Reporters can experience ‘vicarious trauma’ when covering violent events

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WASHINGTON – Journalists are regularly put into emotional situations, covering murders, natural disasters or wars. They watch as a family member grieves over a lost loved one and as protesters speak out against their violent government.

Many put themselves in danger when they cover these situations. When the violence erupted in Egypt on Wednesday, journalists were among the dead.

Reporters and news organizations have started to recognize and talk about the effects of covering traumatic situations on journalists.

After events such as Columbine, September 11, Hurricane Katrina and Newtown, news organizations recognized that reporters are emotionally and mentally affected from covering traumatic situations.

José Luis González, a photojournalist for El Norte newspaper, risks his life every to cover murder scenes at Ciudad Juárez as do most of journalists in one of the most dangerous cities of the world. (Ivan Pierre Aguirre/Borderzine.com)

José Luis González, a photojournalist for El Norte newspaper, risks his life every to cover murder scenes at Ciudad Juárez as do most of journalists in one of the most dangerous cities of the world. (Ivan Pierre Aguirre/Borderzine.com)

The Dart Center for Trauma and Journalism provides journalists and educators with resources to help teach and cover traumatic situations.

Frank Ochberg, a clinical professor of psychiatry at Michigan State University, helped create the Dart Center in the late 1990s, establishing an organization that was the first of its kind for reporters.

“When you think about it, journalists get training on how to be a food journalist or movie critic or sports writer,” Ochberg said. Journalists who cover trauma have “much harder assignments” that can cause them to develop post-traumatic stress disorder.

The Dart Center offers training through a fellowship program, Ochberg Fellows – named after the professor. Journalists attend a week of seminars that include briefings from trauma and mental health experts and journalist-to-journalist discussions on the impact of the coverage on themselves and how to make an effective narrative about violent events. The training is free, including transportation, housing and meals.

“Doing the Dart fellowship has really helped me a lot in terms of being able to be more sensitive in interviewing victims and helping me identify when I need support and help,” Gina Barton, an investigative reporter for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, said. Barton was part of the fellowship program when the Dart Center began.

When Barton was in her early-20s, she covered the story of a 15-year-old pregnant girl who was murdered and buried by the baby’s father. The girl was missing for about two years before her body was found. Barton spent weeks with the girl’s family.

“It was the first time I had spent so much time with sources who were grieving so intensely,” Barton said. “They shared with me how awful some of the other reporters had been, doing things such as camping out on their front lawn and shouting questions at them as they drove to her funeral. I wanted to be sure I did not become that kind of reporter. I also wanted to learn how to keep my own emotions in check without burying them in an unhealthy way or becoming jaded as my career progressed.”

Shortly after covering the story, she saw an advertisement for the center and decided to apply for the fellowship.

Before the fellowship, there really was nowhere for journalists to receive trauma training. It was something that they learned on the job.

“Everyone just felt it came with the territory,” Arnie Robbins, executive director of the American Society of News Editors, said. Besides some informal questions and training before going out on an assignment, there really was nothing done to prepare journalists.

“I think a lot of times reporters are just taught that our job is kind of not to show emotion,” Barton said. “We’re supposed to be stoic the same way other first responders are, and I think if you aren’t aware that vicarious trauma can happen … you’re more likely to become traumatized by it.”

Before the Dart Center, journalists were left on their own to deal with what they saw.

“You would smoke a cigarette in the middle of the night and try to understand what you just experienced,” Paul McEnroe said. McEnroe is an investigative reporter for the Minneapolis Star Tribune and was an Ochberg Fellow in 2005.

“I didn’t realize until I went through the training with Dart just what a toll it had taken on me,” McEnroe said of covering murders and the Gulf and Iraq Wars. He said he didn’t talk about what he had experienced.

“I walked around with it and carried it,” he said. “It’s kind of like compound interest. Except, instead of accumulating money, you accumulate pain and, to a degree, a lot of numbness.”

The training taught McEnroe how to deal with the pain.

“Among the many benefits of learning how to cope, I found just how much of a crazy gardener I am after dealing with the pain openly,” he said. “It’s a part of my self-healing therapy.”

McEnroe is also an adjunct lecturer at the University of Minnesota, where he applies his training from the Dart Center to his classroom.

“I incorporate training practices that Dart showed me in order to prepare students when they graduate and go into a newsroom,” he said. “They admit they had no clue this kind of issue was there.”

Even though awareness and the conversation about journalists and trauma are growing, not much has changed.

In a study done by the Dart Center, only 7 percent of the 131 university journalism departments surveyed offer classes in trauma and crisis training, even though 73 percent of those have an interest in teaching it.

Bruce Shapiro, executive director of the Dart Center, listed BBC, the Associated Press, NPR and the Columbus Dispatch as news organizations that are taking trauma training seriously. However, he said, “there’s a downhill from there,” and the majority of news organizations “don’t do anything until there’s a crisis.”

That’s not a good idea, Ochberg said.

“Newsrooms should have regular … trainings for staff on covering trauma and impact it could have on themselves,” Ochberg said. But he said making trauma training a regular may not happen soon.

Shapiro said part of the problem is not just the stigma of journalists showing emotion, but also the general lack of job training in general.

“We have a lousy training culture in journalism in this country,” Shapiro said. “There are other countries in the world where media has a robust training culture. In those places … you see more trauma awareness built into that.”

It is this training that McEnroe sees as vital to the profession.

“It’s crucial and it’s life-saving,” he said. “In physical sense and an emotional sense. I think newsrooms throughout the country, throughout the world are shortchanging their journalists if they are not given the proper training.”

For reporters who can’t get training, Barton said, speaking up about what they are experiencing can help.

“The most important thing, in terms of what a newsroom can do, is to be aware that different reporters have different levels of what they can emotionally handle,” she said. “If there is a reporter that can tell their editor that they can’t take it, their editor should respect that and find someone else.”

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Editor’s note: this article was previously published by Scripps Howard Foundation Wire.

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  1. Jack McGarvey

    Very well written piece.

    Thank you.

    Which, oddly, made me wonder if the US Border Patrol has been offering counseling to one of its “finest” who, almost a year ago, shot and killed a Mexican teenager by putting 7 shots into his back while he was walking along a street in Nogales, Sonora.

    Those 7 shots, fired across an International Border, nearly cut his body in half.

    The shooting, callously described by the US Border Patrol as an “incident,” is still under investigation by the FBI.

    While the boy’s family grieves and wonders why it’s taking the FBI so long.

    After all, the entire “incident” was videotaped.

    But, sincerely, I do worry about the BP officer that killed that boy. Because from everything I’ve read about the “code” of law enforcement, to shoot any human in the back is not only forbidden, but also is an act that will haunt the shooter the rest of his days.

    Yes, I know that I’ve strayed a bit from the point of this piece.

    Then, again, I may not have, because a reporter-friend from a big Tucson paper came down to the border to investigate the shooting site the very next day.

    He then published what he found: that the shots fired by the agent were carefully aimed through the slats of a huge new fence our government has constructed to keep “those people” from trespassing into the US of A.

    The BP definitely did not like what he wrote. And, no surprise, he’s since been having a heck of a hard time getting his phone calls returned.

    Meanwhile, if you’ve never heard of this brutal shooting, please do check out this link:

    http://www.azcentral.com/news/arizona/articles/20130410border-patrol-new-details-mexico-teens-death.html

    Hope springs eternal, as the saying goes…

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