Any newsroom that has experienced coverage of a major disaster can list pointers for how to be prepared for the next one: An efficient plan for communication, a backup to that plan, spare batteries, car chargers, mobile wifi devices, how to involve and get help from staff in other departments, hotel rooms, access to petty cash, and reciprocal backup plans with sister publications or even competitors arranged ahead of time.
But the biggest impact that difficult and tragic stories can have on a newsroom doesn’t easily fit on such a checklist. Increasingly, newsroom leaders are paying attention to the mental toll on their journalists.
For years, the Dart Center at Columbia University has raised awareness about “trauma journalism,” and the well-being of journalists who see or experience violent and-or emotionally jarring circumstances in the course of their reporting.
There are several reasons this work is spreading to the average newsroom and editors who might have thought in the past that it only applied to war correspondents.
For one thing, the average newsroom is a lot more likely these days to have covered war zone-like scenes in their own community, as the number of mass shootings and gun violence in the United States has risen dramatically over the past decade.
Second, nothing happens in a vacuum, and today’s journalists are operating with fewer resources and intense anxiety about the business.
As flooding devastated Baton Rouge in August, longtime New Orleans journalist Bruce Nolan reminded colleagues of what the reporters there were facing.
“Baton Rouge is experiencing an epic summer from hell: Since July 3, it has been wracked by public protests over a police shooting, the retaliatory murder of three police officers, and now this,” he wrote in a public Facebook post. “Coverage of the event is being executed by local reporters, photographers, editors and others who come to this event after marinating for weeks in other people’s misery, and who now have lost their own homes as well. Yet they continue to work. In fact they’re pouring in on, harder than ever. They will pay a psychic price, eventually.”
When the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting happened and consumed my staff at the New Haven Register for months, it came at a time when most reporters and editors hadn’t seen a raise in five or six years. The newspaper’s parent company was in the midst of a bankruptcy filing and sent every employee a letter saying their job would be eliminated and they might or might not be rehired. Every start of a budget year, every mid-year point, and often random times in-between, brought worries about another round of layoffs or buyouts, and the strain of losing positions through attrition. They were also being asked to learn new technology, of course, and to pivot to new tools and new areas of focus every few months.
The newsroom was also in the midst of a 12-month stretch in which it covered a triple murder home invasion trial where reporters were exposed to gruesome details day after day, the Boston Marathon bombing, a historic blizzard, and a hurricane that knocked out power in much of the state for a week or more. Staff showed to write about the impact on people even though, like journalists in Baton Rouge, most of them were impacted, too—without power, with a tree crashed through the roof of their home, with no one to watch their kids due to school being canceled. The staff also lost two beloved longtime colleagues during this stretch—one who dropped dead at work, in the middle of the day, and the other who fought a long, drawn-out battle with cancer.
The impact was cumulative, with the Sandy Hook experience so extreme that it made us more sensitive and vulnerable to the impact of the “routine” bad news we covered thereafter. Past methods of dealing with run-of-the-mill horrible stories of crime and poverty, of course, were the tried and true: gallows humor in the office, and alcohol after work.
The impact was also personal. Dart has highlighted research about the genetic disposition, past experiences and other factors that might lead one person to experience PTSD from a particular circumstance and another not.
Reporters with children the ages of the Sandy Hook victims had a particularly hard time, which might seem obvious. For others, it opened wounds from covering the Sept. 11 attacks more than a decade before that they’d never really dealt with.
Imagine covering police shooting after police shooting of unarmed black motorists when you or your child are black and…drive in cars. Or being a reporter covering a whipped-into-frenzy Donald Trump rally when your own parents are undocumented.
After Sandy Hook, the awareness of how this coverage and the other stressors of the modern newsroom were impacting our journalists led to a peer-to-peer support program launched with Dart’s help by an editor and photographer at the York Daily Record in Pennsylvania, which had sent staff to help us in the shooting’s aftermath. But deeper changes are needed.
At around the same time reporters in Baton Rouge—some newly homeless—were covering the flooding in August, a headline from the fake news comedy site The Onion said, “HR Director Reminds Employees That Any Crying Done At Office Must Be Work-Related.”
The lesson for editors is simple but crucial. Work affects the mental well-being and home life of your journalists, and vice versa. Awareness of that impact and a careful, compassionate focus on individuals is a starting point in dealing with it.
Matt DeRienzo is a newsroom consultant and a former editor and publisher with Digital First Media. He teaches journalism at Quinnipiac University and the University of New Haven in Connecticut, and is interim executive director of LION Publishers, a trade organization that represents local independent online news publishers.