- Sarah French
I was accepted into graduate school in December 2019. I wrote my admissions essay about a glaring oversight I believed was apparent when it came to training and treating journalists who cover traumatic events. This stemmed from my own mental health issues as a reporter in Boston, and it all seemed to culminate with the Boston Marathon bombing. I began experiencing severe anxiety as a reporter, and I began to wonder how the news personally affects those who cover it. As a young journalist, I was never taught how to deal with the shock of seeing a dead body for the first time or how to digest an interview with those who have just lost a loved one. With such a traumatic event like the Boston Marathon bombing, it was like every news story after that began to build on the anxiety, fear and depression of covering the daily news. I was taking it home with me and did not realize so many others were doing the same. When my friend and photographer Neal decided to take his own life, I knew more needed to be done to help journalists covering such traumatic events. I spoke to Neal’s wife, Erin, who told me, “It was a thankless job for whatever story was being covered. Because then the next story was the next story to move on to and, you know, that was what needed to be covered and worked on. So it was like, just forgotten about, door closed.” When it came to Neal’s struggles, Erin said, “He was embarrassed by it. And at that time, it wasn't something that was talked about. You were seen as weak and you know it was just, you put on a good front, and you move on.”
His family knew he was suffering, but we were all expected to put on a brave face at work. We are expected to compartmentalize when we have never been trained to handle the weight of news stories we cover. What I did not know when I chose this topic as my research was that we were about to set out on a historic time in our lives: the COVID-19 pandemic, protests like we have never seen before and mental health brought to the forefront. Schools were closed and our children were struggling. We no longer had our teams to talk with and support in person. We covered an Olympics that was pushed back an entire year, and once it finally arrived the star of gymnastics - Simone Biles - stepped back citing her own mental health concerns. Mental Health is being talked about, but there is so much more that needs to be done to help when it comes to journalists.
There is no question that covering traumatic events can cause PTSD in journalists. The research is proven. According to Killeen (2011), reporters’ suffering has been labeled Assignment Stress Injury (ASI). In the past, journalists were not viewed as first responders. With an increase in coverage of crime, journalists arrive on scene right along with first responders. Al Tompkins of the Poynter Institute for Media Studies wrote the following after the September 11th attacks:
Reporters, photojournalists, engineers, soundmen and field producers often work elbow to elbow with emergency workers. Journalists’ symptoms of traumatic stress are remarkably similar to those of police officers and firefighters who work in the immediate aftermath of tragedy, yet journalists typically receive little support after they file their stories. While public-safety workers are offered debriefings and counseling after a trauma, journalists are merely assigned another story.
I interviewed Al Tompkins as part of this research. He said, “I think journalists are often not just first responders, but also last responders. You don't just leave the scene with the patient. You're still there. You're still there for the four o'clock, for the five o'clock, for the six o'clock, for the 11 o'clock. Oh, and by the way, you're there for the funeral. You're there for the memorial. You're there for the trial. I mean, you keep doing it over and over and over again.”
I found when given a safe space to discuss issues and concerns - while most journalists stayed anonymous in my survey - they were able to express themselves openly like never before. Some journalists had been in the business two years, others 44 years. Some survey respondents were 24 years old; others were 65 years old. I sought out to research how journalists feel covering traumatic events has affected them, as well as what training and resources they believe would help.