11:38 a.m. PST December 19, 2015
When covering breaking news, the day starts and ends with the police scanner.
The reporter, often the first to arrive, walks into the newspaper office and turns on the lights, the computer and the scanner.
The orange screen beams as the numbers constantly change. There is a strange, stagnant silence until you hear the voice of an officer.
The officers’ and dispatchers’ words aren’t always words of encouragement or happiness. They may be calling for backup, or informing others of a situation dealing with anything from a robbery to domestic abuse to homeless people trespassing.
Bad news around the clock
Reporters can cover only a fraction of the information to which they are privy. Yet reporters are exposed to all of it — in person, over the scanner or through our wire services. Sometimes, the news starts to weigh on us.
Some reporters start to feel their daily stories are trivial, especially compared with coverage of atrocities and massacres. Some feel they have to remove themselves from the atmosphere to restore their emotional balance.
Journalists face countless stresses, such as the daily grind to get stories in by deadline, perfecting the craft, or dealing with sometimes rude, aggressive, even threatening people. Journalists often cover graphic or horrifying events and sometimes feel overworked and overstressed.
This also can take a toll on those they are close to — readers, co-workers, family members, friends or spouses.
“All journalists are constantly negotiating stress in both positive and negative ways,” said Bruce Shapiro, executive director of the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, in a previous phone interview with Genevieve Belmaker.
“There’s the stress of the deadline itself, there’s the stress of the subject matter in the story, and there’s whatever personal stress and professional stress we’re carrying,” he said. “To a point, stress is helpful. Then there’s a point where stress becomes overwhelming and performance declines.”
Learning to confront stress
Rarely is anyone taught how to deal with stress.
“Journalists are made to learn on their own,” Dick Hughes, the Statesman Journal’s editorial page editor and a writing coach, said. “We need to change that.”
Although these things don’t affect everyone in the same way, exposure to high-intensity assignments or longer time in the field increases the risk of stress or post-traumatic stress disorder.
The Committee to Project Journalists issued the “Journalist Security Guide: Covering the News in a Dangerous and Changing World,” with signs of stress and tips for journalists to take care of themselves.
The guide states: “Stress can affect … journalists covering any tragedy involving pain or loss of life. Death penalty executions, random shootings, terrorist bombings, sexual assault, sexual abuse of children, domestic violence, suicides, and bullying are among the stories that can cause extreme stress.”
Signs of stress can be subtle, according to the guide, ranging from irritable behavior to eating disorders. Some estimates have been as high as one in eight journalists in the United States and Europe showing ongoing signs of extreme stress or PTSD, and one in four war correspondents, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.
“Journalists are a resilient tribe,” noted Shapiro in a 2010 speech, “but we are also vulnerable to psychological injury, no less so than firefighters, police officers, paramedics, or soldiers — and we need training, psychological support and leadership aware of these issues.”
Take care of oneself
Belmaker, a freelance journalist, wrote an article called, “5 ways journalists can mitigate stress on the job” for the Poynter Institute for Media Studies.
In the article, she writes that it is important for journalists to develop a support system, pay attention to signs of stress, balance colliding worlds, document their experiences, and keep their own well-being top of mind.
“In the wake of major natural disasters (for example), journalists are often caught in the middle,” Belmaker said in the article. “It’s our job to tell stories about what’s happening, and that requires us to sometimes continue functioning even when the world is falling down around us.”
No matter how journalists decide to process the trauma they may face, it is vital that they do. As with anyone else, workers’ emotions and experiences affect how they perform.
Journalists’ work, consumed by the public, needs to be accurate, thorough and focused – something that can be even more difficult when under such pressures.
Some journalists believe they must be able to set aside the issue long enough to work productively and well, and then process the issue. Otherwise, the people they seek to help will remain without aid.
As a co-worker once told me, “It’s not the jaded journalists who make good journalists; it’s the compassionate ones.”
Natalie Pate, a 2015 graduate of Willamette University, is the Statesman Journal’s education reporter. Contact her at npate@StatesmanJournal.com or (503) 399-6745, or follow her on Twitter @Nataliempate or http://www.Facebook.com/nataliepatejournalist.