November 28, 2022

Archive Event Highlight

OPC and Dart Center Host Training Session on Psychological Safety and Resilience

by Chad Bouchard

Like many other professions, journalists face trauma during the course of their work. Their jobs often entail witnessing and processing the human costs of war, natural disasters or other humanitarian crises while on assignment.

“You, like me, a therapist, live and work in a trauma-facing profession,” Katherine Porterfield, PhD, a clinical psychologist and senior trainer for the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, said during an interactive online training session on psychological safety and resilience for freelance journalists on Oct. 12. “But journalists have not always been given the opportunity to address and think about what tools they need when they’re dealing with trauma or severe stress.”

The 90-minute session, hosted by the OPC and the Dart Center, included a model to help understand the impact of trauma and other stresses in journalism, strategies for enhancing individual wellbeing, tips for building peer support networks, and breakout discussions about the challenges of setting boundaries with sources and others while on assignment.

She said boundaries for journalists can include anything from limiting hours when you’re willing to take phone calls, the kinds of assignments you accept, or who you are willing to work with.

“Boundaries are the way, in trauma-facing work, we keep ourselves safe,” she said while introducing a breakout exercise. Participants were asked to talk about a time they had to relax or lift a boundary, and what boundaries they would recommend for new freelance journalists to set for themselves.

After the group discussions, participants shared some examples. Common themes included what to do when sources in need ask for help, or when sources invite journalists to share a meal in their home, which can be sticky to either decline or accept.

“It’s hard to say no to people. So then the question becomes – tolerating your feelings about it. That’s a very ‘therapy’ thing to say, I know,” Porterfield said. “But tolerating what we cannot do is really hard. And I know journalists struggle with this because they talk to me about it. You are world helpers. You are. You want to help the world.”

She talked about the importance of giving and receiving social support, which can be offered in the form of emotional support, tangible or practical support, providing helpful information, or helping someone with self-evaluation and reflection.

“You usually know what you need,” Porterfield said. “And that means colleagues know what they need, too. So instead of just reacting in the moment and barreling forward, pause and say ‘what would be helpful to you right now?’”

She said that both giving and receiving social support has been found to enhance resilience, and a lack of social support predicts poor outcomes after trauma.

Porterfield encouraged journalists to reflect how they handled a trauma-facing story, either as an individual or in teams. But, she cautioned, “remember this doesn’t mean it’s beat-yourself-up time,” it means looking at successes as well lessons learned.

“A curious but compassionate stance toward yourself – that is the key when you’re doing trauma-facing work. Because this work is hard, and it leaves an imprint.”

Porterfield is a consulting clinical psychologist at the Bellevue Hospital Program for Survivors of Torture in New York City. The training was presented with support from the International Women’s Media Foundation, Committee to Protect Journalists, Rory Peck Trust and the A Culture of Safety (ACOS) alliance, all organizations committed to providing programs and services to bolster the mental health and security of working journalists.

Click here to download a PDF of Porterfield’s slide presentation.

Click the window below to watch a playlist of clips from the program.