Two Atlanta journalists handle traumatic events differently

Roughly a year ago, multiple news outlets reported a horrific story: An Atlanta woman allegedly killed her one- and two-year-old sons. She put them into an oven and turned it on.

By Dr. Pamela Dorsett, SPJ Georgia member and clinical psychologist

Journalists had to gather the facts to report this story, and that meant talking to law enforcement, relatives and neighbors; visiting the area; and reviewing the police and autopsy reports. They sifted through disturbing, traumatically stressful information and made decisions about what content to include in their stories.

Former Atlanta Journal Constitution reporter Ellen Eldridge was one of the journalists who covered this story in October 2017 and, as a breaking news reporter, it was her job to monitor the constant onslaught of information about these killings and other disturbing events in the city.

Ellen Eldridge, digital news producer, Georgia Public Broadcasting

“Breaking news reporters are constantly siphoning through information, deciding what’s appropriate to put into the story,” Eldridge said. “We have to describe what happened without being too vague or too graphic. It’s tough to cover these kinds of things and see that part of humanity.”

Vicarious trauma

Exposure to traumatic events and images, especially when it’s repeated, can take a toll. What’s more, events don’t have to happen to people directly for them to be adversely affected. Vicarious trauma or secondary stress occurs when people are exposed to disturbing events second-hand, such as reading police and autopsy reports or viewing graphic, disturbing images, like user-generated content. The effects of direct and vicarious trauma are cumulative, which means they build over time.

People in professions who are exposed to direct and vicarious trauma can develop symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, some of which include re-experiencing the traumatic event (e.g., nightmares);  avoiding trauma-related thoughts, feelings or reminders of the event; initiation or exacerbation of negative thoughts or feelings after the trauma; and change in reactivity or arousal (e.g., irritability, easily startled).

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD is a psychiatric disorder that can occur in people who have experienced or witnessed a traumatic event such as a natural disaster, a serious accident, a terrorist act, war/combat, rape or other violent personal assault.

American Psychiatric Association

Elana Newman, research director for the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma and R. M. McFarlin Professor of Psychology at University of Tulsa said journalists who witness or experience trauma and also work within in a toxic environment are at greater risk for PTSD.

Even though 80-100 percent of journalists have been exposed to a work-related traumatic event according to studies published between 2001 and 2011 and reviewed by DART, the incidence of PTSD in journalists is low.

It’s normal to have responses to traumatic events, and it’s important to process the events so the effects of exposure don’t contribute to problems in psychological, behavioral or emotional functioning.

Symptoms of vicarious trauma

The symptoms of exposure to direct or vicarious trauma can be subtle. Dr. Newman suggested journalists note signs that may indicate traumatic stress:

  • Thoughts about the story are intrusive and upsetting or linger for more than a couple of weeks after the story is finished
  • Patterns of negative thinking increase
  • Problems in personal relationships develop or increase
  • Worry occurs more than usual
  • Mood is extremely irritable

Building resilience

The process of adapting well when faced with adversity is called resilience. The American Psychological Association website says, “Research has shown that resilience is ordinary, not extraordinary. People commonly demonstrate resilience.” And resilience isn’t a characteristic that you have or you don’t. It can be developed.

The APA website states that research points to factors that contribute to resilience: confidence in abilities, problem solving and communication skills, the ability to manage strong feelings and impulses and the capacity to make plans and see them through. The primary factor in resilience is having “caring and supportive relationships within and outside the family.”

“A sense of social support is one of the strongest indicators of resilience across any industry or profession,” Newman said. People can be the recipients of supportive actions or they can perceive they have social support. 

Eldridge said she knew she had people to could talk to at work and within her broader circle of journalist friends. She said she didn’t typically process events with them because she wasn’t depressed and so she didn’t think she was affected by the repeated exposure to work-related traumatic events during her time with the AJC.

Finding support close by

Broadcast journalist Kaitlyn Ross at 11Alive WXIA in Atlanta witnessed an attempted suicide last summer and found the event difficult to process.

Kaitlyn Ross, broadcast journalist, 11AliveWXIA Atlanta

“I’m thankful we were able to get the person help, but it was a really emotional time,” she said. “It was very difficult to see someone you don’t know in so much pain and feel helpless.”

Ross said she has a good social support system inside and outside her work environment, and she works for a company that encourages employees to process traumatic events and seek professional help when needed.

“11Alive is incredibly supportive and they make that support clear company wide. Tegna has a trauma hotline and the company pays for sessions with therapists if a reporter is particularly impacted by a specific story, ” Ross said. Her superiors have reached out to her when she’s covered a difficult story, she said.

Now a digital news producer at Georgia Public Broadcasting, Eldridge said she loved her job at the AJC as a breaking news reporter and would like to have continued. Even so, after a few months of working her present job, she said she felt different.

“I’m generally less anxious. My mood has changed. The feeling of pressure to get the next story out is gone,” she said.

Dr. Pamela Dorsett is a licensed clinical psychologist at the Behavior Institute of Atlanta. She is also a professional freelance journalist and member of SPJ Georgia, co-chair of the Freelance Committee. Dr. Dorsett will be speaking at the SPJ Region 3 conference, “Trauma & Stress: While working in journalism,” on March 9, 2019 in Savannah, Georgia.