Newhouse School Hold Panels, Workshops to Equip Journalism Students to Cover Traumatic Events

The journalism industry faces the difficult task of expertly covering unfolding tragedies while maintaining compassion and mental health well-being for journalists. This challenge took center stage at the panel discussion “Trauma-Informed Journalism In A Time of Chaos: Preparing for When Things Fall Apart,” on Sept. 14 at the Newhouse School. 

The panel was part of a series of discussions and workshops held at Newhouse over a couple of days in September, in partnership with the Trust for Trauma Journalism and the Stephen Jacoby Fund for Ethics in Journalism. The two-day long event—which also included a photo gallery with images from international, award-winning photographers—was organized by Ken Harper, director of the school’s Center for Global Engagement. The event’s purpose was to empower Newhouse journalism students to ethically and professionally navigate traumatic events.

Two people look at an image on a wall
People look at images in the “Trauma-Informed Journalism” photo gallery. (Photo by Molly Irland)

“Navigating the complexities of a rapidly changing world with empathy and thoughtfulness is crucial for journalists,” Harper said. “We’ve begun to lay the groundwork for this vital approach with these two events.”

Moderated by veteran broadcast journalist Mary Alice Williams, the panel discussion brought together award-winning reporters from The New York Times, CNN, ABC News and other major outlets who shared poignant stories with the audience that highlighted the toll that covering traumatic events takes on journalists. The panelists included Jesús Ayala, an assistant professor at California State University; Thomas Brennan, the founder and executive director of The War Horse; Kurtis Lee, an economics correspondent for The New York Times; and visual journalist Kathleen Flynn.

In the discussion, which took place in the Joyce Hergenhan Auditorium, Flynn shared her struggle with PTSD following the coverage of Hurricane Katrina, a journey of self-realization that led her to explore the intricacies of trauma and its impact on journalism. With stories often acting as a therapeutic canvas, Flynn emphasized on a crucial precursor to effective reporting: understanding and processing one’s own traumas to maintain an emotional equilibrium while delving into the lives of others.

“I think it’s important that as you’re getting into this field, understand trauma and go to therapy, even before you begin reporting. You need to fully understand your own trauma as you’re going into the world and working on the beat,” she said.

Ayala also struggled with PTSD; he revealed it ended his 20-year career as a field journalist. His confusion after his diagnosis exposed the lack of preparation for journalism’s emotional toll. Ayala’s reflection showcased a transition from a cavalier approach in youth to a more conscientious understanding of self-preservation in the industry.

“I think that my bigger lesson is, I got to take care of myself. Your number one job is to take care of yourself,” he said.

Kurtis Lee, a former breaking news reporter for the Denver Post, was one of the first people to cover the mass shootings in the Aurora, Colorado movie theater and the elementary school in Sandy Hook, Connecticut.

“It just hits you where you’re like, ‘This is just, what are we doing here? Why are we here?’” Lee said.

His narrative from a funeral of a young gun violence victim in Milwaukee portrayed a somber picture of a journalist’s reality, where the lines between professional obligations and human emotions blur. Lee underscored the importance of empathy in journalism, a quality that turns the spotlight on human experiences amid catastrophic events. He highlighted the dichotomy of meeting individuals often on the worst day of their lives, nudging the conversation towards the emotional depth and understanding required in telling their stories authentically.

Kurtis Lee speaks to a student after the panel. (Photo courtesy of Ken Harper)
Mary Alice Williams meets a student after the panel. (Photo courtesy of Ken Harper)

“It is one of these new fascinating, nuanced debates that I don’t know what the answer is to it,” he said.

Lee’s focus on systemic issues affecting marginalized communities brought the discussion full circle, underscoring the need for empathy, self-awareness and a relentless pursuit of truth in journalism. 

The day after the panel, the panelists facilitated a workshop for Newhouse students on trauma-informed reporting techniques and self-care. Several members of the Newhouse School and Syracuse University’s staff and faculty joined including A. J. Chavar, a teaching fellow in immersive journalism; Charlie Poag, the communications manager at the D’Aniello Institute for Veterans and Military Families; Les Rose, a broadcast and digital journalism (BDJ) professor of practice; Natasha Senjanovic, a professional in residence at WAER; and Chris Velardi, a BDJ adjunct professor. 

After attending the panel discussion and the subsequent workshop, students reflected on the significance of understanding journalism through a trauma-informed lens. Whitney Williams, a BDJ master’s student, emphasized the necessity of reporter well-being, to be able to better report traumatic events. She advocated for regular mental health check-ins, counseling access, mentorship programs and safe discussion spaces in newsrooms. 

“It’s striking that balance to realize it’s not always just about your career and your profession…it’s about telling people’s stories,” she said.

For students like Petty Officer Second Class Theoplis Stewart, understanding trauma’s impact in journalism is crucial. Stewart, who is currently a part of the military visual journalism program, stressed the importance of mental health awareness for journalists and their subjects. Whether it’s operating a camera or writing, Stewart said that understanding mental health and the dynamics of traumatic situations should go hand-in-hand.

Chris Velardi speaks to students during the workshop. (Photo courtesy of Ken Harper)

“You should constantly be studying [mental health]. Don’t forget about that part because it lets you delve deeper into the story and protect yourself,” he said.

Timia Cobb, a master’s student in the magazine, news and digital journalism program, called for newsrooms where diverse reporters can express themselves freely, enhancing trauma-informed journalism’s understanding. When interviewing trauma victims, Cobb stressed the need for humanizing sources, letting them share their stories voluntarily and allowing them breaks if needed.

“I never wanna feel as though I need this, or I’m going to get fired if I don’t get this interview,” she said.

As these students envision their future in journalism, they are committed to applying ethical, empathetic approaches, especially when reporting on marginalized communities in crisis.

“It’s crucial for newsrooms to create environments where diverse voices feel welcomed and encouraged to share their viewpoints,” Williams said.

The panelists, students and faculty have some fun after completing the workshop. (Photo courtesy of Ken Harper)

The panelists’ stories and experiences, displayed in photos, communicated in discussions and taught in workshops, emphasized to students that the dark shadows of covering traumatic events often follow journalists long after the headlines fade. But they run towards calamities to bring the truth to light, and through their experiences, can teach future journalists how to best equip themselves to do that, too. 

Allen Huang is a graduate student in the media studies program at the Newhouse School.