Trauma journalism: YDR, Digital First Media embrace peer-support effort at kickoff seminar
Right now, the idea of a peer-support program for journalists who cover stories of trauma is something new and different for the YDR and for Digital First Media newsrooms in Pennsylvania.
But we hope that, in time, it becomes second nature — like deciding on the best photos from a shoot, or tweeting breaking news, or planning for coverage of a major news event.
Fifteen journalists from 11 news organizations in the state spent a day at the YDR, learning about trauma, resilience and peer-support from a distinguished group: Elana Newman, research director at the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma; Kathy Jansen, psychologist with WellSpan and leader of York County’s Critical Incident Stress Management team; Lt. Marc Junkerman of the Harford (Md.) County Sheriff’s Office and a CISM coordinator; Lisa Millar, North American correspondent for the Australian Broadcasting Company, a pioneer with its peer-support program; and Kate Black, associate director of the Dart Center.
The DFM journalists are pioneers, too. DFM is the first U.S.-based news organization to begin developing a peer-support program. The Dart Center has provided support and guidance in a partnership that began in May 2014, when about 20 DFM staffers spent a day and a half of training with the center’s executive director, Bruce Shapiro.
He laid the groundwork for what would become the peer-support program that we officially kicked off on Thursday. The focus: Understand trauma on a deeper, cultural level so you can be better journalists; and, because journalists can be affected by what they cover, learn to take care of one another.
The ultimate goal is to cover trauma survivors with greater knowledge and sensitivity, and to recognize when a colleague might need help dealing with a difficult assignment.
The day began with attendees sharing personal stories of difficult assignments they’ve had.
The faculty then led the group through research on trauma and how it affects journalists, what trauma does to a person and why peer support works, and practical advice on detailed ways to to use our guidelines and make our program work.
Such a program is helpful, Newman said, because journalists don’t often seek help even if they’re distressed by a story — and because they can see employer-provided mental health care as an arm of management. A peer supporter isn’t a counselor, but can provide a touchstone for someone who is distressed — a way to regain equilibrium, stay healthy and be able to do his or her best work.
“Peer support works because we are cultural beings,” Jansen said.
Having someone who understands the language and the tradition makes it easier, she said. Or, as Junkerman put it:
“You of all people understand: You are not a press credential that wears a person. You are people who do a difficult job. When there’s nobody else who understands, you understand.”
A peer-support check-in could be, Millar said, as simple as a text message to check in on a reporter who’s on a difficult assignment. It could also be a more formal and confidential sit-down conversation.
Soon, we’ll be kicking off the peer-support program for DFM’s northeast properties in Connecticut, Massachusetts and other states.
The group at the YDR talked a lot about how to raise peer-support and trauma journalism awareness in their newsrooms, so a peer-support check-in or conversation wouldn’t come out of the blue, but would be part of a newsroom’s culture.
It’s the beginning of a journey. As one attendee said: “Peer support efforts will make a difference that will be recognized for years to come.”
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