I’ll never forget the first rape I covered. I was a 21-year-old cub reporter at a five-day-a-week community newspaper. I received the affidavit on a Friday afternoon during a regular visit to the county courthouse. The district attorney offered it up as something he knew would interest the paper. I thanked him and took the papers without looking at them. After working my beat, I went back to the office to write.
The understaffed newsroom was empty. I sat down at my antiquated computer to compose a story for Sunday’s edition. Combing through the affidavit, I identified key issues. Two 15-year-old girls went to a football game with a car full of boys from school who they thought were their friends. The older boys had alcohol. The girls drank too, even though none were of legal drinking age. After a short visit to the game, the boys drove the girls to a field “party” where they met several other cars full of boys. With the cars’ headlights shining on a mattress placed in the field, an unknown number of boys gang raped the girls.
I read the affidavit repeatedly, trying to determine what to include and what was too much detail for the newspaper’s readers. Then I cried.
Journalism school prepared me for things like how to interview sources, construct stories and deal with stealthy government, but it didn’t prepare me for the emotions that came along with trauma coverage—emotions reporters are trained not to have or show.
College also didn’t prepare me for the regular writing about the trial that followed, including testimonies from coaches about the male athletes’ futures and how the trial could damage them and their community-leader parents. The trial ended with the boys being exonerated. It was my introduction to the flaws in our justice system.
It was the first of many crimes I would cover and never forget, and a lesson in the importance for me personally of being able to debrief after covering a violent event. I talked a lot about the coverage. I spoke to my understanding editor, my husband and my friends. It was a release for me. I had dreams about the girls, the boys and the trial. My heart ached for all of their parents. But, for the most part, at the end of the day, I went home to my “normal” life and didn’t think much about it. I moved on. I covered more trauma. I was good at it.
I developed a pattern for coping with the emotional strain of covering traumatic events early in my career. I still use it. It wasn’t until I was in my graduate studies that I discovered that not all reporters have this ability to move on. It was then that I became involved in the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma and discovered my life-long research passion. Now a Ph.D. candidate, I study the conflict journalists experience when their professional values and their feelings after covering a traumatic story don’t align.
The emotions of covering that first rape flooded back a few weeks ago when my student editor-in-chief had to cover a sexual assault on campus. The assault occurred just steps away from my editor’s on-campus apartment. It happened on our little, private campus, where we feel safe. My editor requested the incident report from the police department and waited. I hurt for her. I knew somewhat what to expect. She had never covered something like this before. She had no idea. I wanted to make it go away. I wanted to fix it so she would never have to see the report, which caused her to drop her phone after opening it and beginning to read. But this is what we do. It is my job to prepare her for the industry, and witnessing traumatic events and interviewing victims is a guaranteed part of our job.
I sat with the student editor-in-chief after a class we have together. I asked her if she was ok. I let her talk. I told her about how I felt when covering that gang rape all those years ago. I tried to make sure she was ok. I think she is.
But here’s the problem. We don’t talk about it. We don’t talk about how we interview victims and we hurt for them or how we witness traumatic events and they scare us. We’re objective, detached professionals. We aren’t suppose to feel about the things we cover, but we do.
So, the question becomes how can you help yourself and each other? There actually are many ways that you can minimize the risk of emotional harm in your newsroom or help those who are experiencing negative affect after covering a traumatic event.
First, talk about it. Don’t fall into the professionalism trap that results in thinking you and your reporters are robots instead of humans. You want your reporters to feel. You want their humanity and their empathy. Talk about the potential traumatic impact before and after covering a traumatic event. Let them debrief to you.
Second, allow them to opt out. If a reporter doesn’t feel emotionally equipped to cover a story, allow them to opt out. Someone else can cover it. Giving reporters options without fear of repercussions is the right thing to do in these situations.
Third, know your staff. Research shows that reporters with past traumatic experiences, those under 25 years old and females are more likely than their colleagues to experience emotional trauma. This is especially salient when considering sending a female collegiate reporter to cover a sexual assault. One in four women is sexually assaulted during her college career. The likelihood of sending a female reporter to cover a sexual assault story that she relates to on a personal level is great. Know your employees. This is the best way to help protect them.
Fourth, offer social support. Supervisor, peer and general social support are critical in combating emotional trauma. Don’t force your employees to talk to you, but make sure they’re talking to someone. My husband and friends in the newsroom always have been important in my coping process. I’m not sure that I would have been able to continue covering crime without having them to discuss the things I covered and witnessed.
Fifth, know the signs of trauma. One of the reasons, in my opinion, that emotional trauma is so frequently ignored in newsrooms is that journalists don’t recognize it in themselves or each other. Emotional trauma manifests itself differently, depending on its victim. However, sleep disturbances, relationship issues, frequent reminders or avoidance of reminders of the traumatic event, angry outburst, and self medicating through alcohol or substances are common signs associated with emotional trauma. The National Center for PTSD is an amazing resource for learning the basics about emotional trauma, its levels of severity and methods of self care.
Finally, insist on further help. If you see someone suffering in your news organization, even if you’re not sure if it’s trauma- or work-related, insist that they seek professional help. Do not stigmatize them, just get them help.
I am not a therapist. I don’t even play one on TV. But emotional trauma in journalism is my passion and my area of academic expertise. I am certain that the most critical things we can do at the collegiate level and beyond in creating more emotionally healthy newsrooms are to train journalists on the various aspects of emotional trauma, including how to report about victims, and then maintain a judgement free, open dialog about journalists’ emotional well-being.
It’s not just the important thing to do, it’s the only right thing to do.