Bringing awareness to newsroom stress

Sidney Tompkins has been psychotherapist for more than 40 years and married to a journalist for more than 25.

Her husband, Al Tompkins, has been a journalist and journalism educator for decades. It took him decades, he says, to realize that “some things I saw and experienced as a daily news reporter deeply affected me yet I told nobody.”

With Sidney’s help and expertise, he’s learned about processing that stress and trauma.

Now, Sidney and Al Tompkins are marrying their unique areas of expertise to help more journalists experiencing traumatic stress.

I talked to Al about why he’s been incorporating managing trauma into his journalism talks, including this fall at Excellence in Journalism, where he and Sidney will present.

Last year, Sidney sat in on a session Al taught for journalists working in conflict zones in the Middle East. They realized that the group all had stories of trauma that needed to be addressed, and started building trauma conversations into Al’s trainings for international journalists.

But, Al says, “Trauma is not just something that war correspondents experience.”

Shortly after shootings in Orlando, Las Vegas and Parkland, Sidney and Al met with local Tampa Bay journalists: “One journalist had covered all three shootings. Others shared memories that fit every criteria of traumatic stress.  Few had sought professional care.”

And it’s not only stories making national headlines that cause trauma for reporters.

Car crashes, crime and catastrophic floods can, too. So can being harassed or stalked, getting email threats, hearing “fake news” shouted, or being criticized for appearance – things every journalist has experienced.

So can being a manager responsible for assigning difficult stories, knowing the impact it could have on reporters.

It’s with managers, Al says, that mindfulness of trauma needs to start.

Clinical research shows that journalists experience higher levels of trauma than the public and also that younger journalists and photojournalists experience the most. More journalists working solo have no one to get through difficult stories with, and women in particular are less likely to speak up about experiencing trauma. Accolades and awards for coverage of tough stories reinforce the idea that trauma is the norm for news.

Providing one-off assistance, like an afternoon with therapy dogs immediately following a major event, may be helpful, but it’s not enough.

“Healing begins with awareness,” Al says, so “bosses have to make it routine to talk about trauma and stress.”

No one needs to quietly endure recurring trauma, and Sidney and Al are helping newsrooms understand – from a therapist’s and a journalist’s perspective – how to process stress.

Al says research also shows one important way journalists can reframe conversations about the stress of news: “Journalists who believe they are doing important work are FAR more likely to recover from trauma.”


More on “Managing Newsroom Stress and Trauma,” Friday, Sept. 6, 3-4 p.m. at Excellence in Journalism:  
You will see how it is not just the overwhelming news events but the culmination of repeated exposure to sad, tragic and sometimes graphic news events that weighs on journalists. We will show you how photojournalists, producers and younger journalists may be paying the highest price and how news managers can spot stressors developing. This is a practical, sometimes emotional and vitally important session for journalists at every level.