Working Through the Anguish
By Sherry Ricchiardi
Sherry Ricchiardi (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an AJR senior contributing writer.
SINCE 1991, A MICHIGAN STATE UNIVERSITY program has helped journalists grapple with the psychological fall-out from covering horrific stories. It's one of several pioneering efforts--including those developed by the British Broadcasting Corp. and the New York Times--designed to ease the anguish.
The Victims and Media Program, developed at the School of Journalism at Michigan State in East Lansing, trains students, instructors and working journalists. It counters an entrenched ``notion that feeling too much could get in the way of being objective,'' says Frank Ochberg, who helped launch the program as the state's mental health director. Now he's an adjunct professor of psychiatry, criminal justice and journalism. A novel element is the program's response team, which provides on-site consultation for members of the Michigan Press Association. In debriefings, either one-on-one or in groups, team members ask journalists to share their experiences and describe their reactions to the trauma.
In April 1993, when a fire in Ludington killed eight children and an adult, the response team went to the Ludington Daily News, circulation 8,500. Managing Editor Steve Begnoche says counseling gave his staff ``a chance to vent their feelings.''
Last year, Ochberg helped organize a similar program at Queensland University in Australia; others have taken root at the University of Washington in Seattle and at the University of Central Oklahoma in Edmond, in collaboration with the Daily Oklahoman. The key to effective outreach is a good relationship between a university, which has a ready pool of experts, and working journalists, Ochberg says.
The BBC began developing a safety net for employees in the early 1990s. Leading the effort was Chris Cramer, then the head of BBC newsgathering and now president of the Cable News Network's international news division. His interest stemmed from firsthand experience: While reporting in 1980, he was taken hostage, with 25 others, by Iranian dissidents during a siege of the Iranian Embassy in London. He was pistol-whipped and held at gunpoint.
``I was a basket case for years afterwards. I came off the road because of it,'' Cramer acknowledges. ``Had I known more about stress and trauma, I might have gotten over it a bit faster.''
The BBC offers three options: Journalists can gather informally to share information with colleagues in their newsrooms; they can talk in confidence to a company doctor in London; or they can telephone a help line for immediate response. BBC staffers and their family members ``fully use the counseling service,'' says the network's risk control manager, Peter Hunter. With three counselors on staff, the New York Times has one of print media's most extensive intervention programs. It was launched in 1995 when Executive Editor Joseph Lelyveld worried that, while the Times had a stellar record for protecting journalists from physical harm, it didn't address the psychological duress of some reporting.
Now, supervisors and, especially, foreign desk chiefs have been trained to recognize and approach at-risk employees. A supervisor might suggest that the individual contact the paper's employee assistance program for a stress debriefing or other support. But, Lelyveld says, ``No one reports back to an editor. It's their private business.''
``We want to make this a routine thing, not a singling out,'' says Patricia Drew, the program's director.
Drew suggests that journalists in small foreign bureaus are most vulnerable because ``the pressure on them is the greatest.'' She says the Times has a network of counseling professionals overseas to handle referrals, or an employee may take a leave of absence and seek help elsewhere.
The counseling offer has gotten ``a lukewarm reception,'' Drew concedes. But she speculates that journalists who seek help for depression, burnout, substance abuse or family problems might actually be experiencing post-traumatic stress. ``They don't call and ask for trauma debriefing,'' she says, ``but there may be a spillover.''