Carrying Trauma: Care for Journalists and Sources

Media professionals can turn to resources such as the Dart Center for Trauma to deal with online and offline trauma and recovery. 

By Ruby Winter

Journalists on field often find themselves in dangerous situations, whether they are reporting in a war zone or covering a protest or writing on controversial topics. They are challenged, on the one hand, with reporting distressing, even violent events with objectivity and neutrality when their daily routine involves being in the thick of conflict or producing or handling such assignments. On the other hand, reporters in the newsroom are often exposed to a lot of triggering text, graphic imagery or crushing pressure from external smear campaigns. 

Journalism students and professionals are taught few tools to deal with this daily reality of newsgathering and production in a digital world. The digital and social media environments in which they do their work adds additional layers of pressures and avenues for attack. Journalists also need to learn how to report responsibly and ensure sources understand the risks of being cited in news stories. 

The Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma offers many expert resources for media professionals about mindfulness and how to report responsibly and witness traumatic events, such as the unfolding conflict in the Ukraine.

A venture of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, the Center is dedicated to assisting journalists in reporting on traumatic events. But the Center also provides invaluable advice for reporters who are dealing with trauma as a side-effect of their work. While the online resources they offer range from expert interviews to professional advice about interdisciplinary topics, some of the mental health resources they provide should be in the digital arsenal of every media professional. Below Team TrollBusters presents a selection of their most invaluable mental health tools. 

1. Covering difficult stories

First of all, it is important to understand that journalists working in different fields do experience various stages of post-traumatic stress disorder. This is not something that journalists should ignore or accept, journalism should not involve significant physical and mental risks. Journalists working on long-term, in-depth, investigative projects should refer to this guide for managing trauma and stress

2. Handling online harassment

Other than the violence that journalists might experience on field, facing abuse online has become another regular facet of their jobs. Journalism schools and newsrooms fail to understand that online trolls should be taken seriously and that training should be provided to deal with them. “Without a doubt, journalism students need training in wellness, resiliency, and an orientation about the occupational mental health risks of journalism,” says Dr. Elana Newman, the Research Director at Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma. As reporters are on their own to deal with these growing attacks, they should prepare themselves with this self-defense guide for online abuse, such as establishing and maintaining boundaries and enlist social support.

3. Guidelines for newsrooms

Everyone in a news organization from managers to employees should refer to this toolkit about viral hate campaigns to create a culture of community and handle online abuse with the sensitivity it deserves (Refer to the February 2022 issue of Toxic Avenger magazine for a deep dive into smear campaigns and digital lynching). In order to prepare reporters for covering distressing events, managers and editors should turn to these tips to help their team cope with the after-effects of their assignments. 

4. Seeking professional help

New journalists may be pressured to “suck it up” and not report online threats or other harassing behavior. They may not be able to process the mental toll of their reporting assignments or an experienced reporter has experienced trauma beyond their limit. In such a case, journalists should seek help from a mental health professional. This guide by Dr. Elana Newman can point media workers in the right direction if they decide to look for a therapist.  

Even journalists who don’t experience trauma on a daily basis due to their job can often find themselves under a lot of stress and anxiety due to other demands of their work. In such cases, it is important to build a daily mindfulness practice into their routine. Autumn Slaughter was a research assistant at the Dart Center, in the past she has focused on safety training for journalists. She says, “It’s normal to experience distress and anxiety, and it’s okay to take small breaks or reach out to family and friends for help.”

Ruby Winter is a research associate with TrollBusters. She can be reached at report(at)troll-busters(com).

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