Teaching Through Trauma
Breaking the Mental Health Stigma in Newsrooms
By Deirdre Steiner
YOU CAN ASK VIRTUALLY ANYONE OVER THE AGE OF 30 where they were Sept. 11, 2001, and they’ll likely give you a detailed account – the most mundane details of the day that are seared in their memories.
Every generation has these pivotal events that become part of our collective memories and experience. Most understand that these tragedies can exact a heavy physical and emotional toll on the survivors, their families and the first responders who bravely run toward the danger.
But, for University of Central Oklahoma Assistant Professor Desiree Hill, Ph.D., it has become her life’s work to make sure that another group of professionals are not forgotten during tragedy and enter their field prepared to deal with these kinds of events as they do their jobs.
A JOURNALIST THROUGH AND THROUGH
Hill’s journalism career began at age 18, which is unusual for the industry. She worked as an intern at an ABC affiliate and was immediately taken by the industry – especially the thrill of broadcast.
“I was going to be a print journalist. But once I got a taste of broadcast, there were some things about it I really loved,” Hill said.
“I love the immediacy. I love the deadlines – multiple deadlines per day. I liked the technology, the video, the live aspect and so I started moving toward that and ended up with my bachelor’s degree.”
Hill’s early career had her working in broadcast newsrooms across the region. She had an eye on the Oklahoma City market and eventually found her way to KOCO, where she worked as a producer and executive producer. Before long, KWTV hired her to serve as their executive producer.
ONE DAY IN APRIL
On April 19, 1995, Hill was a veteran journalist at KWTV, with a decade of experience under her belt. It was just a normal day – nothing could have prepared her for the events that would begin to unfold at 9:02 a.m. when a bomb concealed in a Ryder rental truck tore through the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in downtown Oklahoma City.
From the perspective of reporting the news, the Oklahoma City TV market was uniquely positioned to cover the Murrah bombing due to the area’s propensity to another kind of disaster – tornados.
“In this market, because of tornado season, we were ready in a lot of ways. It’s a breaking news market and so all the stations were working hard to put systems in place to be really on top of things,” Hill said.
“Breaking news is breaking news. You use certain techniques, but of course, this was different.”
Some of Hill’s colleagues dove into the work, in an almost cathartic way – others felt numb. Ultimately, no one knew how to feel or what to think, and most didn’t know how to talk about it. At the time, journalists were thought of as impervious to the news they were covering.
“We didn’t know what we were feeling. We didn’t know how we were supposed to feel in 1995,” Hill said. “Mental health was sort of under the rug. You didn’t talk about it.”
And so, Hill and her colleagues, both locally and from around the world, covered the events as they unfolded – revealing to a shocked nation that the Murrah bombing would be, and still is, the worst act of domestic terrorism in the nation’s history, claiming 168 lives, including 19 children.”
A NEW PASSION
Hill’s personal experiences, and maybe even more importantly, seeing how her colleagues were affected by the trauma they covered, never left her and became an area of focus as her career veered into academia. She understood the complicated emotions that came with covering trauma and traumatic events.
“It’s not about me, it’s about the person who lost their loved one. So why should I cry? If I’m crying, I’m making it about me. You’ll hear that over and over again,” Hill said. “We were not harmed because of our objectivity. We were journalists, so we’re a different type of category. And of course, that’s not true.”
“Journalists are human, and you see things that you can’t unsee, and you experience things that you can’t undo.”
Hill describes that time as the “dark ages.” The first available research that touched on journalists and trauma wasn’t published until 1994, so very little knowledge was available in 1995.
Yet, Oklahoma City stations were ahead of the curve, in some ways, in 1995. Most brought in counselors, but in some instances, the counseling was mandated.
“I credit Oklahoma City and Oklahoma City journalists for bringing mental health into the spotlight.”
When Hill decided to earn her Ph.D., she realized that the Oklahoma City National Memorial and Museum had interviewed dozens of journalists regarding the Murrah bombing – including herself. Those transcripts formed the early groundwork for her idea to research journalists and trauma.
Hill poured over 60 transcripts from print, radio and television journalists who covered the bombing. The work proved to be emotionally taxing.
The core of Hill’s research is solution based, offering up practical suggestions and ideas for making journalists more prepared for the work.
“I wanted to know what helped those journalists. What could managers do? What could organizations do? What did they do that was helpful, but also maybe what they did that wasn’t so helpful?,” Hill said.
“What can the Oklahoma City experience teach others.”
“Her findings centered around a layered approach that included robust, regular training and levels of support for all members of the newsroom. Hill also found that newsroom leaders may not know what to do during and after a traumatic event and that those leaders must recognize their own trauma and practice self-care.
“You have traumatized people leading traumatized people, everyone is wounded and what do you do with that?,” Hill said.
“That was an exciting finding because the literature hadn’t acknowledged that. We say managers should do this, managers
should do that while not acknowledging their traumatic impact and solutions for them.”
Removing the stigma and normalizing mental health support is also critical. Hill found that peer support is a valuable tool in creating a mentally healthy newsroom, as well as value in new journalists being paired with veteran journalists as part of a formal mentor program.
“Peer support was so healing during the bombing for our journalists. Journalists spoke time and time again about how a colleague helped them, how a colleague comforted them when they cried,” Hill said.
“There are so many ways to be a great peer, but it’s not automatic. We need to do peer support training.”
Starting a journalist off with support in place is another important piece. Hill found that a robust onboarding plan can make a huge difference in giving journalists the tools they need, but also helping to normalize mental health.
Hill advocates for on-site counselors to be available when journalists need to talk, but those counselors need to understand the culture of the field.
“When you are traumatized, what a counselor would say is remove the trauma, right?”
“If you’re in a bad situation, get out of that,” Hill said.
“Well, this happens to be my job and I can’t, so I don’t want to quit my job. I can’t remove the trauma. I don’t know when the trauma will happen, so understanding journalism culture is important.”
For journalists, reliving trauma can be a yearly routine as many cover the anniversaries of major events like the Murrah bombing or a
“It never goes away. There will always be an anniversary. And there should be,” Hill said.
According to Hill, support should be extended beyond traumatic events and should be included in the daily workings of journalists – including those in the field – to signify that they are cared for and supported.
TRAINING THE NEXT GENERATION
Student journalists at UCO all participate in a trauma section through their coursework. Hill pointed out that many universities don’t cover this in their curriculum. As Hill works with the next generation of journalists in the classroom, she’s had the opportunity to implement the findings from her research.
Students felt different, complex emotions as they covered Oklahoma’s resumption of executions and the high-profile Julius Jones case. She arranged for counselors to come in and offer optional counseling to students.
“We had two counseling sessions and that was extremely beneficial to our students. They loved it – I was able to put my research into practice,” Hill said.
For her, knowing that these students are learning these skills early is incredibly rewarding and useful for all aspects of their lives.
“Those skills are transferable to everything, their home lives, their school lives,” Hill said. “These folks will become the future leaders, and so that is setting the table and planting seeds for a better mental health response.”