Counseling Your Newsroom

Apr 19, 2013

Everyday news professionals scour the landscape for stories that excites emotion in viewers (and listeners) and provides vital information potentially relevant for their survival. 

Truly, news professionals live their professional lives on a beachhead of trauma secretly praying for a tsunami of events that will thrust them into a national news spotlight.  Stories involving terrorism, mass casualties, death, and widespread human trauma spawn just such a media tsunami.  Unfortunately, often news professionals not only report on these incidents, they become unintended victims of the trauma on which they report.

Background

In the life of news professionals traumatic events happen almost daily but the team outwardly appear to be unaffected by the images they mentally store.  Then one day, due to the collision of a number of factors, a big story hits: terrorism, multiple deaths, widespread pandemonium, children with legs blown off, blood washed streets, or an explosion at a fertilizer plant that almost takes out an entire city. 

An army of news professionals appears to begin ingesting the images, creating the stories, recording the carnage, and the realizing the real vulnerability we all face daily as we live out our lives in the illusion of being safe.  Everything that goes through the lens of the camera becomes stored in the minds of each member of the news team.  Now, faced with a story so deeply painful that the images experienced and stored in the subconscious mind become the story that never goes away

The Media Reality

Deeply rooted in the ‘illusional-testosterone’ of the news industry is the age-old mantra that preaches, ‘If you are a real news professional…the blood and guts doesn’t bother you.’  In an effort to maintain the appearance of perfection and professionalism, the news professional copes with the images and emotions and ‘stuff’s the pain.’  Their biggest fear:  they will appear to be ‘unprofessional, unqualified’, ‘flawed’, or ‘too weak’ to be sent on the really tough assignments.  In the mind of the news professional, being perceived as ‘weak’ will eventually result in removal from the news team.  And it’s tough to leave our human frailties behind.

After working within the news industry for many years I believe they would rather die than admit that ‘the human side of them’ exists.   Yet, it is almost impossible for the reporter, the videographer, the audio tech, producer, editor…anyone who touches the news… to avoid feeling the pain of the father who pulled the lifeless body of his dead baby from the backyard pool then collapses tearfully in the arms of the reporter.  

In truth, the news team is often the ‘first responder’ who witnesses the raw experience of human emotional overload.  Though we protect our viewers with the warning, ‘This story is very graphic and may be overwhelming to viewers’…for those of us in the news profession…it’s all raw footage and we have no where to hide from the brutal reality of the story.  As hard as we try each one of us experiences emotional trauma in our own unique way. 

News professionals are unashamedly emotional

That’s what we look for in stories.  We want our viewers to connect with the emotions of the victims.  But often, while on location news crews have admitted to me that that late at night as they try to sleep, they can’t hold back the tears.  

Now here’s the key point.  Members of the team often say they can’t tell their news director or colleagues how deeply they are affected.  They can’t tell their families for fear of planting those same traumatic images in the minds of their loved ones.  And, though they try, those images from ‘the story that never leaves,’ are burned into their subconscious mind begging for relief.  Alcohol, drugs, risky acting out and family problems are often ineffective tools used to numb the emotional pain. 

The News Director

In news organizations the news director must already wear lots of administrative and creative hats. But also, the news director is responsible for the efficient functioning of his/her team.  When opportunities arise for challenging news reporting they must send in the team to get ‘the money shot.’  Given these realities, it is possible that some new observational and interactional skills need to be developed.

  1. Is there a way to reduce the Post Traumatic Stress naturally involved in gathering the news?
  2. How can we reduce the potential for formation of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in our news team? 
  3. Is there a way to keep the emotional side of our team more resilient to these known stressors that come as normal part of the news business reporting on very difficult stories involving terrorism, bio-terrorism, and human carnage throughout the world?