Untreated: journalists coping with trauma

Asking for help can be hard.

By Emma Drudge


Marla Cranston is still haunted by what she witnessed as a court reporter for the Halifax Daily News. (Photo: Emma Drudge)

 By Emma Drudge

The images just don’t go away.

Gretchen Dworznik remembers staring at the blood in the mangled Dodge and wishing she was looking at ketchup.

“It’s not ketchup,” she said to the photographer she was working with, Virginia Palmer.

“Yeah, but I’m going to pretend it’s ketchup,” Palmer replied. “It’s easier.”

Dworznik, then a young reporter for the local NBC TV station in Toledo, Ohio, had seen lots of accidents. But this was worse, much worse. A train had plowed into the Dodge at 120 km/hour. The driver, a high school student named Joe, was a star football player everyone knew.

Dworznik did what reporters hate doing, went to the dead boy’s home to talk to his parents. No one answered her knock. “Oh, thank God.” She trudged through the pouring rain past the neighbours who screamed obscenities at her, the only person they knew to be mad at.

On the drive home, waiting to be alone to cry—Dworznik’s routine after days like this—Palmer suddenly slammed on the brakes, shot out of the car and plucked a stray kitten off the side of the road. Dworznik forgot her cat allergy and held the kitten close the whole way home.

“It seems silly,” she says, laughing today, but they decided it was a sign. “We couldn’t save that kid but we’re going to rescue this cat, we’re going to name him Joe and give him a good home.”


If journalists were members of a traditional group of first responders— police, firefighters, military personnel— they would have regular opportunities for debriefing and psychological support.  Instead, most often, they go back to their newsroom, file a story and process what they’ve seen in a way that somehow, consciously or not, they’ve made up for themselves.

Joe Hight served two terms as president of the board at The Dart Centre for Journalism and Trauma an online resource for reporters with branches in North America, Europe and Asia. Now a newsroom director in Oklahoma, Hight says counselling services in a company health plan often aren’t enough; newsrooms need to do more.

Marla Cranston couldn’t agree more.

The faces of two sisters, killed in an accident, flash into view when Cranston drives past Cole Harbour. A reporter at the Halifax Daily News from 1990 to 2003, Cranston covered countless accidents, crimes and trials; she spent four of those years on the court beat.

“I could take you on a pretty creepy tour of Halifax,” she says. Cranston left journalism years ago, but the memory of crime scene photos stain her image of certain corners, streets and buildings.

The insomnia began while she was covering courts—more than 100 sexual assault trials and 50 murders in those four years. These days she works as a Communications Officer for the Nova Scotia Barristers’ Society. She’s in her office late most nights, a habit she thinks might be left over from filing for the Daily News. She might as well work late.

Cranston coped. An artist, she distracted herself with photography and music. A workaholic, she numbed; went to the bar, laughed off the day. Eventually she spoke to her psychologist about what she’d seen. All the help she got, she says, she found for herself.

“I wish that it had been offered, or suggested, or recommended, or even talked about in the newsroom.”

For Rob Gordon, it is. His bosses at CBC offered him counselling after he covered the crash of Swissair Flight 111, near Peggy’s Cove, Nova Scotia, in 1998.

Gordon went out in a small boat that night, searching for the site where the plane and its 229 passengers had plummeted into the ocean. He saw—but didn’t report on—mangled body parts floating on the water.

All the CBC employees who covered the disaster were encouraged to get psychological help. Gordon wasn’t interested.

“I wasn’t a victim of that crash. I didn’t lose anybody, so I didn’t feel any need to be traumatized. It was  a very sad, unfortunate event that I witnessed but I went home to my family that night and you know, I don’t think it affected me.”


During her reporting career, Dworznik never covered a plane crash or a school shooting—“a big one,” in her words—“but even just the everyday little ones adding up over time really started to wear on me. So when I got out of TV I was like, I can’t be the only one who feels like this—actually, please tell me I’m not the only one who feels like this.”

Now a journalism professor at Ashland University, Dowrznik’s research adds to a small body of empirical knowledge about the ways covering everyday trauma can affect journalists.

Newsroom attitudes, she says, encourage journalists to move on to their next assignment “without acknowledging or treating the emotional toll of the tragic event he or she just covered,” because there’s shame in admitting it has affected you.

Gordon disagrees. He says seeking psychological help would be easy if he needed it. “I don’t think there is any stigma attached to it at all,” he says, since there are successful CBC reporters who have openly sought counselling.

Since leaving reporting behind and turning to trauma research, Dworznik has seen a change in attitude among reporters she’s interviewed. “More of them are becoming aware of the fact that they can be impacted by their stories.” But, she says, the shift doesn’t go far enough. “I don’t know that they are more willing to admit that it has happened to them.”

Although media outlets are more likely to offer counselling, and reporters more likely to accept it, Dworznik says it’s the seemingly routine stories that can have the most profound impact.

On that, she and Gordon agree.

He was at the corner of Sackville and Barrington street in Halifax for almost two hours on Nov. 18, 2008. Shortly  before he was dispatched to the scene, as a woman had crossed the street, Tim Hortons coffee in hand, a dump truck cut through the intersection, running her over.

When Gordon got there her body was covered with a blanket but he could still see her coffee cup, her hand, and the headphones she’d been wearing.

“Morning cup of Tim Hortons,” Gordon says. “Such a normal, banal, bland thing to do. She’s zoned out and WHAM— it’s over. And that…it still bugs me. There’s nothing I could do about it. I don’t lose sleep over it but it’s another one of those messages you get, I think, in life but also in this business, perhaps more than in others, that life’s on a razor’s edge. It’s right on the edge and it could fall off either side and you don’t know when, and you don’t know who, and you don’t know how. ”

No one at work asked if he was OK at the end of that day, if he needed to talk or see a professional. Gordon understands. “The scale’s different; it’s not something that crosses people’s minds.”

But it does cross the minds of other, more traditional first responders.

Within 48 hours of responding to fatal accidents and other traumatic incidents, Halifax Regional Police are invited to “emotional debriefs” to process what they’ve seen. The meetings are optional and confidential.

HRP Public Safety Officer (HRM) Superintendent Don Spicer has facilitated sessions like this where no one showed up; other times 20 people flooded the room to say what they had seen and how they felt about it.

“It was almost underground years ago because of the bravado of police,” says Spicer. “You know, we’re the tough guys, we have to put on a brave face, so it was almost like a secret society there for a while.”

The emotional debriefs helped spark an evolution at the HRP. Once people saw their value, they started leaning on other things the department offered. The 24/7 phones, for example, that specially trained volunteers like Spicer take turns having at their sides in case anyone needs to talk.

Spicer could refer callers to outside services available through the department’s health plan. They have $700 of psychiatry covered each year if they need it on top of their in-house support systems. Or, the conversation could be casual. “None of us pretend to be social workers or psychologists,” says Spicer. “Sometimes just having an ear, someone to listen to and to vent to, really helps.”

Having to initiate getting help is what holds a lot of people back, says Spicer, which is why people can also call to request he drop in on a co-worker they’re worried about.

When counselling is optional “the people who need it most won’t take it,” says Dworznik. Her trauma research has taught her that “most people will tend to choose the wrong way to cope.”

While some find psychology, exercise and interesting hobbies, others try drinking and detaching, and directing stress at loved ones.

Gordon’s method started because of a recurring dream: the “pieces of people” in the water the night of Swissair.

He tried out some advice he’d received after the tragedy. “Take those dreams, what you thought of and what you saw, what bothered you, and put it in a box and put a big ribbon around the box, and take the box and put it up on a shelf and leave it there.”

It worked.

Though he’s covered a few large-scale tragedies, including the 1992 Westray mine explosion that killed 26 men, it’s not just these he ties up with a ribbon and stashes away.

That morning at Sackville and Barrington fills one box on his shelf.

Gordon’s method, in fact, is used by many reporters and emergency personnel, according to a study published in the 2011 International Journal of Psychology. The outcomes have mixed reviews.

Why Cover Daily Trauma?

Rob Gordon says journalists are often the “lightning rod” at emergency scenes, the recipients of anger and pain.  Here he discusses why it can be important to cover day-to-day trauma even when victims or their loved ones don’t want reporters present:


“Several journalists reported that their emotional baggage could not be contained in that psychological box,” the study’s authors, Marla Buchanan and Patrice Keats, write. Sometimes the boxes’ contents “seeped through.” For most participants, however, methods like this worked wonders.

Buchanan and Keats write that journalists need to develop tools like this one because of “a workplace culture that promotes suffering in silence.”

Journalists sometimes sweep their feelings aside because they know telling a gut-wrenching story means someone else is living it.

“If you say ‘I’ve been hurt or harmed or affected by the story that I did, by your story,’ it’s almost like you’re stepping on that person’s toes,” says Dworznik.

Still, some of the best journalists will let a story hit them hard. They’re sensitive to what’s going on around them, then let it flow out. It can make for powerful storytelling, Dworznik says—and might mean having to deal with it on a personal level once the story’s done.

Better training on how to do so could be the halfway point between mandatory counselling and letting journalists brush off the idea completely.

New police officers in Halifax attend a mandatory workshop on critical incident stress management when they’re hired; they learn to identify when they need help and how to ask for it.

“If a journalist is trained to understand themselves and their own reactions, maybe they would be more likely to seek counselling; or at the very least be more likely to do productive things for themselves that would help them process those emotions,” Dworznik says.

Until that happens, reporters will plug away, finding their own ways to handle the stress of their job. And Rob Gordon will add boxes to his shelf.

Others will leave the business completely, though their reporting might inform their new work.

For Dworznik, it’s research. Her next study will be of reporters who covered a school shooting in Cleveland last year.

The artist, Cranston, still has notepads, heavy with ink from her days in the courthouse. She’s moved several times since she left journalism, but drags them along to fill part of her basement. She says one day she’ll craft them into a sculpture — or maybe a pile of ashes.

She’ll decide once she’s had time to flip through them and remember the lives that fill the pages. “I’m not done with that part of my life yet. I’m still trying to make sense of it, I guess.”