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Stressed out: How should newsrooms handle trauma?

A TV crew reports on the shooting in Colorado from a parking lot across the street. (AFP/Getty Images/Chip Somodevilla)

The rampage inside a Colorado movie theater that killed 12 people and injured dozens more is the most recent reminder that a journalist anywhere can face sudden, great emotional stress. Any story involving tragedy--from domestic violence to natural disasters--can inflict an emotional toll on field journalists. The very empathy that makes a journalist a good storyteller puts him or her at risk.

Today's newsrooms managers are increasingly attuned to the problem of stress among their staff members and are willing to provide help. Yet there remains the legacy of newsrooms past, when stress was ignored or even derided. And with news organizations cutting staff, freelancers are increasingly doing frontline reporting. These freelancers often don't enjoy the same level of organizational support, even as they confront the same level of stress.

I've recently addressed the topic of stress in forums on multiple continents. I speak from both my own experience with emotional trauma, and from the insights I've gained from colleagues. One thing is clear: The attitude of newsroom managers is crucial in helping journalists work through their stress.

Terminology can get in the way, though. Imagine your boss coming up to you and saying: "Bob, we need to talk. I think you have PTSD." Using the term is likely to be off-putting or threatening, but it is also likely to be inaccurate. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is a clinical diagnosis that involves prolonged symptoms of stress. Some experts are coming to see the term PTSD as outdated. The term is under review by the psychiatric community, which is weighing whether to replace it with Post-Traumatic Stress Injury, a term that, like another one, Post-Traumatic Stress Growth, connotes the possibility of healing and recovery.

Good newsroom management addresses emotional stress before it becomes a prolonged condition. Journalists often, even regularly, navigate stress in an ongoing way. These are the common emotions that surround any severe tragedy: shock, anger, grief, guilt, shame, sadness, or fear. It is normal for journalists to experience strong emotions when covering abnormal situations involving abuse, violence, and loss of life. The journalists who somehow remain stoic in the face of repeated, horrific stories may find themselves suddenly overwhelmed by the same emotions years or even decades down the road.

Field journalists and newsroom managers alike need to be aware of the signs of stress. They include insomnia, nightmares, anxiousness, irritability, difficulty concentrating, confusion, numbness, or withdrawal, along with compulsive behaviors involving perhaps food, alcohol, drugs, sex, or even work. Many symptoms are normal, but if they persist for more a month there may be need for help. Certainly after three months, these symptoms deserve attention.

There are many treatment options from which to choose. One caveat: Avoid taking guidance from any expert or group promoting only their own approach. Instead, become informed and make the decision yourself.

Speaking to a qualified counselor is the most common option, and most therapists have plenty of experience helping people with post-traumatic stress. Peer counseling with colleagues in the newsroom is another option, and this can be effective after sudden mass tragedies such as the Colorado movie theater shooting. Seeing a psychiatrist or medical doctor who can prescribe medication may be recommended for some individuals.

There are other options as well. Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, or EMDR, sounds mysterious. But it can be as simple as a social worker moving his finger from side to side in front of an individual recounting a painful story; stimulating different hemispheres of the brain while recalling a memory can change the way it is stored. Mind-body practices offer another approach. Acupuncture is one of the few therapies shown to be effective, for instance, for torture victims. Other practices, from meditation and yoga to tai chi and qigong, can help individuals heal from trauma.

Sound crazy? The U.S. National Institutes of Health cites studies showing effective results from each of the above the treatments, including the mind-body practices. Regular physical exercise is another good idea, as it breaks down the hormones secreted during stress.

Journalists need three things to process stress and recover from any prolonged condition. First, they need support without judgment from their colleagues and superiors. Some people are ashamed of needing help--that somehow they don't measure up to the image of a thick-skinned correspondent.

Second, they need the space and time to take care of themselves. Trauma affects every individual differently, and pre-existing conditions may be triggered by recent events. Unpacking complicated emotions is a process, and it takes time to recover and heal.

Third, journalists need the privacy to share only what they want, when they want to share it, with others, even if it means sharing nothing at all. Newsrooms should provide support from behind a firewall, so that managers do not necessarily even know who is receiving newsroom-provided support.

There are still many unhelpful attitudes in the profession. I once shared a dais with a broadcast personality who derided the entire notion of emotional stress among journalists, suggesting that only an unstable reporter would be affected. Conversely, I recently heard a mid-level news manager say there is no longer any stigma to a correspondent saying he or she is suffering from post-traumatic stress.

We shouldn't kid ourselves. My CPJ colleagues and I hear regularly from journalists of all types about the stress they face in the field. Many say they don't dare tell their bosses for fear of losing an assignment or their stature in the newsroom.

The good news is this: Not only are many journalists and others resilient and able to bounce back from emotional trauma, but even those who develop a prolonged condition can recover, if not thrive. Researchers at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte have established that people can learn from and grow after recovering from traumatic events to end up healthier, happier, and more balanced than they were before.

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