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Wednesday, June 1, 2011
Education Toolbox

Dealing with on-the-job trauma begins in school

By Nerissa Young

A reporter should take three things to every story: a pen, a notebook and a heart. It’s impossible to tell the story of humanity without the heart tool.

When a father drove 100 miles to Shepherd University and shot to death his two sons in their dormitory parking lot before turning the gun on himself, I had two questions for the editor of the campus newspaper: Do you know about this, and how are you doing?

The shootings happened during Labor Day weekend. The Picket staff scrambled to cover the story. I called each day of the weekend to check on their mental health. I had confidence in their ability to tell the story; I wanted to make sure they knew it was OK to be upset and grieve with the rest of the campus.

Media consumers who don’t consider campus journalists as “real” journalists need to rethink that. Plenty of society’s afflictions reveal themselves all too often and all too vividly on college campuses.

Community journalists and media managers also need to rethink the emotional toll this job takes on human beings who cover the news.

Journalism schools spend a lot of time teaching ledes, interviewing skills, video editing and database searches. It’s imperative educators take time to talk about the emotional aspects of telling the world’s worst stories.

Not doing so fails to equip these young people for their jobs, and it may also cause talented ones to leave the profession because nobody explained that it’s OK to feel emotional.

Research suggests that journalists and first responders — including police officers and soldiers — share common characteristics of seeing the world at its worst and operating in a culture that attempts to deny what they experience.

The study of journalists and trauma is a relatively new niche. It caught attention after the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing and gathered momentum following the Columbine shootings. News organizations are acknowledging that journalists can suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. The Dart Center is the premiere agency serving this specialized field, but it is not the only place where this is being studied.

War correspondents and photojournalists are obvious areas of study, but researcher River Smith reported in 2008 and scholars F. Teegan and M. Grotwinkel in 2001 that the majority of journalists have witnessed a work-related traumatic event while doing their jobs.

Journalists who are coping with traumatic events often turn outside the newsroom for support, a study in Journal of Mental Health reported in December 2009.

Neil Greenberg, Matthew Gould, Vicky Langston and Mark Brayne interviewed 124 media managers who voluntarily attended a course about managing trauma in the workplace.

Their self-reporting surveys showed that most journalists turned to family members or friends outside the newsroom. The study became a springboard for European news organizations to adopt a streamlined version of the U.K. Royal Navy’s Trauma Risk Management program.

Klas Backholm and Kaj Bjorkqvist surveyed 503 Finnish journalists, most of whom were working in their communities. Their findings, published last year in the journal Media, War & Conflict, suggest common sense.

Covering a significant singular traumatic event had a larger impact on reporters’ well-being than a number of less-traumatic events. Further, journalists’ tendencies toward PTSD, depression, compassion fatigue and burnout were enhanced by the number of crises journalists experienced in their personal lives more so than the number of crises they experienced at work.

Therefore, journalists who are personally and professionally immersed in traumatic events are at the greatest risk. The mental health of journalists who cover the aftermath of storms, mass deaths and other events in which they have lost their own homes or friends is the next area ripe for research.

Acknowledgement can’t be the only step. Otherwise, journalism instructors and media managers are letting their reporters become the frogs that slowly boil to death.

Nerissa Young is a member of the SPJ Journalism Education Committee. She teaches reporting classes and advises the campus newspaper at Marshall University. She previously taught at Shepherd University. Coverage of the Shepherd shootings is featured in a case in “Journalism Ethics: A Casebook of Professional Conduct for News Media” written and edited by the SPJ Ethics Committee.

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