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April 22, 2021, 8:30 a.m.

Facing “unprecedented demand,” The Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma expands (and adapts) its offerings

“We were changed by the practicalities of the pandemic. But we’re also changed by a radical shift of awareness in journalism of the challenges of covering these events, and the psychological costs to journalists of unremitting stress.”

Journalists have covered a deadly pandemic, unnerving attacks on the U.S. Capitol, stark racial injustice, mass shootings, and (much) more in the past year. Many are doing their jobs while worrying about financial uncertainty in the industry and after months of socially distancing from colleagues, family, and friends.

Some are starting to speak more openly about the toll. Stacy-Marie Ishmael, the editorial director of The Texas Tribune, resigned after what she called “an absolute brutal year for many people, and especially for nonwhite people.” Texas Tribune’s chief product officer, Millie Tran, left in March as well. Another pair, Scott Rosenfield and Megan Greenwell left top positions at Wired, with Greenwell citing burnout. And Olivia Messer left a position as national reporter covering Covid-19 at The Daily Beast, acknowledging “the profound exhaustion, loss, grief, burnout, and trauma of the past year covering — and living in — a mass casualty event” on the way out.

Institutional support is thin on the ground. A fund to help Black journalists pay for mental health services, for example, notes that “when newsrooms ask Black journos to put their lives at risk to report on racial injustice, they rarely provide resources for them to process the trauma incurred both on the job and in daily life.”

One organization working to bridge this gap is the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, which uses research-backed methods to educate journalists on the impact of trauma on survivors, communities, news consumers, and reporters themselves since 1999. Director Bruce Shapiro said the past year has been the center’s busiest — and “most intense.”

Based at Columbia University, the Dart Center has responded by dramatically scaling up its newsroom trainings, creating new resources specifically for journalists from underrepresented communities, and placing a new emphasis on maintaining resilience during open-ended (read: unrelenting) stress.

One major change since the pandemic broke out? News organizations — rather than individual journalists — are reaching out directly. The center has longstanding relationships with the BBC and the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and Shapiro said they’ve “been in and out of NPR over the years.” But, overall, there has been less interest in newsroom trainings in the U.S. (The Dart Center also operates regional hubs — Dart Centres — for Asia Pacific and Europe.)

“We have found ourselves faced with an unprecedented demand and unprecedented interest from the news industry, instead of being primarily on the outside luring news professionals in,” Shapiro said. “It actually was hard for the Dart Center to get news companies interested in having us in. That has completely changed.”

Shapiro said he’s personally done seminars for more than 50 news organizations — from major networks like NBC to small, local nonprofit newsrooms — in the past year. Those in-depth newsroom training sessions focus on building a toolkit to ethically cover traumatic events and specific coping strategies for journalists themselves. Shapiro says research (and his experience) show that two of the best ways to maintain resilience are peer support and structuring workflows and leave policies to ensure reporters get enough downtime.

“More than 20 years of research tells us that the most important factor associated with journalists coping well with crisis is collegial connection and social support and the single most important risk factor is social isolation,” Shapiro said. “So I talk a lot about what it means to be a good colleague. I end up talking about specific strategies for unplugging and getting out of a constant cycle of arousal, too.”

Others aspects of the sessions nudge managers and other leaders to think about burnout and open-ended stress as serious vulnerabilities.

“When reporters cover trauma and then come back to a newsroom that’s perceived as unsupportive, or perceived as a hostile or untrusted environment, that’s a measurable independent risk factor for PTSD as significant as the degree of trauma exposure itself,” Shapiro said. “It’s a really important occupational health issue. Managers need to know this stuff.”

Another thing managers need to know? Their instincts on who is — or isn’t — objective enough to tell a certain story may need to be reexamined. As Shapiro told WNYC’s On the Media recently:

Look, in my experience, no one has ever said, let’s say to a combat veteran: “oh, you’re too close to war, you can’t be a war correspondent,” or “you can’t cover veterans.” No one’s ever said to someone who became a reporter after being a law enforcement officer and I know several people in that category, you can’t cover cops. This only comes up when it’s about people who are part of communities who have been left out of the traditional news equation or whose communities are at the center of national debates over injustice. It comes up with women, it comes up with trans folx, and gay and lesbian communities. It comes up, in recent weeks, with Asian-American journalists. It never comes up with the kinds of groups who traditionally have dominated the editorial power structures in newsrooms and for whom the news agenda is so often built.

The Dart Center used a $600,000 grant from Google — received at the beginning of the pandemic — to develop social support programs for journalists, open-to-all webinars, and a targeted program for journalists in Lebanon covering the aftermath of a devastating port explosion in Beirut. They’ve also launched a pilot training program for psychotherapists in treating journalists. Recent tip sheets include safety considerations for journalists and editors covering civil unrest and domestic terrorism, safely and ethically reporting from Myanmar, and handling sensitive interviews that must be conducted remotely during Covid-19.

Shapiro said the Dart Center has responded to an increased awareness of the stress that covering “profoundly challenging identity-focused crises in our society” — whether those be attacks on Asian Americans, police brutality against Black communities, an epidemic of sexual harassment, or otherwise — can affect journalists.

“What we know from research is that when whenever reporters cover trauma involving subjects or communities who they identify with, that raises the risk. It raises the likelihood that eventually stories are going to get under their skin or [create] PTSD or have other kinds of distress,” he said.

Mistakes like The New York Times’ publication of an anti-protest editorial or The Philadelphia Inquirer’s “Buildings Matter, Too” headline frustrate readers, but they affect the news organization’s own reporters, too, Shapiro noted.

“When reporters feel that they themselves or their organizations are committing ethical or social contract violations, or are becoming part of the problem they’re supposed to be addressing, that raises the level of psychological distress and mental stress in a profound way,” he said. “It leads to what it can lead to what clinicians call moral injury — the sense in journalists of being implicated in the very violations our reporting is supposed to address.”

The Dart Center has long relied on bringing journalists and researchers together in person. That, obviously, went out the window with Covid-19. But Shapiro said they’ve found they could create “a surprising degree of intimacy” and foster “trusting conversations” via Zoom as well.

“We were changed by the practicalities of the pandemic,” Shapiro said. “But we’re also changed by a radical shift of awareness in journalism of the challenges of covering these events, and the psychological costs to journalists of unremitting stress.”

POSTED     April 22, 2021, 8:30 a.m.
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