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Stress and the Press: the Trauma-informed Edition

Stress and the Press: the Trauma-informed Edition

Housekeeping: The Stringer Newsletter. New editions come out Monday mornings (P.T.)

In this edition: A very rough draft to a topic I’m working on. Looking for feedback if you’ve got any. Tips about processing trauma for times of furor and frenzy.

Share The Stringer by Daniel Mollenkamp


My first full-time gig as a reporter included its fair share of literal ambulance chasing. As an all purpose staff writer for the daily paper of a tiny town in Northwestern Iowa, exotically named Le Mars, one had to take any chance for a story.

In one particularly shameless incident, I elbowed my way to an area where neighbors were commiserating to get quotes and pictures regarding a fire that had started when a Thanksgiving’s turkey kindled an entire kitchen. When the story ran, the headline selected by the editor was, I won’t forget, a variation of “Turkey’s Done.”

For the profession, this is a relatively harmless sin.

The humdrum of the newsroom and the off-the-street interview could certainly be more “trauma-informed,” sensitive to the psychology and processing of trauma. In the digital world, siloed as it is, these considerations are more important rather than less.

When my uncle died in a horrific accident, crushed to death in his job as a security guard by a sign that fell on him, it was the local news coverage that broke the news to his family, a digital edition that scooped even the dreaded knock at the door by the police.

Like all journalists, I am overly interested in journalism, and so my curiosity is drawn to the connection between the press and stress, between trauma and how we tell public stories.

On a phone call earlier this year, before the COVID-19 closures, Lori Shontz, a professor a University of Oregon who was working on a book chapter about journalism and trauma, spoke with me about how journalism might become more “trauma-informed”. I spoke with her and her writing partner, who detailed precisely how prevalent trauma is in the profession.

Shontz’s writing partner, the psychologist Kevin Becker, described journalism as “steeped in tragedy” on a phone call with me. In the last half-decade or so, Becker has made a focus of on the interactions of journalists and victims of trauma. He has done “a lot of community work”, applying the principles of handling trauma to communities impacted by such events as school shootings and natural disasters. “I always feel very privileged that people would tell me their stories, that they would trust me enough to go into the details of these horrible things that happened to them. But as a journalist not only are you asking people to trust you enough to tell their story— it goes beyond that— because then they’re trusting you to tell someone else [their story], to tell the world.”

And there is no organized method for journalists to understand what trauma does to communities, he reflects to me. Unlike stories about, say, food writing, journalists who cover traumatic events know virtually nothing about their subject. But that could change. If it did, it would represent a vast improvement in the trade.

Becker pointed me towards The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma (2014) by the trailblazing psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk, MD, as a means for further understanding trauma and how it impacts those who suffer from it and those who cover it, which is often a dual category.**

In the book, the Van der Kolk argues that trauma is “kept” by the body, meaning that trauma causes physiological changes to the body, often making the sufferers of trauma unable to bring new experiences into themselves, as if they were “stuck” in a loop.

The book’s narrative follows the experiences of the author as he works through his training and residency and takes up the profession of psychiatry, working for places like the Massachusetts Mental Health Center and Boston State Hospital. It tracks his time through revolutions in the medical understanding of trauma, including the pharmacological revolution and the neuroscience revolution. For instance, the book, which is as well written as it is informative, opens with an account of the author’s time working in veteran affairs, in the years following the Vietnam War, and sketches out how psychiatrists concluded that PTSD is not “in the head” but is, in fact, a physiological rewiring of the body’s physical and hormonal responses. For the author, these insights trace back to the work of psychiatric researchers like himself, casually dropping names like Abram Kardiner, who had written a book, The Traumatic Neuroses of War (1941), on his observations of “shell-shocked” veterans of the first world war. In following the writer’s intellectual and career trajectory, as well as centering itself in narratives that involve patients, the reader is brought into an engaging narrative on these erstwhile dense topics. But despite its technical grounding, this book pulls off the double-feat of seeming holistic. It constantly emphasizes treating and engaging “the entire organism, mind, body, and brain.”

And this brings up a point I want to emphasize: trauma is ensconced in politics. The two are inseparable, which even the author emphasizes. Trauma impacts not just those who suffer it but those who surround and love them. The impact of hiding trauma in the body is that it jostles our ability for self-regulation and for engagement. This is true at the social level as well as the individual level. Socially, trauma moves in waves rather than ripples. Universal health care, poverty eliminations, rates of employment, access to quality education, food security, are all relevant considerations.

Drawing on research in neuroscience, developmental psychopathology, and interpersonal neurobiology, Van der Kolk concludes that there are three primary methods useful for exercising the brain’s talent for neuroplasticity and unsticking the loop: (1). “top down”, or talking, as a means both for reconnecting with other people and for “processing trauma”; (2). using medicine or other technology that shut down the brain’s “inappropriate alarm reactions” or alters the brain’s methods of sorting information; (3). “bottom up”, or giving the body experiences which flatly contradict the negative emotions of trauma that linger in it.

The book’s recommendation of things like theater as a means of engagement caught me off guard, though perhaps, as a former theater teacher for an after-school program in an impoverished area, it shouldn’t have.

Journalism is a vocation with a relatively low barrier to entry where a lot of practitioners often interact with victims of trauma. The trauma incurred during even “normal” coverage of every day things weighs on the brain. Its impacts can not always be seen immediately. A large detriment of trauma is the isolation it brings. The impact of carelessness or obliviousness is high. In one of the most devastating moments of some people’s lives, a recorder is stuck under their nose or a camera is snapping ruthlessly away. Every journalist probably has their own stories.

Trauma is a ruthless killer. By the stats, it has killed more Americans, since 2001, than the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and it is twice as likely to affect the average American woman as breast cancer*. And our society can seem peculiarly unable to adapt to trauma, unable to handle it effectively. Primates, in particular, have evolved “to be smart enough to make ourselves sick,” according to Stanford stress researcher and primatologist Robert Sapolsky. The mechanisms which are so “brilliantly adapted” to some circumstances— Sapolsky meant stress here— have “devastating consequences” in others. The same is true for other evolved mechanisms. In the case of trauma, it seems we are not always even smart enough to realize why we’re sick.

A genuine learning experience should change you. Otherwise, the learning was, at some level, superficial. The question, then, is how do we apply these insights to the grind of everyday life? “We are on the verge of becoming a trauma-conscious society,” Van der Kolk writes. That will take some continued engagement. In the meantime, his advice is probably worth circulating generally. “Trauma is now our most urgent public health issue, and we have the knowledge necessary to respond effectively,” Van der Kolk concludes.


  • *Stats pulled verbatim from Van der Kolk’s book, mentioned later in the text.

  • **Vicarious trauma is a particular concern in journalism.

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