Journalists can become broken-hearted and experience vicarious trauma

“I believe that the more attention journalists pay to their own inner world, the better they will be at understanding the factors driving the people and situations they are covering during their work in the newsroom,” said British author Matthew Green.

By Hannah Lester, reporter, Auburn University

While working on his book Aftershock: the untold story of surviving peace, Matthew Green was interviewing British veterans and their families and began to notice some differences in himself and within his own attitudes.

Journalists experience direct stress frequently but they can also experience indirect stress, or vicarious trauma. While Green was interviewing veterans and their families and relayed their trauma, he eventually realized he was experiencing vicarious trauma.

“I would do interviews and I’d spend hours talking to some of these men, and they were generally men, and I’d come back and I’d be completely exhausted, I’d be drained and I’d feel depressed.”

Matthew Green, author of Aftershock: the untold story of surviving peace

Despite the signs, he didn’t realize until months later that the interviews he was conducting were causing his own vicarious trauma symptoms for many months.

Essentially, when a journalist interviews someone in-depth on their traumatic experiences, there is the potential for some of this stress to also affect the reporter.

Author Matthew Green told the story of veterans’ journey from the front line of combat to the reality of the return to a normal life. Supplied photo

“Vicarious trauma for journalists occur when a reporter is so immersed in the traumatic experience of the people that he’s interviewing, or that they are interviewing, that they themselves start to develop psychological or even physiological problems as a result,” Green said.

Dr. Pamela Dorsett, clinical psychologist and journalist, said vicarious trauma can occur when journalists read reports of trauma, talk to anyone who has been through a traumatic event themselves, read autopsies, or any number of other events. Photo: Dr. Pamela Dorsett

The effects of vicarious trauma can build up over time as journalists experience small mini events that accumulate inside the journalist’s psyche. Vicarious trauma can take it’s toll not only physically but mentally, Dorsett said. Some of the effects can include headaches, gastrointestinal problems, anxiety, or depression.

In 2007, a EF4 tornado hit Enterprise, Ala., destroying a large part of the community and killing many students at the local high school. Many professional photojournalists work alone on assignment when covering a traumatic event and don’t have the ability to process the images they photograph or share their feelings with others in a newsroom. Photo by Sharon Dunten

Green said that as normal humans, journalists may respond to intense stories or interviews, even if they think they have blocked that out.

“We are actually far more sensitive often than we might realize and being exposed to harrowing stories that really trigger our own feelings of vulnerability or perhaps something unresolved in our own life, can certainly echo,” he said.

Part of the problem with recognizing vicarious trauma is the lack of awareness to this type of trauma, Dorsett said. When journalists realize this can happen to them, they can take steps to avoid symptoms. Mentally, journalists can practice mindfulness or meditation to help ward off vicarious trauma, she said.

Participating in yoga relaxation exercises can aid in reducing stress because the discipline focuses on the three aspects of a person: the mind, the body and the soul. Flickr photo

Acknowledging that the mind and body are connected within in our daily lives can also be a factor in managing personal stress.

“[It is] Just things that we take for granted and don’t always make priorities like nutrition, sleep and consistent exercise. Exercise is really important because it can change our physiology in positive ways, including when we’re experiencing stress.”

Dr. Pamela Dorsett, clinical psychologist and journalist

Employers in the media are becoming more aware of trauma and vicarious trauma, Dorsett said. In the nineties, Roger Simpson and Frank Ochberg from the University of Washington started the DART Center for Journalism and Trauma. Later, the center landed at its current home in New York City the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. It started as a resource center and global network of journalists, journalism educators and health professionals dedicated to improving media coverage of trauma, conflict and tragedy.

One of the missions of the DART Center is advocating “ethical and thorough reporting of trauma; compassionate, professional treatment of victims and survivors by journalists; and greater awareness by media organizations of the impact of trauma coverage on both news professionals and news consumers.”

Journalists have faced many tragic events in the 21st century including coverage of 911 attacks, Hurricane Katrina and the Sandy Hook Elementary shootings.

Since then, the DART Center has been able to respond to exceptional news events challenging journalists and journalism — the Oklahoma City bombing, September 11, the Iraq Warr, Hurricane Katrina, the Virginia Tech mass shootings, the Indonesian tsunami, the Sandy Hook shootings, among others. The center continues to offer training and support for all news professionals who encounter violence and tragedy while working in journalism. The programs have expanded to satellite offices in London and Melbourne.

Another way journalists might combat vicarious trauma is through support of one another.

“I think that the power of speaking to other journalists about our experience is underestimated,” Green said.

The connection is also valuable when an individual builds a devoted group of people who will be there to help during the tough times. “And this is key: that they have a strong support system, preferably at work and outside of work,” Dorsett said. “And then, having those things in place, being self aware so … they notice signs that they may need to reach out for support, such as feeling anxious more of the time or worrying significantly more than they typically do.”

Nassem Miller and Silvia Foster-Frau started a Facebook group “Journalists Covering Trauma” after they covered major trauma events as journalists. WMFE photo

Naseem Miller and Silvia Foster-Frau decided to start a Facebook group: ‘Journalists Covering Trauma’. Both realized that journalists may not have an avenue to connect with others who are working in traumatic events.

“In conversations back and forth we figured there is really not a group or place where we could share our thoughts, our feelings with each other,” Miller said.

Miller is the health and science reporter for the Orlando Sentinel who covered the Pulse nightclub shooting tragedy and Foster-Frau, immigration reporter for the San Antonio Express-News covered the Sutherland Springs church shooting in 2017.

The Facebook group started with only Miller and Foster-Frau but has since grown to 447 members.

“I think the fact that we were able to have this many members kind of speaks to the fact that there is a need in the industry for – to address – to even acknowledge the mental stress and mental health of reporters.”

Naseem Miller, Health and Science Reporter, Orlando Sentinel

Mass shootings may lead to more stress in today’s journalism environment, Miller said.

“With all the layoffs and uncertainty about the future of our jobs, I think that’s another layer of stress that’s added to our everyday work,” she said.

Dorsett said that the climate facing journalists can also affect their mindset, as there is a lot of negativity toward journalism as well as job insecurity.

As more newrooms layoff personnel, journalists face the daily stress of the possibility of losing their jobs because of buyouts, budget cuts and circulation reductions. Flickr photo

“But we’re moving in the direction of superiors in management understanding this is a real thing, that it can adversely affect the people that work for them and their work product,” Dorsett said.

Green said that vicarious trauma can provide opportunities for journalists to look for ways to improve themselves. If journalists do not look inward, then the stress they have can affect not only their lives but their stories.

“Having periods of depression made me a better journalist,” Green said. “By learning to find more compassion for myself, I know that I was able to connect at a much deeper level with people I was interviewing about their own darkest moments. For too long we’ve seen having a mental health crisis as some kind of failing, or a sign of weakness. But if we change our attitudes, these crises can open a doorway into a way of being that is much truer to who we really are at our core.”

Hannah Lester is the 2019 SPJ Region 3 spring intern and reporter for She will be graduating from Auburn University this spring with a major in journalism.