CAMP 2017: Resilience and tactics for reporting on trauma

Story and photo by Louise Dewast, 2017 JAWS Fellow

Trauma and resilience are two words that people forget are compatible. This wisdom is especially important for journalists to remember.

While everyone deals with negative emotions, as reporters in the field, many of us have experienced disturbing scenes or interviewed survivors of traumatic events. The after-effects of these encounters often leave us emotionally depleted. We find ourselves asking, “How do I cope and keep doing my job?”

In a one-hour session called “Guide to Trauma And Resilience” at Journalism and Women Symposium’s CAMP 2017, Leadership Coach Caroline Comport and journalist and Stefanie Friedhoff guided an intimate group of 12 through a step-by-step process of how to deal with trauma. Participants came away with tips and a toolkit that could help many on a path to recovery.

Comport, founder of leadership development company Narrative Quest, set the tone for the workshop by starting with a five-minute guided meditation.

Many of the participants shared their struggles. Some talked about the emotional pain they wrestled with after covering the Las Vegas shooting, while others spoke about the effects of reporting on the opioid epidemic in Kentucky.

“Our experiences are part of our sensory memory and need to be processed and integrated,” explained Friedhoff, who ran a variety of trauma and global health reporting programs at the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University for over a decade.

“When we go through difficult times, we can’t go back,” she added. “The key is not about being unaffected, it’s about recovering.” Friedhoff continued, “How do you do that? By balancing negative emotions with positive ones. While we cover stories of death, destruction and despair, we also have moments, stories or assignments that are gratifying and meaningful.”

Many journalists are not trained to cover trauma and unsure about how to seek help. Even more confounding, editors are not often equipped to handle their staff’s reactions after reporting on traumatic events.

One participant questioned, “How do you ask management for support, beyond the usual response of having therapy dogs for one day and a few counseling sessions that we can’t attend because we are working?”

These are valid concerns for reporters. Comport and Friedhoff suggested equipping oneself with the emotional tools before going on an assignment. They focused on best practices to follow while interviewing survivors of traumatic events.

“Journalism is the first draft of history but it’s also the first draft of memory,” Friedhoff said. She urged participants to think about victims and how they will be remembered.

“Only ask what the person is ready to share,” Friedhoff said. “They will only talk if they feel safe.” She suggested allowing them to choose the location of the interview and encouraging them to bring someone if it will make them feel more comfortable.

The session ended with tips on healing, including release meditation techniques, tactical breathing and self care-basics such as hydration, exercise and nutrition.

“While trauma has an impact on all of us,” Comport reminded the audience, “It doesn’t have to break us. Think about what energizes you and what depletes you,” she said, adding that successful self-care is a state of mind rather than an activity.