9 Tips for Journalists Covering Traumatic Events

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Journalists often are “first responders” when it comes to traumatic events.

Crisis and conflict challenge reporters on the ground, both in the midst of the breaking news and for months – sometimes years – following.  As they quickly work to process and document the news, they also see, experience, and absorb what’s happening to those they’re covering.

We connected with three journalists with first-hand experience covering trauma – from war-time activities in Iraq and Afghanistan to recent events in Baltimore, Charleston, SC, and Ferguson, MO, as well as crime and natural disasters. They spoke about the difficult role of storytelling in these scenarios.

We spoke with:

  • Amy McCullough (@AmyMac418), news editor with Air Force Magazine and president of the Military Reporters and Editors Association;
  • Andrew Renneisen (@AndrewRenneisen), a Brooklyn-based freelance documentary photographer, frequently published in the New York Times; and
  • Sam Owens (@samowensphoto), staff photojournalist with The Charleston Gazette in Charleston, West Virginia.

Based on our conversations, here are nine tips to stay safe (and sane) while covering a traumatic story or beat.

1. Prepare yourself.  

Whether you’re headed to a combat zone, natural disaster, or riot, do your research before you go.

“Understand the environment and the hazards ahead of time,” says McCullough. “Know the cultural implications. Anything can change at any second, so never get too comfortable.”

As a defense reporter working risk-laden environments, McCullough must be ready for anything. Before going downrange, she took a class through Centurian, a UK-based program for frontline journalists and workers, taught by retired British special forces. The course equips media with tools to assess their safety and replicates real-life scenarios, like getting kidnapped. She also learned to sleep with all necessary gear – including body armor, boots, and notepad – within reach. This came in handy during a 3 a.m. rocket attack while on assignment in Afghanistan.

For Owens, who covers breaking news, having charged batteries, phone and laptop, and a full tank of gas are important. She’ll keep a long lens for her camera, too, in case she needs to keep her distance from an active situation. Her newsroom provides a number of items for weather-related incidents, but she also created a safety kit that she keeps in her car in case a story unfolds in front of her.

With these unanticipated scenarios, keeping mentally prepared is critical. “Mental preparedness is just as important as physical preparedness at a breaking news scene,” Owens says. “I have found I make much more compelling images if I have taken time to process why I am there and why it is important to document the difficult times along with the good.”

2. Find your fellow journalists.

Finding a support system on the ground – even if they work for competing news organizations – can provide a second (or third, or fourth) set of eyes and ears as you focus on your subject or story.

“Having someone else you trust in a hostile environment is crucial,” says Renneisen. “Ferguson was one of the first times I worked in a really volatile environment. Without the help of other more experienced photographers, it would’ve been more difficult to stay safe.”

Utilize this core group as a sounding board, too. You don’t have to trade story ideas, angles, or scoops – just talk as humans about what you see. You’re likely processing a lot of heavy information quickly and talking it out with those around you can help alleviate the natural stress you’re experiencing. If you don’t feel comfortable, check in with your colleagues, family and friends, and see who’s willing to listen.

3. Explain your purpose.

Be transparent about who you are and why you’re there. Let the people around you know that you’re there to tell their story and will listen if they want to talk.

“A good friend and mentor of mine, Jake May, who I worked under at The Flint Journal, taught me a majority of what I know about making clear, caring images at breaking news scenes,” says Owens. “He will walk up to as many firefighters, police officers and officials at a scene to introduce himself, if he doesn’t know them already, in order to explain who he is and what his purpose is, which usually allows him better access in the long run.

“It’s important to be able to express my purpose to those around me, or those that I am documenting, whenever I get the chance,” she says.

4. Give those involved time and space.

In most cases, the people you’re meeting and interacting with have just seen the unthinkable and are working to process it all. After making clear who you are and why you’re there, listen, remain calm, and be considerate of their willingness to talk with you.

“It takes respect, a level head, and an ability to understand what the people are going through,” says Renneisen.

“No matter what I do, there are going to be some people out there who instinctively react negatively to my presence as a member of the media,” added Owens. “What I can do is learn to respect their opinion as a fellow human being, and move along to do my job with the intent of being as caring and compassionate as possible.”

5. Be flexible.

Especially about your methods of interviewing. Some people may not feel comfortable about being recorded, and prefer you take notes, or vice versa. If you can’t reach a person of interest, use third parties. Connect with their friends or family members. They are their gatekeepers.

As Owens explains, you want to be flexible in how you cover the story for yourself, too.

“Trust your intuition, and give yourself permission to exit the scene whenever you feel your limit has been pushed too far,” she says. “In my opinion, no photograph is worth comprising your own boundaries or safety. You need to get to know what those limits are for yourself; no two journalists are alike in every situation.”

6. Use your downtime wisely.

Downtime is a relative term in these scenarios. As McCullough put it, “It’s all part of the job.”

But, when activity is at a low, use this time to collect the questions you need answers to and seek verification. There may be answers you can get by doing research that doesn’t require you speaking with people.

You also can use this time to transmit any remaining images, interviews, and information back to your newsroom or online.

7. Use social media as a tool.

Search on social is your friend. If possible, curate source lists on Twitter or Facebook ahead of time. These lists should include relevant subjects, such as local officials, other news outlets, people on the scene sharing photos and information about what they see, and more.

Once you’re actively working a scene, be sure to follow any relevant hashtags. You can use lists and hashtags to corroborate information, like the source of a photo. You also can use them to find people who could verify a situation.  For more, see our post on How to Use Facebook as a Reporting Tool.

8. Look for signs that you need help. 

Quickly processing so much upsetting information can leave you feeling as though you lived through the same horrific events your subjects did. This can make it difficult to push through your coverage, or even move on to the next story.

Owens says she sometimes feels uncomfortable with the idea of covering tragic events.

“There are days where my walls break down, and I feel like a vulture,” she says. “It’s a heavy privilege to take images of the dark times, the times that are occasionally some of the worst days in a person’s or community’s lifetime.”

If you’re struggling to shake the effects, the key is to track down your available resources and ask for help.

“Journalists can get PTSD, too,” explains McCullough. “I have quite a few reporter friends who have gone to a therapist after returning from the war zone. We may not be carrying a weapon, but we often see the same atrocities as military members.”

Renneisen lets his camera act a shield: “I’m documenting, doing my job and I know why I am there. If after that it becomes more difficult, I always make sure I have someone to talk to if something is bothering me.”

9. Find an outlet after the fact.

Find a form of release or a way to cope when you have free time.

“Learn what makes you unwind, whether it can be achieved through exercise, music, reading, cooking, etc,” says Owens.

For Renneisen, surfing and being by the water does the trick. McCullough spends some of her free time at the gym.

Once you know yourself,” continued Owens, “it will be much easier to deal with the ups and downs of covering a tragic event or breaking news scene. It takes practice, lots and lots of practice.”

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Anna Jasinski is a former manager of audience relations at PR Newswire. Follow her on Twitter at @annamjasinski for expert tips on writing and social media. You can also catch her tweeting the latest news in journalism and blogging on @BeyondBylines.

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