What is Trauma?
According to the American Psychological Association (2021), “Trauma is an emotional response to a terrible event like an accident, rape or natural disaster.” Journalists witness and report on these traumatic events daily. They also hear about them first-hand from those who most likely have experienced the worst day of their lives. According to The National Child Traumatic Stress Network (n.d.), “Secondary traumatic stress is the emotional duress that results when an individual hears about the firsthand trauma experiences of another.” Ninety percent of journalists surveyed said not enough emphasis is put on mental health for journalists. When I began this research, I had a friend ask me innocently, “So do reporters see dead bodies?” Yes, we see it all. I’ll never forget seeing a body being pulled lifelessly out of a head-on collision. It was the Fourth of July. A family of four was traveling home from festivities, and they were hit head-on by a drunk driver. The father driving his family home was killed instantly. I'll never forget witnessing his body getting pulled out of the car. He was wearing a festive Fourth of July shirt. I know July Fourth is one of the deadliest days of the year on the roads. I try to stay home now if I can. Every year, I think of that man and his family.
When I asked journalists what story affected them the most mentally, one subject wrote, “Seeing a motorcycle crash right after it happened and the dead man get covered by a body bag.” Another person wrote, “I covered stories of people being stuck in places during fires such as homes, large gathering spaces, and cars. People being trapped and killed by fire, as well as stories involving children who have died or have been murdered affect me the most.” These stories are day in and day out for journalists. They cover it all. Journalists may see themselves in the victim; or they are parents and covering a child’s death becomes increasingly more difficult. Many journalists try to compartmentalize with little to no training and when they get home, they fall apart. “The mass shooting affected me more in the sense of how I had to mentally separate myself from it until I got off work, then it all hit at once,” said one journalist. When discussing trauma, another person wrote, “Sandy Hook. I had recently become a mom and it was extremely difficult to get through that coverage. I remember crying while editing stories and seeing the faces of the parents and the children.”
Poynter's Al Tompkins said, “It starts with awareness. It always starts with awareness.” And this past year has been quite a year for journalists. Tompkins continued, “You've been through unbelievable amounts of things in the last year and a half. You've had a pandemic, a racial reckoning, a political season, unlike any in 150 years. You know, you've been stuck at home with your kids, trying to do your work while your kids can't go to school. You're worried about your health, you're worried about your parents' health, you’re worried about I mean, come on, how many more things can we throw on you?”