Trauma levels rise for minority journalists
Covering tragedy often leads to mental health woes for people of color
John Head recalled the first time he was assigned to cover a murder scene. When he arrived, the cops seemed to think it was funny that an intern who “didn’t know anything about anything” was covering a murder.
He saw the body when he first entered the home of the victim.
“I see this guy laying on the floor with a knife sticking out of his chest,” Head said. “And you can see his hands on the knife as if he tried to pull the knife out of his chest before he died.”
At the time, he accepted the experience as preparation for his career. It turned out that instance was tame compared to other grisly scenes he was called to cover throughout his more than 15-year career as a journalist working for USA Today, The Detroit Free Press and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Like many local beat reporters, Head has covered tragedies ranging from natural disasters to a gas explosion that hit a public school, which lead to a cafeteria worker being crushed by a wall.
“At the time, I didn’t go back and talk about how it all affected me,” Head recalled. “I just sort of internalized these things. This was part of the job. This was a part of what I had to do.”
Journalists, akin to first responders, are routinely called upon gruesome crime scenes and war zones and tasked with conveying the suffering they witness to the general public. And for minority journalists — who already grapple with the isolation of working in high-pressure newsrooms with few people of color — the trauma of news coverage can be even more damaging.
STIGMA IN THE NEWSROOM
Research conducted by members of the DART Center for Journalism has found that American journalists are naturally resistant to developing PTSD. Overall, an estimated 12 percent of all journalists have PTSD, but the number jumps among correspondents who have reported in multiple war zones, according to Anthony Feinstein, a psychiatrist and researcher for DART.
Numerous studies examining the mental health of journalists who covered tragedies like the September 11 terrorist attacks, Hurricane Katrina and the war in the Middle East have portrayed troubling trends. And experts say the problem may be worse than it seems because journalists often resist sharing their struggles.
“The previous generations of journalists tended to surround mental health issues with a lot of stigma,” said Bruce Shapiro, director of DART. “Also there was the tradition of the kind of lone warrior, the hard-drinking journalist … all those kind of clichés. Some were true. Some weren’t. None of which served the individual journalist who may have been struggling with mental health issues very well.”
‘I WAS FIGHTING MYSELF’
One mental health issue journalists often confront includes depression, which may afflict as many as 21 percent of all journalists, according to DART. The condition can be especially detrimental to a reporter, whose job requires constant interaction with people.
It is a battle Head knows all too well. He outlined his struggles with depression in his book “Standing In the Shadows: Understanding and Overcoming Depression in Black Men.”
Head struggled with depression at an early age, experiencing intense episodes throughout his adolescent and adult years. He often found himself struggling to reach out to people and even accept praise for stories he had written. Pushed to the brink, Head would sometimes consider suicide as a way to escape what he perceived as a hopeless struggle.
“I was able to do the job, but I made it much more difficult on myself than it had to be because I was fighting myself,” Head said. “I was fighting the feeling that I wasn’t even really worthy to talk to people.”
MINORITY JOURNALISTS HIT HARDER
Minority journalists, who are often summoned to report on tragedies that impact their specific racial communities, may be at a higher risk for developing PTSD or other stress-related mental illness, Shapiro and Fenstein say.
“We also know that whether it’s with directly witnessing trauma or through vicarious trauma through images, one of the risk factors for distress or psychological injury includes: Do you identify with the victims of one of these violent acts?’” Shapiro said.
Minorities made up 12.8 percent of print newsrooms in 2015, according to the American Society of News Editors (ASNE). In 2016, the Radio Television Digital News Association (RTDNA) reported only 23 percent in television news and 9.4 percent working in radio news. This lack of diversity in the newsroom can feel isolated on top of dealing with high pressure newsroom situations.
Head said because of this alarming statistic, the few African-Americans working in newsrooms can also be “put under a microscope” and held to a higher standard than their white peers. Such was the case with Jayson Blair and Janet Cooke, two minority journalists whose careers came under fire after it was discovered that they fabricated stories for legacy newsrooms.
Journalists also can become afflicted by PTSD from the barrage of violent news that they often consume at work. Many, for instance, had to watch graphic footage of the shooting of a Baton Rouge man whose death made national headlines. Another video broadcast nationally in recent weeks shows a woman recording her fiance being shot by a police officer while the couple’s child sat nearby.
Feinstein recently conducted a study on newsroom employees tasked with viewing violent war footage, which included traumatic images of beheadings and executions.
He discovered that a small percentage of people who regularly view that material developed what has been coined as “vicarious PTSD.”
This subcategory of PTSD was just added to the Diagnostic Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders a year ago. The symptoms are similar to classic PTSD.
The prevalence of violent social media content often forces newsmakers to edit graphic footage, including younger journalists usually tasked with altering the videos.
“There are so many hands now touching this radioactive material,” Shapiro said. “This change has not only led to a lot of people asking questions, but genuinely expanded the number of people I would view as having some occupational health concerns.”
Experts say journalists can resist succumbing to mental illness with a strong support system.
“The most dangerous, most concerning indicator of their vulnerability, is social isolation,” Shapiro said. “And that I think is especially challenging in an era where people hardly go to newsrooms at all anymore. We’re in touch all the time, but it’s by email and mobile phone, but it’s not the same thing.”
When Head finally sought help, he was pleased to discover that his employers at the Atlanta-Journal Constitution and his family were extremely supportive.
“I think in general, it’s being more accepted in the workplace that you deal with mental health issues the same way you deal with other health issues,” Head said. “I think that’s what we’re moving towards.”
Peer and trauma awareness programs have emerged at major news corporations in the past decade, experts say, though smaller newsrooms seldom receive as many resources.
“I think the big news organizations now are quite sensitive to the issue of emotional trauma in journalists who cover war or disaster,” Feinstein said. “You’re starting to see growing resources for journalists covering trauma.”
Tracy Grant, deputy managing editor at The Washington Post, said the paper takes mental health very seriously and offers employee assistance programs.
“We’re having conversations before assignments begin,” Grant said. “We’ll pull reporters out of conflict zones when necessary, and we’re assisting with other practices to provide the best support.”
Head thinks the stigma is fading, though the burden falls largely on journalists to seek help.
“It’s in the interest of the folks you work for to have you recover,” Head said. “They hired you for a reason, because you’re able to do the work… if you get to a place where you’re not able to do that anymore, it’s better for you to recover and once again be that person they wanted.”