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Tears of the trade

February 24, 2011

A journalism student argued in J-Source on Wednesday that students should be given risk and trauma training in journalism school.

Megan Radford writes:

As journalists it is sometimes our job to put ourselves in harm’s way, to get the grizzly details and weed out what the public should know…and what they perhaps should not. What some may not realize is that the toll of this kind of life begins early. For some it begins even before we have officially entered the field.

Now I don’t have much opinion, or knowledge, about whether or not current training on how to manage dangerous situations is sufficient; the most danger I face is standing on the side of a busy highway every now and then.

But as far as the whole trauma thing, I think that it’s pretty clear that there needs to be more discussion about the sometimes heartbreaking situations we come across every day. Whether or not you encounter potentially traumatic situations depends on your beats, your community and your work rate. But if you’re a reporter who covers breaking news anywhere in British Columbia, it’s only a matter of time until you come across a troubling situation, be it a dead or dying person, a bereaved family, or a carnage-strewn highway.

Much of our work, of course, is no worse than watching the evening news. (It positively pales in comparison to watching coverage of the shit that going on in Libya.) But there is still a price to be paid and not just by those shooters who cover carnage. Even feature writing can take a toll; talking to families that are falling apart when your marriage is on the rocks, interviewing parents who have lost their children when your baby just turned two, or writing about dementia when your father keeps forgetting your name can all take a lot out of a person.

There will be times you see things you don’t want to see and hear things you don’t want to hear. But community newspapers, unfortunately, are often pretty ill-equipped to deal with that.

Not only that, but newsrooms are so small that it’s often not practical to take a day or two to decompress.

The result should be a mental health check — where maybe the editor calls his or her reporters individually into his office and, briefly, just makes sure that everything’s OK — every now and then. Such a meeting doesn’t have to just focus on stress from seeing too many highway accidents. For a city hall reporter, the editor could just ask whether he’s fine with his workload or whether he’s nearing a burnout state. But just hearing the question should be enough to lower the blood pressure.

If there is some underlying trauma there, it needs to be dealt with. (That also requires reporters to be willing to speak up and bare their emotions. Oh, the horror!) That means that newspaper companies should not only have plans in place to help reporters who come down with the shakes, but they should let their reporters know that such plans exist beyond the standard worker’s compensation stuff.

As for journalism schools, they need to both teach reporters how to interact with families who have lost loved ones, and how to process the tragic tales they will inevitably hear.

Photo by D. Sharon Pruitt via Flickr


That was a pretty good post, eh? Two semi-colons! Keep them coming by helping me out. It’s easy, quick and the pay is shite. E-mail bclocalreporter (at) gmail (dot) com.

Have I made an error? It wouldn’t be the first time. Leave a comment and I’ll shamefully update the post.

We’re making inroads into our census of B.C. community newspapers, but there are still a lot of blanks in the Journo-lust Spreadsheet. How many journalists work at your paper? How often do you come out? Who’s your publisher? Participation is free! The benefits unlimited! The exclamation points boundless!

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