Room to improve newsroom post-disaster plans

April 23, 2018 11:00

Kuba Wuls interviewed ten Missouri journalists, representing five local television stations and one newspaper, who covered the devastating May 22, 2011, Joplin tornado for the master’s thesis “Resources For Tackling Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder In Local Newsrooms,” presented at the Journalism School at the University of Missouri-Columbia. Here Wuls shares a few highlights of the research news managers need to know.

A survey of Missouri-based journalists showed that only two employers had programs in place for staff who might have suffered from PTSD in the aftermath of the Joplin tornado.
 
Two Joplin-based employers held mandatory sessions for their journalists; however, according to people interviewed for this study they produced less than desirable results. Mandatory counseling sessions were held during work hours and the journalists complained that they were too busy to attend. One subject interviewed opted out of attending because her coworkers complained about the quality of counseling:
 
“I heard that the counselor was more messed up by the disaster than we were. She apparently asked people to share their feelings, then broke down and started sobbing about how she had lost her house. Not very helpful when those were the stories we told on air every day.”
 
Reaching out for outside professional help was not an option given the low entry-level market salary. Instead, the journalist relied on her mother for support.
 
“She would listen to me, cry with me when I cried and offered support and encouragement.”
 
Another interesting finding from this research was the fact that in the aftermath of the tornado, alcohol consumption increased among newsroom employees.
 
“I gained weight from self-medicating with alcohol, something a lot of us in the newsroom did in the couple of months following the tornado.”
 
The journalist eventually moved away from the Midwest to escape severe weather.
 
Another Joplin journalist who worked for a different employer also complained about the fact that counseling was mandatory.
 
“I was more concerned about my assignment.”
 
She went to an hour-long session only because she had no choice. After listening to what her coworkers had to say, she spoke twice but then went back to her assignment.
 
“I couldn’t focus on myself because I was too busy producing the best story I could.”
 
Her employer also offered private counseling on an as-needed basis and promised time off for those employees who needed it. The journalist, however, said that with her short tenure she was afraid that taking time off would have upset her co-workers.
 
While she appreciated the effort, for her, the best treatment and therapy was to focus on work.
 
Journalists in her newsroom did not have an informal get-together to talk about the trauma.
 
“At the end of the day, it wasn’t how we wanted to spend our time. “ she said.
 
It was a different story at a newspaper that sent its reporters to cover the aftermath.
 
“We will tell war stories about Joplin,” said one employee, who encouraged others to join him at a local bar one evening.
 
“We all just talked about it among ourselves because nobody else would understand it. Journalists have a dark sense of humor. We can laugh at things that aren’t funny. It was okay with each other but not among people who don’t get it.”
 
Like the journalist from Joplin, the subject reported higher alcohol consumption and trouble sleeping at night for nearly a month following the tornado. She didn’t feel comfortable sharing what she experienced in Joplin with her management, telling me, “I was so new, I didn’t want to have that conversation with my boss. I didn’t want to hear that I screwed up.”
 
Managers offered counseling sessions through email as part of the Employee Assistance Program. They would also occasionally check-in with the staff and offer to rotate those who went to Joplin.
 
Another Missouri media organization presented a different approach. For example, a journalist who covered the aftermath posted about his experiences on a blog and after management saw the blog entry, the journalist was asked if he needed help. Similar to the other employers, counseling was also offered through the EAP; however, he declined the offer.
 
There seemed to be inconsistencies in management’s approach because another employee from the same organization who also went to Joplin had not been approached by the management and asked if any help was needed.
 
Reaching out to employees who covered trauma can be a tricky situation for managers, because they have to strike a balance between focusing on the well being of their employers, while at the same time respecting their privacy and understanding the stigma often associated with PTSD.

A veteran journalist with 40 years of experience said, “You are the first person to ever ask me. The answer is no, I mean no. None ever came to me and said, ‘Do you need help with your emotions?’ But if they did I would have said, ‘No I’m fine.’”
 
Only two out of ten journalists interviewed had covered trauma in college. Only one knew about online resources for journalists covering traumatic events such as the Dart Center.
 
Breaking news, crime, homicides and recent mass shootings have become an integral part of American media. A young journalism graduate is more than likely to be sent out, in the early years of his or her career, to cover a story which involves some trauma. The question is whether college and his or her job has equipped that individual with enough skills to cover such assignments.  This study shows that the answer is no, they have not.
 
Based on this and other research into how covering disaster affects journalists, RTDNA recommends newsroom managers:
  • Vet counselors and care providers.
  • Provide a variety of options for staffers to confront and heal from the trauma of disaster coverage.
  • Proactively address possible effects of trauma with your newsroom.
  • Work around newsroom schedules and reassure news staff know that there will be no negative repercussions to taking advantage of time for counseling, etc.
  • Ensure your team is aware of all available resources.
  • Continually foster an open, trusting and supportive newsroom culture – well before disaster strikes.
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