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University of Wisconsin–Madison

Occupational hazards: when reporters bear witness to traumatic events

Photo by Marcus Kauffman on Unsplash

One day leading up to the Nov. 3 presidential election, I had a physical reaction to the noxious social media content I watched for work. 

As a reporter serving as a local fellow for First Draft, a global fact-checking organization, I tracked mis- and disinformation related to the election in Wisconsin. Since I’d spent much of the previous year learning about “information disorder” — the anxiety-inducing whirlwind of lies, propaganda and outrageously partisan content we’re bombarded with from Facebook and other platforms — I knew I was handling hazardous material. 

My employers had been upfront about the risks involved with monitoring the social web, and directed me to helpful resources (including First Draft’s 2017 guide on journalism and vicarious trauma). But I had been working in journalism for nearly 10 years, which helps one develop an illusion of resistance to garbage. I believed I could stay clinically removed from the daily parade of racist messaging, reality-warping conspiracy theories, blood-boiling partisan diatribes and calls for violence against political leaders. 

My defenses were breached on a mid-September afternoon as I scrolled through dozens of posts attacking the credibility of mail carriers, clerks and the electoral process in general. I  became overwhelmed by the sense that the ideals of little “d” democracy — the ones reporters work their entire careers to uphold — were eroding before me. 

With a tight feeling in my chest, I left my computer and got on my bicycle, a reliable stress reducer. Not this time, though. The sights and sounds of midday traffic on Madison’s isthmus were more intense than usual, and only increased my panic. Hands trembling and heart pounding, I turned off the roadway and into a wooded park by Lake Mendota, leaned my bike against a tree, and freaked out. It took an hour for my breathing to slow enough to ride home. 

On the disinformation beat in Wisconsin, on the eve of a U.S. election like none before, I felt like I was seeing the stakes clearly and from nauseatingly high up. 

II. Tragic by trade: Journalism often comes with heavy baggage 

In the context of journalism, vicarious trauma is commonly thought of as happening to field reporters — war correspondents, mostly — after interviewing people who have suffered intensely. But it could also be related to acute or prolonged exposure to digital material, said Elana Newman, research director for the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma at the University of Tulsa. She holds a doctorate degree in clinical psychology and studies trauma as an occupational hazard for journalists. 

“The general issue is bearing witness, which is what journalists do,” she said. “Journalists are professional observers, and bearing witness has its impact.” 

Reporters watch as horrible events unfold and relate tragedies by trade. Murders, car crashes, building fires, wars, diseases, systemic injustices and natural disasters come with the territory. Sometimes repeated exposure becomes debilitating. Olivia Messer, a former COVID-19 reporter for The Daily Beast, explained in a Feb. 8 Twitter thread that her decision to step away from the position came after the death of a loved one and hitting “a mental and then physical breaking point.”  

“While I’m tempted to be vague about my departure, I also believe it’s important to acknowledge the profound exhaustion, loss, grief, burnout, and trauma of the past year covering — and living in — a mass casualty event that has changed all of our lives,” she said, later adding: “I’m absolutely floored by the number of COVID reporters at a dozen different publications who reached out to me privately over the past 24 hours to say that journalism was their dream job but this year has made them question whether it’s sustainable for their mental health.” 

Nearly all reporters can relate to feeling this way sometimes, as 92% say they’ve experienced at least four traumatic situations in their careers, according to the Dart Center’s 2015 research review, Covering Trauma: Impact on Journalists. But that doesn’t mean they experience lingering harm. 

“On the one hand, people are incredibly resilient,” Newman said. “Given that most journalists are exposed to this garbage, very few go on to develop PTSD. On the other, it is an occupational risk.” 

Feeling like I had some sort of immunity to disturbing material because I’d seen plenty before was maybe a little misguided, she said. Evidence suggests the opposite is true, and that I was probably overwhelmed by months of consistent exposure. It wasn’t any one piece of content that pushed me over the edge, but rather an avalanche of it. 

“The effects are cumulative,” she said. “The more you see, the more vulnerable you are.”

What you hear and see as a reporter may stay with you. But there’s an upside: If you’re covering subjects deeply enough to be moved, that probably means your humanity is intact and you’re performing your job ethically. 

“If you are really engaged with a victim and it’s direct exposure, it can’t help but change your worldview,” Newman said. “That shows you are a moral, positive person. Engaging with someone and doing your work well means your worldview can’t help but change, for better and for worse. When you see the underbelly of disinformation and the white supremacist beat, it’s shocking. It is alarming. It’s a healthy thing, to some degree, if your body is going into ‘Oh my God, our world is in bad shape.’ ”

III. ‘Snap, crackle, pop’: A climate writer’s recurring nightmare 

For Tom Doig, a climate author who lives in New Zealand, his breaking point came in 2014, when the Hazelwood coal mine in the Latrobe Valley of Victoria, Australia, was ignited by a wildfire and kept burning for 45 days, unleashing toxic smoke and ash on the residents of nearby Morwell. The industrial disaster and the misery it caused for the people of the Latrobe Valley was the subject of his 2020 book, Hazelwood.   

A Ph.D student at the time, Doig was warned by his supervisor to limit how many interviews he did each day and to have regular debriefings to process what he saw and heard. Instead, he fully immersed himself in the reporting project, speaking and even living with dozens of people at the scene of the disaster. 

“I was like, ‘Yeah, yeah, I’m gonna get in my car and go be a reporter,” he said. “I just kind of threw myself in the deep end and it was amazing. When I rang up my first contact, Wendy Farmer, to ask if I could do an interview, she was like, ‘You can come stay in my house, in my spare room.’ So, it was 24/7. That day, I found myself at the supermarket buying lentils and carrots and cooking dinner for this family, and then sleeping in a sleeping bag next to their old Barbie house. There was no escaping the situation.” 

The personal connections he made with the people of Morwell, who proved to be endearingly funny and flawed, fueled his vicarious trauma. After his first book on the subject, The Coal Face, was published in 2015, he heard from a resident who was gravely ill from exposure to fine particulates from the fire. 

“I got an email from this woman whose husband, David Briggs, was dying of lung disease,” he said. “She basically reached out to me and said, ‘We need help, no one is listening, you’re our last chance. … You wrote this book. Can you please solve it?’ I felt so much pressure to help her dying husband, to get down there and interview him before he died, which was something I hadn’t been trained for or had in my background. I think that pushed me over the edge in terms of feeling like it was too high of stakes — that whatever I did, it would never be enough.” 

Doig knew the hours-long interview would be a powerful scene for Hazelwood. But after the initial high wore off, he drove back to Melbourne feeling like a “rinsed out dirty rag.” He couldn’t stop thinking about how the dying man described the sound of his labored breathing as like Rice Krispies, or “snap, crackle and pop,” and the way he had actually perked up when Briggs said it, knowing he’d just recorded an incredible quote. Later, he found himself crying uncontrollably on his couch at home. 

“It felt overwhelming and like it came out of nowhere and it was quite out of control,” he said. “This was something that blindsided me; I didn’t quite know the grief that was coming out at the time. In a way, it sounds too neat, like I read about vicarious trauma or something, but it really felt like other people’s hurt and horror was coming out of me, like I had literally absorbed it all and had to get it out of my body.”  

After riding the wave of reporting, writing and publishing his first book — feeling like he’d been in the right place, telling the right story — he struggled just to stay afloat. He sulked for weeks, staying in bed to read depressing books about climate change. It was a phase in which he felt “like a shit researcher, shit reporter, shit person.” 

But he rebounded after several months. Doig took time off work and spent more time with his wife. He started seeing a counselor and doubled down on yoga, mindfulness and meditation. (He was diagnosed with vicarious trauma from the Hazelwood interviews by both his general practitioner and therapist.) Losing himself in the festivities of a friend’s “horrendously trashy 40th birthday party” was a helpful turning point. And he returned to feeling like himself in August 2016, when he was in India to give a presentation on his coverage of the Hazelwood coal mine fire. 

“I was doing my talk on Hazelwood, and I read aloud the David Briggs description of ‘snap, crackle and pop,’ ” he said. “We’re in a theater, there’s a couple hundred people there. And I feel the trauma rising. I’m almost not able to go on. I can sort of feel the audience reacting to me losing it, the tears were coming and stuff. I was like, ‘Am I going to hold this together? No, no, I’m going to handle it, and it’s going to be awesome.’ It sounds a bit showbizy, but I got through it. Afterward, people were clapping and hugging me.”  

Doig’s previously all-encompassing vicarious trauma has since become something he’s able to keep at a distance, and to re-live only if he wants. “I’m telling it, it’s not telling me,” he said. 

IV. Vital signs: How reporters can tell if they’re in too deep 

It’s easy to feel helpless before problems as big as election disinformation, a pandemic or climate change. 

“The point in caring about this is that it’s really big, and because it’s really big you can feel overwhelmed and helpless,” Doig said. “That’s very real.” 

Reporters have to accept that there’s no way to properly shine a light on all the world’s ills, and that their difficult work can’t help but impact them in some way. 

“People are going to have stress,” Newman said. “Their bodies react. Then it goes away. It’s when it doesn’t go away is when it’s a problem.”

People with prior traumatic experience and those experiencing social isolation — both on and off the job — are particularly at risk. Newman identified several warning signs that journalists may be experiencing responses from witnessing traumatic events:

  • Feeling panic or extreme anxiety.  
  • Having trouble sleeping.
  • Getting fixated on disturbing details of an interview. 
  • Avoiding assignments.
  • Missing due dates and deadlines.
  • Feeling absent from work and social interactions.
  • Using substances in a way that is unusual for you.
  • Realizing there’s been a fundamental change in your worldview. 

That last one is important for journalists specifically, who often fancy themselves as grizzled veterans who have seen it all. 

“Most journalists are skeptical, as they should be, but finding that your skepticism is overriding [would be a warning sign],” Newman said. “Like a real change: You can’t see anything good in the world, as opposed to your normal skepticism; becoming so jaded that it affects relationships; feeling like you can’t trust. Once you’ve been exposed to real violence, oppression, and disparity, you do feel set apart. When it feels like that’s started impacting the people you care about, you may need help.”

Most reporters usually don’t require formal therapy, however, and can follow simple tips to be more resilient in their work and home lives. 

Find support: Having strong social connections is the greatest predictor of mental health in general, Newman said. Seek out peer support from people who do similar work. Just don’t expect it to come to you. Make a point of reaching out and telling a colleague they did a good job on a tough story. 

Make a plan: This depends on recognizing your own vulnerabilities — maybe you find white supremacist content particularly disturbing — and developing strategies to help you cope. 

For example, you could plan on going for a run or hitting the gym directly after that press conference about a climate disaster that gives you anxiety about the future of humanity. 

If yoga and mindfulness are your preferred coping methods, make them daily practices. If talking to friends helps you decompress, call them regularly. Or maybe you like to relax with a drink or two in the evening, which is “fine within reason,” Newman said. The important thing is to do your thing. 

Ask, ‘Do I have to do this?’: Are you scrolling through a ghastly 4Chan message thread because it’s vital to your coverage, or due to morbid curiosity? It’s not worth exposing yourself to potentially harmful content if you don’t have to. 

“You need to do the work, and it’s important work, but there are times that you can reduce your trauma load because you don’t need that little extra disgusting bit of information,” Newman said. 

As a researcher, Doig doesn’t believe he makes the world any better by consuming information about far-right ideologies and “men’s rights” activism unless it relates directly to a work assignment. 

“Unless you’re a paid journalist on a beat, just stay away or handle with care,” he said. “This stuff is radioactive and corrodes our minds.”

Keep your mission in mind: Have a written reminder of your mission statement near your work station. During times of stress or frustration, look at it and recall why you’re doing this work in the first place. Another possibility is keeping a file of complimentary feedback on hand, and browsing through it when you’re discouraged. 

Create separation: If you’re working from home, try to create some sense of difference between your work and personal spaces. 

One way is to tweak the display of your work computer, Newman said. Or, if you have a separate social media account for work, consider changing the theme color to differentiate it from your personal account. You could also dim the brightness of your work screen, lower the volume, or minimize the screen when you’re looking at something toxic — anything to indicate that you’re in a different realm than your personal life. 

“I work with trauma all day, and I usually have a pretty flower on my desk so I can hold the ugliness of the world against the prettiness,” Newman said. 

Mind the clock: It’s generally a poor idea to keep working on your story up until bedtime, Newman said. Set a hard time in the evening to unplug and relax your mind rather than doom scrolling until 1 a.m. 

Make time to recover: After completing an emotionally draining assignment or spending several months on a beat, set aside time to process what you’ve seen and heard, or simply do something else for a while. 

“When people do hard coverage, they need a little time to recover, to do laundry and see their friends,” Newman said. 

Sometimes that’s enough. Taking several weeks off and writing about different subjects since the election have helped me feel like I’m back on solid ground. Deleting my Facebook account didn’t hurt, either. 

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