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The Toll it Takes: Media Trauma in an Unrelenting News Cycle

FILE - People hug as they gather for a vigil in response to a fatal shooting in the Capital Gazette newsroom, June 29, 2018, in Annapolis, Maryland. Journalists, who report on tragedy daily, experience trauma at rates comparable to first responders, according to a recent study.
FILE - People hug as they gather for a vigil in response to a fatal shooting in the Capital Gazette newsroom, June 29, 2018, in Annapolis, Maryland. Journalists, who report on tragedy daily, experience trauma at rates comparable to first responders, according to a recent study.

Trisha Thadani, City Hall reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle, has covered a host of difficult topics: homelessness, the fentanyl crisis, flooding, and shootings. But for a time during the pandemic, her work ground to a halt.

“It was like drinking out of a firehose every day with all the news that we had to cover,” Thadani told VOA. “I was working and working, grinding myself to the bone, and then all of a sudden I hit a wall where I physically could not work anymore.”

San Francisco Chronicle City Hall reporter Trisha Thadani
San Francisco Chronicle City Hall reporter Trisha Thadani

Thadani’s father had passed away in February 2020. Then in March, COVID-19 restrictions forced her to work from home. The grief, isolation, and demands of the daily news cycle took a toll. Thadani says she had to take two months off to recover.

While Thadani describes her experience and absence as an “extreme example,” she said it underscores the importance of regular self-care, peer support, and mental health care for journalists who, in addition to personal tragedies, are exposed to traumatic stress as a part of their day-to-day jobs.

Facing onslaught of tragedy

In the U.S., journalists often pivot from one tragedy to the next.

“The nature of breaking news is obviously very stressful because you're moving really quickly. There's a lot of pressure to get the story not only right, but to get it up fast,” Thadani told VOA.

“And then you also have to balance being compassionate with the subjects and understanding that you're often getting people on the worst days of their lives,” she said. “And I think, as a whole, in journalism there isn't great acknowledgement of the toll that that takes on us as reporters.”

The expectation to keep reporting came to the fore this week when Dylan Lyons, a 24-year-old Spectrum News 13 reporter, was shot dead and his colleague injured while on assignment.

Other reporters in Florida were visibly shaken as they reported on the incident from the same Orlando-area neighborhood that many, including Lyons, had traveled to earlier in the day to cover a breaking story.

But the culture in newsrooms like the Chronicle is beginning to change and more support is being made available.

Hearst hires therapist

Recently, Hearst, which owns the San Francisco Chronicle and dozens of other papers across the U.S., hired a trauma-informed therapist to support full and part-time staff at all Hearst-owned papers in California and Texas.

The therapist is available in-person one day a week at the Chronicle office and other days virtually, with staff able to access a set number of sessions for free.

“It’s 100% confidential. We don't know who talks to her, who doesn't, what the conversations are,” Renee Peterson, senior vice president of human resources for Hearst, told VOA.

Although previously Hearst brought in therapists for a few days at a time following incidents such as the Ghost Ship Fire at an events space in San Francisco or the school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, Peterson says focus groups and conversations with journalists, including Thadani, helped the company to realize the importance of providing consistent support.

Having a dedicated therapist assigned to a newsroom is a helpful resource, but building a culture that destigmatizes mental health care is essential, says Bruce Shapiro, executive director of the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma.

The Dart Center offers education and trauma-informed resources to newsrooms in an effort to create “more effective, ethical, and sensitive reporting on survivors of violence, conflict, and tragedy,” said Shapiro.

Trauma often permeates newsrooms

Journalists experience more trauma exposure than the general public and at rates comparable to first responders, according to a recent study by the University of Toronto and Reuters Institute.

Although people may typically associate trauma with “direct witnessing of violence and tragedy,” such as with war correspondents, it can reach all members of a newsroom, Shapiro said.

Graphic imagery, detailed descriptions, and what Shapiro calls “empathetic engagement” with victims of tragedies all contribute.

“Nearly all of the most divisive issues in our society have a significant trauma element and reporters who are never on the scene of violence are nonetheless in close engagement with those stories, are absorbing those details, and we carry them in our memories and on our souls and that's a heavy load,” Shapiro told VOA.

The pressure is amplified when journalists relate to victims. For example, parents with children who were assigned to cover the mass shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas; people of color reporting on police brutality and violence against other people of color; or journalists at Spectrum News 13 in central Florida who this week had to cover the death and critical injury of colleagues targeted by a shooter.

Peer support vital, says expert

While journalists are exposed to high levels of trauma, they are also a resilient bunch, said Shapiro.

“It turns out that the very job which exposes us to trauma also does give us some sources of resilience: having a mission, having a job to do, having craft in the face of mayhem or violation, having ethics, having trusted colleagues; all of these are measurable buffers against some of the impact of trauma,” Shapiro told VOA.

Of all the factors, he said, social connection and peer support are the most important.

Al Tompkins, senior faculty member at Poynter, a nonprofit that provides resources and ethics trainings to newsrooms, agrees that peer support is a valuable resource.

“We shouldn't underestimate the value of informal cohort support. Journalists often don't realize how important it is to reach out to their colleagues,” Tompkins told VOA.

Tompkins said it’s important for veteran journalists to talk about mental health with younger colleagues, who, studies say, are part of a generation that suffers from traumatic stress at higher rates yet often resists speaking up for fear of being judged or appearing vulnerable.

Thadani credits veteran journalists at the San Francisco Chronicle for not only spearheading conversations that led to the hiring of an in-house therapist, but continuing to share their experiences in a way that normalizes struggles.

“It was helpful to hear [from] other reporters who I profoundly respect and look up to,” she said. “To have veteran reporters be so vulnerable, and open up about how they were struggling and then to see that and be like, ‘Oh my gosh, me too. It's not just me … it's because this is all very, very hard.’”