope with it.
- Turn to supportive peers. Fellow journalists are often the best source of support because they understand how tough reporting on crime can be. News organizations need to understand that providing a supportive environment, where reporters can honestly share feelings, helps avoid burnout and is conducive to good mental and physical health. The best news organizations understand that it is to their benefit when reporters under stress know that they can occasionally turn down difficult assignments without fear that doing so would jeopardize their careers.
- Turn to family and friends. Journalists benefit from maintaining a strong support system they can turn to during and after a difficult assignment.
- Explore opportunities for spiritual and creative expression. Learn meditation or take yoga. Sign up for a painting class. Try knitting or start a journal. Find an activity that makes you feel good.
- Make the time to work out. Exercise boosts production of brain chemicals that reduce stress, improve mood, and reduce pain. A regular exercise program is a good way to reduce the risk of depression.
- Take care of your body. Eat well. Drink enough fluids. Get enough sleep. Avoid alcohol and other debilitating drugs. Exercise. Enjoy a massage.
- Seek help sooner rather than later. There is no virtue in “toughing it out” and hoping you will feel better. Talk with your physician about the trauma you have suffered. Seek referrals to therapists who can help. There should never be any stigma or shame associated with taking good care of yourself. The National Center for PTSD offers warning signs you should heed. You should be sure to seek help if—
- You experience symptoms that cause distress, result in significant changes in your relationships, or impair your ability to function at work.
- You are self-medicating with alcohol or other drugs.
- You do not find relief with strategies for self care, such as those listed above.
The Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma offers a self-guided tutorial for journalists that explains the signs and effects of traumatic stress and how to cope with its effects. This information is helpful to increase knowledge about how trauma affects crime victims, as well as reporters who may be continually exposed to traumatic events. The tutorial can be accessed at: