Traumatized by reporting: Get help now

Question: My colleague is covering a graphic rape/murder trial and has started showing signs of extreme emotional stress. This person has expressed suicidal thoughts, but is determined to continue covering the trial and seems concerned about being branded as too ‘squeamish’ or unable to handle the crime beat. Our editor is aware of the situation, and has decided not to take my colleague off the story or the beat. Is this a good idea?

Answer by Robert M. Frank

The story and the beat are not the issue. The prospect of suicide is.

You need to tell your friend to get clinical assessment and support without delay. Your news organization doesn’t need to provide the help directly. But help is needed immediately.
The very nature of reporting exposes journalists to assignment trauma injury, even if they only hear second-hand accounts of what happened.

It’s the soul of reporting: We gather the facts and reconstruct the incident in our mind to provide our readers, listeners and viewers a coherent account of what transpired. It’s not unusual, when we learn the details of horrific crime, to feel the same flood of feelings wash over us that we would experience had we witnessed ourselves.

You don’t have to face the threat of imminent death or grave injury yourself, or witness it first-hand. Merely being exposed to traumatized people can produce trauma in others. Psychologists call it counter-transference. It had a big impact on reporters who covered the Swissair 111 crash in Nova Scotia, most of whom saw nothing grisly but interviewed relatives of the victims. Similarly, in September 2001, reporters in New Jersey suburbs were traumatized after covering dozens of memorial services and interviewing hundreds of family members of those who perished in the collapse of the Twin Towers. They connected with what had been lost. Likewise, many reporters found it troubling to cover the ugly, high-profile Bernardo trial in Ontario, the Hilton trial in Quebec and the Pickton trial in British Columbia.

It’s normal for reporters to find covering graphic trials unsettling.

Sometimes the aftershocks don’t even rumble until a year or more afterward, long after colleagues think that we ought to have gotten over it and moved on.

Scientists have been studying the impact of trauma for a long time. They have learned that those who have fared best in the long run had either found or created their own group of trustworthy listeners.

Being able to talk to a family member or a friend usually helps.

Colleagues who ‘get it’ and are willing to listen at length without being judgmental are invaluable. (In contrast, harsh judgment, particularly in the immediate aftermath, tends to exacerbate the trauma.We learned decades ago to stop speculating about or blaming rape victims for their violation.)

It’s not always easy to find patient and impartial listeners in the short attention-span, gossipy news business, but if you are able to and remain discrete, it will be a big help for your colleague over the long term.

It sounds as though you might be one of those good listeners. Thought that is good in the long term, right now you don’t have the luxury of time. Your colleague needs help. Now.

I’m not saying that your colleague is sick. Once someone has expressed thoughts of suicide, they need a professional mental health assessment.

You do not have the skills to judge whether comments about suicide are significant or not. Neither do I. That must be left to trained clinicians. They have the skills, the experience and, if need be, access to medications that can help. The sooner the better. Today, rather than tomorrow.

I understand your colleague’s fear of being branded unsuited to do her job. We’ve come a long way since I was imploring news people to recognize that assignment stress injury was real, a decade ago. Unfortunately, despite the science of assignment stress injury, the fear of being stigmatized is often well-founded.

The problem is not in the imagination, it’s physical. In extreme cases it can show up on brain scans or blood tests. Trying to control it is absurd, since a hallmark of assignment stress injury is recollections and feelings that you can’t control.

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is only the second most-likely after-effect of assignment stress injury. The third is depression and the fourth most common outcome is substance abuse.

The most common? Complete recovery. Most people bounce back.

You can’t ignore suicidal thoughts, though, especially since you face a dilemma: The paradox is that humans will often more readily risk their lives than risk embarrassment. Arguing that killing yourself will not help you to keep your beat is of no avail. People will go to ridiculous lengths to avoid losing face.

I’m not a believer in the power of wishful thinking when lives are at stake. There are many things that management can do to help journalists who must cover grisly stories.

Ignoring the risks and hoping for the best, though, is the worst of all news management approaches. For your editor to do nothing might be seen as culpable negligence in the event of your colleague’s death or serious injury. Even without a suicide attempt, leaving a person to suffer without support is cruel.

Protecting your colleague’s privacy is paramount. You are right to be discreet. Decades ago when press clubs still thrived, there was a place where journalists could gather outside of workplace pressures and politics to blow off steam. Many were war correspondents who had seen a thing or two.

Unfortunately few of these gathering places remain. But the concept — getting together with other members of the craft — remains sound and is scientifically proven to help most of the time – but not  in extreme cases like your colleague’s, where a life could be at stake.

Your colleague might turn out to be fine. Or not. The only way to know is to get help. Now! And by all means, keep being a supportive, unbiased and discreet listener, once everything settles down.

Robert M. Frank has for more than a decade advocated mutual support for journalists and (in cases like this) referral to mental health professionals. His account of how the Swissair 111 crash inspired this initiative appears in a book published by the United Nations in 2001. From 1999 onward, he reported on terrorism as a freelance correspondent for the Investigations desk of The New York Times. As a director of the Canadian Association of Journalists Educational Foundation, he is actively seeking sponsorship for professional development courses that will educate journalists and impart skills that will enable them to help colleagues who have experienced assignment stress injury.