Seeds of New Ideas to Help Journalists Deal with Emotional Trauma

by William J. Holstein

News organizations, journalism schools, safety trainers and non-profits around the world are coming with new ideas for how to help journalists prepare to cover difficult stories and then recover emotionally and mentally afterward. But those efforts are still in the early stages and suffer from a relative lack of coordination.

Those were the takeaways from a meeting of more than 100 journalists and non-profit representatives organized by the A Culture of Safety (ACOS) Alliance in New York Oct. 3 to 5. It was the group’s first in-person meeting since 2019. The Overseas Press Club Foundation is the financial sponsor for ACOS. “ACOS focuses on local and freelance journalists who are the most vulnerable,” executive director Elisabet Cantenys said. “We are talking about embedding a culture of safety.”

The challenges facing all journalists have clearly multiplied. The pandemic, war in Ukraine, major weather disruptions caused by climate change, and civil strife combined with new forms of digital harassment and surveillance by governments and criminal gangs means the job has never been more difficult. There also appears to be an increase in the number of authoritarian governments that imprison or kill journalists or harass them legally. “Clearly the emotional welfare of news professionals has been challenged in all sorts of new ways,” said Bruce Shapiro, executive director of the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma at Columbia University.

But he hailed “an exceptional period of innovation” in how media organizations are shifting the debate about “trauma” to the overall psychological well-being of journalists. “We want to integrate resilience in the face of adverse reporting conditions into the basic safety agenda,” Shapiro said. He added that the International Women’s Media Foundation (IWMF) and the Rory Peck Trust (RPT) have expanded assistance to journalists with mental or psychological needs so they can access the specialized care they may need. Dart is trying to expand their training of psychotherapists to create a larger pool of clinicians dedicated to treating news professionals facing adversity, both before and after they cover a difficult story. “We need preventative psycho-social training,” he added. The OPC and Dart are running a Zoom program on psychological safety training on Oct. 12, in partnership with the ACOS Alliance, IWMF and RPT. Click here to read more and register.

Lucy Westcott, Emergencies Director for the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), said her organization is in the process of launching something it calls the WhatsApp Initiative in Ukraine. It is a dedicated channel that relies on chatbots to help freelancers in Ukraine find physical and digital safety resources and links to trauma support and emergency contacts. That information can be accessed at any time from any device using WhatsApp. CPJ wants to translate the information into Ukrainian sometime in 2023.

The sheer number and range of non-profit media organizations represented was impressive—CPJ, OPC, OPC Foundation, IRIS, IREX, James W. Foley Legacy Foundation, Justice for Journalists Foundation, International Media Support, Freedom of the Press Foundation, Rory Peck Trust, Reporters Without Borders, Centre for Investigative Journalism, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and PEN America, to name just a few. And the fact that ACOS organized the event was testimony to how the organization has grown and become a trusted partner. (Full disclosure: As president of the OPC Foundation, I sit on the ACOS board.)

Sharbil Nammour, global head of security for VICE Media, told participants that his company has for the past year been using Virtual Reality headsets made by a company called Head Set to complement its Hostile Environment and First Aid Training (HEFAT) sessions, another innovation in training journalists. “It’s a controllable sandbox that we get to rub up against some pretty strong emotions without re-triggering trauma,” he said. He described the simulation of different crisis situations as being VICE’s “emotional resilience strategies.”

Other speakers spoke of the need to improve the way that Western news correspondents engage with fixers, who are often the most vulnerable people involved in the reporting of sensitive stories, particularly in places such as Mexico. Andalusia K. Soloff, general coordinator of FF Mexico, a non-profit that the Freelance Frontline Registry in London helped create, has been holding workshops for Mexican journalists who are paid so little by their own organizations that they are willing to work as fixers, translators and drivers for Western correspondents who parachute in and win prestigious awards for their work. The fixers remain behind and face any consequences from the reporting and may never even see the finished news product. “We want to shift the correspondent-fixer imbalance and eliminate inequality between journalists from the Global North and the Global South,” Soloff said.

Another group of vulnerable correspondents are the very young who may not have received adequate preparation in college, which is where the Foley Foundation is concentrating its efforts. (James Foley was murdered in Syria in 2014 and his mother, Diane, created the foundation in his name.) The foundation has created safety training modules that 19 colleges and universities are using. They cover physical, mental, legal and digital security threats. One problem in persuading more journalism schools to use the modules is that professors themselves have had limited experience in conflict reporting. And another is that talking about “security orientation” may be a turn-off to students who prefer terms such as “street smarts” or “tricks of the trade.”

In general, there are many non-profits offering journalist safety training but they are often poorly funded and lack the resources to scale up their offerings. ACOS’ Cantenys said that’s one reason that “mapping” of what each non-profit is doing is so critical. “The mapping is increasingly important because it helps us to gain an overview and spot opportunities to collaborate,” she said. “The more people we engage with, the more complete our shared picture will be and we’ll be more likely to work together.”