Trauma experts help YDR, Digital First Media kick off peer support program for journalists
We’ll be hosting several colleagues from Digital First Media’s Pennsylvania newsrooms, as well as a few of our own YDR staffers, to kick off our trauma journalism peer-support program.
The program, and this day, started a couple years ago when photojournalist Jason Plotkin and I started wondering how we could better prepare journalists, especially young ones, for some of the toughest assignments they’ll face — photographing a mother whose child died in an accident, talking to a family who lost everything in a fire, seeing the pain on someone’s face when a reporter or photographer approaches at the most difficult of moments.
When a survivor wants to tell her story, our staffers should know how best to work with someone who has been through trauma; those interviews are unlike any others. And when a journalist comes back to the newsroom carrying the emotion of the assignment — guilt, fear, anger, sadness — his colleagues should know how to help him.
That’s what the peer-support program is about. It was created, with help and guidance from the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, by a handful of DFM journalists — Shahid Abdul-Karim and Rich Scinto of the New Haven (Conn.) Register; John Berry, then of the Register-Citizen in Torrington, Conn. and now of The Trentonian; Caitlin Morris, then of The Saratogian; Kate Penn of the YDR; Katy Petiford of The (Hanover) Evening Sun; and me.
We created guidelines that any newsroom can use to learn more about how coverage of trauma and conflict can affect journalists, and how they can help each other and themselves; as well as best practices for reporting with knowledge and respect about tragedy and trauma survivors. Ultimately, we envision every newsroom on DFM’s East Coast will have at least one peer supporter, and beyond that, a network of them at other organizations who are ready when called on.
On Thursday in our newsroom, we’ll learn from experts in this field: Lisa Millar of the Australian Broadcasting Company, whose organization is one of the first to have a peer-support program (see video); Elana Newman, research director for the Dart Center; and York County’s own Kathy Jansen, a trauma specialist at York Hospital and head of the county’s Critical Incident Stress Management team.
Our peer-support effort is not to say that every journalist has to be affected, or be affected in the same way. Some take on the most harrowing assignments and are OK. That’s fine. For others, the story or the interaction linger, and can cause distress — and that has to be fine, too, if we are to be not only better journalists, but better people.
A reporter who covers a fatal accident won’t be required to come back to the newsroom and sit down with a peer-supporter. That would be silly. But that reporter will know she can if she needs to, and that a peer-supporter will have the tools and the language to help at a crucial time. We think that’s vital.
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Brain science and journalism: A trauma survivor’s memory is still forming when she might be giving an interview. What does that mean for those asking the questions?