Anticipating the daily traumas of local reporting

Image via Dan Alcalde/Flickr.

In 2016, York Daily Record photographer Jason Plotkin saw a man throwing furniture out of the third-floor window of a house that had recently burned. When he entered the home to document the scene, he encountered a large hole in the floor that led to a two-story drop. Plotkin used the stair railing to climb over the chasm. It didn’t occur to him until he left the scene of the fire that he might have fallen to his death.

“Afterwards, it kind of shook me up,” he says. “So, I called Scott.”

At the time, Scott Blanchard was Plotkin’s editor at the Record, based in York County, Pennsylvania. Both had experience covering distressing events; they had worked together as part of a team recognized for coverage of a 2003 shooting at Red Lion Junior High. In 2012, Blanchard wrote about several colleagues who assisted the New Haven Register in the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Connecticut. “They were just bawling,” says Plotkin, who also spoke with coworkers about Sandy Hook. “It was obvious that when they came home, there was nothing to help them cope with what they’d been through.”

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After Sandy Hook, Plotkin and Blanchard launched a peer support and trauma awareness program at the Record. The program encouraged Record reporters to reach out to editors or trusted coworkers if they needed help—after a particularly tough story, or after routine coverage—and trained staffers to be proactive about checking in on each other, both at the York Daily Record and at the paper’s sister publications in Lebanon, Hanover, and Chambersburg, Pennsylvania. In addition to informal peer support, the program provided each new hire with individual 45-minute trauma awareness seminars during their orientation. In 2014, when the program launched, Record held an extended training session for existing staffers and management, in conjunction with the Dart Center for Trauma and Journalism.

The point of the program, which continues today, “is to prepare staff and newsrooms before something major happens,” says Blanchard. That way, “you improve your ability to report effectively during an incident, and so you know what to do after it’s over to help staff process and learn.”

The Record’s peer-support program is a rarity among American newsrooms, where efforts to assist journalists dealing with trauma are typically reactive, launched after tragedies such as natural disasters or school shootings that attract national coverage. Blanchard, who discusses peer support and trauma awareness programs with other newsrooms, says editors often respond that they don’t see the need for such resources, or they will look into starting a program if they cover a particularly troubling story. That kind of reactive thinking, Blanchard says, overlooks why such efforts are useful in the first place. Putting off proactive peer support and trauma awareness training may also reinforce stigma that prevents reporters from speaking up if their coverage weighs on them.

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“Nobody wants to be the reporter who, when something big happens, the editor thinks, ‘We can’t send that person,’” Blanchard says. “We as newsrooms and editors have to be fine when someone comes back and says, ‘I’m having trouble with something I’ve covered, do you have a minute to talk?’”

Unlike other professions that could be classified as first responders, journalists don’t generally prioritize routine stress management training and incident debriefings, says Elana Newman, research director for the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma. That may leave some journalists vulnerable to increased stress or secondary trauma. Reporters who have been traumatized may experience depression, anxiety or even post traumatic stress disorder as a result of their jobs, or might be at heightened risk of substance abuse. Even journalists who don’t experience secondary trauma may lose enthusiasm for their profession or undergo burnout, leading to less productivity and a decreased sense of wellbeing at work.

“It’s typically the daily murder, murdered children, and car accidents that journalists find the most stressful,” says Newman of her team’s research. “It’s not the major events—where you get kudos for covering it, or you get promoted, or you get moved to another market if you’re in TV.” (However, such events “can create lasting stress for some depending on the circumstances,” she says.)

 

We can teach a concrete skill, like how to write a sharper lede or how to make our verbs more active. But this subject matter is complex. It deals with a lot of subjective matter. It’s your head and your heart, and it’s an issue that affects everybody differently.

 

PEER SUPPORT DEVELOPED DIFFERENTLY at The Daily Herald, based in Everett, Washington, and overseen by Sound Publishing. Scott North, a former editor at the paper, raised the subject after he witnessed the execution of a death row inmate in 1994. “I got back in town and a cop I knew approached me about and said, ‘You guys have a traumatic debriefing program there, don’t you?’” North says. “The simple answer was no.” Until that moment, says North, “nobody had ever considered any such a thing.”

The Daily Herald didn’t institute a formal debriefing system, but took greater care with story assignments on troubling topics, especially crime and courts. Reporters were given the option to swap assignments if they had covered a grisly crime or a harrowing trial several days in a row. Editors organized the newsroom into teams, which treated potentially traumatic topics with the same care they gave election coverage.

“Folks were given permission to raise their hands and say, ‘I can’t do this today,’” North says. “It made for a far healthier working environment, really.”

The Daily Herald’s trauma awareness efforts were rewarded in 2014, says North. That year, reporters covered the Oso mudslides, which killed 43 people, and a fatal school shooting at Marysville Pilchuck High School.

“We got hit with two of those foundation-shaking events in our community and our newsroom,” North says. “I think if we hadn’t developed some of the systems we had in place, we wouldn’t have been able to function at the end of that year.”

Throughout, says North, The Daily Herald avoided labeling its peer-support practices.

“Journalists generally aren’t joiners,” North says. “They are professional skeptics and many are too busy to breathe. I don’t remember anyone ever calling what we were doing a ‘peer support program.’ It was how we came to work.”

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Preparing younger reporters for their encounters traumatic events may help them develop resiliency, according to the Dart Center’s Cait McMahon. In her work with journalism students, McMahon often emphasizes the role that mentorship can play in bolstering a reporter’s ability to cope with trauma, and encourages journalism students to develop what she calls “inoculation files”—exchanges with veteran journalists that can help them know what to expect when they show up to a breaking news scene.

“If they haven’t yet covered a car crash or haven’t yet covered a bush fire, I talk to them about the importance of going to someone who’s more experienced and almost interviewing them about what that’s like,” McMahon says.

Rikki King, an assistant local editor at The Daily Herald, says her newsroom still tries to provide preemptive support for reporters—for instance, by telling new hires that feelings of sadness, frustration, or anger during an assignment are normal.

“There’s a culture that we’re supposed to be so tough, and we are so tough,” says King. “But it wears on you if you don’t watch out for it.”

 

AFTER GANNETT MEDIA BOUGHT the York Daily Record, the company selected 20 journalists from newsrooms in several states to attend a trauma awareness seminar held in Wilmington, Delaware, with the hope that journalists would share their experience with coworkers. Since then, the company has conducted additional training in newsrooms across the Midwest, including at The St. Cloud Times in Minnesota and at The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel in Wisconsin.

“We can teach a concrete skill, like how to write a sharper lede or how to make our verbs more active,” says Mackenzie Warren, USA Today Network’s senior director of news strategy. “But this subject matter is complex. It deals with a lot of subjective matter. It’s your head and your heart, and it’s an issue that affects everybody differently.”

Recently, according to Gannett Media officials, York Daily Record reporters drew on their peer-support program to weather coverage of widespread sexual abuse by priests in Pennsylvania. Editors checked in with reporters after stories and coworkers, both past and present, called each other to see if anyone needed to debrief. York Daily Record reporter Brandie Kessler, who recently wrote about about the sexual abuse a man suffered as a teenager under a Harrisburg priest, spoke by phone with Plotkin.

“I think it really speaks volumes about the culture and the training and just our way of being in the newsroom,” Kessler says of the Record. “Even after they’ve left, they’re still thinking about their friends and their colleagues.”

Peer-support programs in US newsrooms are hard to quantify. Those that exist, says Dart Center’s Newman, are often peer-led and informal, launched by one or two dedicated employees who are passionate about instilling an atmosphere of trauma awareness in their workplace. Their informal nature, however, can make them difficult to sustain. When employees move to a different news organization or leave the profession, they take their experience and zeal with them. Monetary and staffing pressures, or a perceived lack of support, can put reporters at greater risk of becoming traumatized, says Newman.

“It turns out that being exposed to traumatic events is problematic and its an occupational hazard,” Newman says. “But it’s when you’re in an environment with all kinds of stressors, layoffs being one of them, or not being supported by supervisors—that ups the risk.”

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Tiffany Stevens is a print journalist and local newspaper enthusiast living in Southwest Virginia. Their newsletter, "Happening at Home," rounds up great reporting from two different cities each week. Follow them on Twitter at @tiffanymstevens.