Like Other First Responders, Journalists Face PTSD

Journalists who cover violence are often unprepared and unsupported.

Posted Aug 05, 2019

Patricia Prijatel
Source: Patricia Prijatel

It's happening again: Horrified Americans are reading news reports of mass shootings. Newscasters, with coarse voices and somber faces tell the story of daily acts of violence.

The victims add up to thousands, tens of thousands, millions when we add all those wounded in one way or another—family members, friends, and communities across the country.

But hidden in those numbers are the people who bring this news to our laptops and televisions and, occasionally, our doorsteps—the journalists who are often among the first on the scene, and who see the violence personally, then keep reliving it as the story develops, one disturbing detail after another.

Trauma has become commonplace in America’s newsrooms, but most journalists are unprepared to deal with it and, as a consequence, often experience mental health issues such as PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), says journalism researcher Natalee Seely, assistant professor of journalism at Ball State University, in research published in the Newspaper Research Journal.  

Seely surveyed 254 journalists from across the country, asking them to rate the severity of PTSD-related symptoms after covering a violent event such as an earthquake, murder, execution, sexual assault, drowning, and a plane crash. Respondents reported heightened anxiety, difficulty sleeping or concentrating, irritability and outbursts, avoiding talking or thinking about the event or visiting places associated with it, hopelessness, detachment, loss of interest, and sadness.

Seely also did follow-up interviews with journalists who talked about being unprepared beforehand and unsupported professionally afterward. Seely compares these journalists to first responders, as they are often among the first on the scene of the violent event. Unlike public safety professionals, though, they have little experience in facing such traumas.

Today’s Newsroom

The problem has multiple roots and many branches, Seely says, much of which can be traced back to the nature of the newsroom.

First, news staffs have shrunk, with jobs in newsrooms falling about 23 percent between 2008 and 2018. In many cases, this comes as a result of layoffs of older, more seasoned, and therefore, better paid. reporters and editors. This leaves newly minted reporters to cover events without the experience that gave their predecessors at least a bit of perspective and psychological armor.

Of the journalists Seely surveyed, only 29 percent had more than 20 years of experience, and 31 percent had fewer than five years.  What’s more, these young reporters now cover a larger amount and a broader swath of the news, rather than being assigned a specific beat.

That means that a journalist who trained as a political writer or science reporter can be covering a shooting, plane crash, or climate disaster—possibly all three—in her first week. This is exacerbated by the meshing of jobs, in which a reporter also becomes a photographer and videographer, so she sees the disaster literally through multiple lenses.

Second, there’s the journalism culture, the sense that journalists should leave their problems out of the newsroom, the tacit rule that it’s unprofessional to talk about your emotions.

Seely’s research was motivated by her own experience as a reporter right out of college who worked the crime beat for three years. She had family and friends to help her sort out her stress, but she felt emotions were unwelcome in the newsroom. She said her editor was understanding but “we didn't talk about stuff like that in the newsroom.”  This experience stuck with her and led her to graduate school and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a dissertation on the topic.

Helping journalists avoid and cope with PTSD, she says, includes a few straightforward steps:

            •Education and training. She recommends that journalism schools help prepare students to cover trauma and to experience it themselves. This could mean guest speakers who speak honestly of their own experiences and their methods of coping. This training must continue in the newsroom. She says many of the young reporters she interviewed talked about being “thrown into the deep end” with no preparation.

            •Debriefing sessions after violent events that allow reporters to express their emotions, to download in a supportive environment.

            •Destigmatizing mental health issues. It’s important to have a newsroom, she says,  in which other reporters can say “hey, this can be a tough job, if you ever feel like a story is getting to you, my door is always open.” The grizzled old reporter is long gone, and the stereotype should be gone with him.

Journalists themselves now face attacks in a political environment that blames reporters for the truths they cover. “Society needs journalists and wants good journalism,” she says. “And all of that depends on a healthy workforce. This means education and understanding.”

The bottom line, she says: “You can still be an objective journalist and be empathetic and talk about your feelings. Objectivity does not run counter to emotions.”