The crash happened overnight on a Saturday. Two local teens were dead. Mark Walters, a reporter for the Hanover Evening Sun in central Pennsylvania, spent Sunday contacting the teenagers’ family and friends for a story on the victims. Even after he went home, he continued responding to Facebook messages from grieving young people.

“At one point a kid asked me point blank, ‘What is blunt force trauma?’ ” Walters recalls. “That’s when it hit me that I just became responsible for explaining to this kid how his friend died.”

That responsibility weighed on him as he pursued the story over the following days. At one point, his editor asked how he was doing, and Walters admitted that he was struggling.

Within an hour, he got a phone call from a seasoned photographer at a sister paper, the York Daily Record, who offered a listening ear.

“It was really amazing to me to get a call from someone who is a colleague and a friend. It was very comforting. That was my first experience with the newsroom peer-support program,” says Walters, who now also works for the York Daily Record.

Staff members at the YDR have been at the heart of a push in the last two years to bring greater trauma awareness and support for journalists to newsrooms along the East Coast.

Their efforts began with a conversation on a train a few years ago, writes YDR enterprise editor Scott Blanchard. He and Jason Plotkin — the photographer who later called Walters after the fatal crash — were returning from a ceremony put on by the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma.

They had received an award for “Finding their way out,” a restorative narrative about the long-term impact of a 2003 school shooting, and they wondered how journalists could improve at “that kind of hard but necessary journalism.”

Blanchard and Plotkin envisioned a training that would help reporters understand the effects of trauma, so they could cover survivors more sensitively and also recognize when colleagues might need help coping with a tough assignment.

Their bosses were on board. In May 2014, 20 staffers from the YDR and several other Digital First Media publications attended a day-and-a-half-long training with The Dart Center’s executive director, Bruce Shapiro. In March and June of this year, 24 more journalists received similar training and officially launched the company’s trauma awareness and peer-support program.

Scott Blanchard
Jason Plotkin

Training peer supporters

Part of the goal for the training was for participants to become peer-support resources in their own newsrooms.

One trainee, Ginger Rae Dunbar of the Daily Local News in West Chester, Pennsylvania, says she’s done that by touching base “privately and casually” with colleagues after events like crashes and shootings.

Some people don’t need to talk about their experience on such assignments — and that’s okay — but if a reporter starts sharing “the heartbreaking details,” that’s a sign to Dunbar that they needed someone to process it with. “In this field, you’re so busy that you almost don’t make time for the emotions that are brought up,” she says.

Offering support for those emotions makes a lot of sense to Dunbar. In the course of covering accidents and fires herself, she’s learned that police and firefighters have support groups for coping with what they witness. Why not have something similar for journalists?

“The thing about journalists is that we see a lot of things that first responders see, but because we’re on the sidelines, people forget that we’re right there seeing it, too,” says Dunbar.

Sometimes journalists are the ones doing the forgetting. The peer-support initiative, says Blanchard, is combatting the attitude that “You just suck it up and go do your job. This whole effort is to be attentive to the fact that that doesn’t always work.”

Through the trainings with the Dart Center, Blanchard says he’s learned a new language for thinking about trauma, and that’s helped him be a better editor.

Take, for instance, the concept of resilience, which Blanchard says many journalists are already good at.

“If you have (a staffer) who’s struggling with something, when you have all this knowledge behind you and you come into a conversation, you can ask, ‘When you’ve dealt with something like this in the past, what have you done to take something good out of it?’ If they tell you a lesson, you’ve reinforced that.”

Improving trauma coverage

In addition to establishing an individual check-in system through peer supporters, the YDR now includes a 45-minute session on trauma in its orientation for all new staffers. The news team also gets together after major stories to discuss how things went and what can be learned about covering tragic events in the future.

Crime reporter Gordon Rago says that as a young journalist he has benefitted from that practice. For example, he was once surprised by readers’ responses to his tweets fresh from the scene of a fatal vehicle accident. His photos did not show the victims, but some readers were angry that he shared them at all.

“For me, that was eye-opening, because you want to be the first to the scene and tell people what happened, but then you have to think about what impact that’s going to have,” says Rago.

The YDR staff talked about the story the next day and how to handle sensitive breaking news. Now, when Rago arrives at a breaking news location, he takes a minute “to really process what’s going on” before diving into reporting. He also knows he can call an editor, or send them a photo, to get a second opinion before sharing it on social media.

Expanding the program

The York Daily Record is no longer owned by Digital First Media, but Blanchard and Plotkin continue to push the program forward in their newsroom and elsewhere.

In July, they introduced the model to about 20 journalists from across Pennsylvania at a seminar in Harrisburg. Blanchard says they will bring the training to some other East Coast outlets in the Gannett Company (the YDR’s new owner) in the next few months.

Introducing trauma awareness and peer support should be intentional, Blanchard says, but it need not be over-the-top.

“It doesn’t have to be stringing a banner across the newsroom that says ‘we talk about trauma journalism.’ … It’s not our every waking minute, but it deserves a place at the table with everything else we’re doing.”

Walters, the reporter who received peer support after covering the crash that killed two teens, agrees.

“I hope some day every single newsroom has this sort of a protocol in place,” he says. “If a newsroom isn’t at least thinking of this, I think that newsroom is failing its reporters. The safety nets need to be there.”