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Haunted by child deaths, a reporter shares lessons for coping with tough assignments

Topics in Health: Lessons From The Field

Haunted by child deaths, a reporter shares lessons for coping with tough assignments

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A young girl places pinwheels in the ground with a detective at the Bentonville Police Station at a rally to raise awareness of
A young girl places pinwheels in the ground with a detective at the Bentonville Police Station at a rally to raise awareness of child abuse in Bentonville, Arkansas.
(Photo via Arkansas Democrat Gazette)

When I first got an assignment to write about child deaths in Arkansas and the system meant to protect some of the state’s most vulnerable, I knew it would be a heavy lift. I thought it would take several months, maybe even a year. It ended up taking almost three years.

I started by gathering and organizing documents, including coroners’ reports, police reports, prosecutorial files and records from the Arkansas Department of Human Services. Then, I placed every child’s information into a file, organized by year of death and county. I wrote short descriptions of their lives, including information about their age, parents, deaths and put all the information into a spreadsheet. This initial process made up the vast majority of the time I spent working on “Children in Peril,” a three-part series on child deaths in Arkansas.

The stories focused on deaths by gun violence, suicide and abuse. Arkansas has high rates of deaths among children in all three of these categories.

Without exception, the stories were sad. That’s putting it lightly. They were heartbreaking; they often included photos of bodies or crime scenes. These images stuck in my mind.

As journalists, we generally deal with death semi-regularly for part of our careers. Almost everyone works a cops shift, covers a homicide or writes about a fatal car accident. Since the COVID-19 pandemic, death has become a big part of the stories we write about the virus’ toll. It has to be included. It’s important.

But knowing something is important doesn’t make it easier to write about.

As I went along reporting the story, I started noticing that I was tired constantly. I would go for weeks or months at a time without sleeping through the night, often waking up with nightmares. My anxiety became worse as I neared a publication date and panic attacks became a regular part of my life. I picked up strange habits. I developed a fear of driving my car in reverse, thinking of stories I’d read about people who accidentally backed over children. When I went to the grocery store, I’d circle the parking lot once on my way in and once on my way out, making sure there weren’t any babies left behind in hot cars. When a friend had her son, I stopped by to drop off a gift and wound up staying to make sure all their furniture was tightly anchored to the walls.

I tried to shake it off, saying that these deaths were just on my mind a lot, they weren’t going to affect me long-term. Post-traumatic stress disorder is something that happens to people who fight in wars, journalists who report from the field on mass shootings, people who live through natural disasters. It doesn’t happen to those who are just reading documents, reviewing court evidence and interviewing families, I thought. I hadn’t lost anything, so why did I feel overwhelmingly like I was grieving these kids?

The answer, I’ve come to learn after reading through resources and attending therapy sessions, is that I was grieving and likely suffering from some form of PTSD. Journalists covering similarly challenging topics such as shootings, racism and sexual violence, among others, sometimes report similar symptoms and challenges, studies have shown. The Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma offers several resources for reporters.

Several studies have examined the occurrence of PTSD symptoms in reporters, and although the estimates of how many journalists will experience the disorder vary widely, it’s clear that covering traumatic events can cause trauma.

Symptoms can vary from reliving the event, nightmares, being overly alert, panic attacks, depression, or increased irritability, among other symptoms. Most people feel better within three months after a traumatic event, and if the problems grow worse or last longer than one month after the event, you might be suffering from PTSD, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC also recommends taking steps such as keeping to a usual routine, finding ways to relax, and turning to friends or family to help deal with these symptoms.

Through some of these tips and others I have to offer below — not from a mental health professional but from a reporter who has spent quite a bit of time writing about a traumatic topic — I’m doing better. Nightmares are rare occurrences; I feel much more relaxed most of the time and I’ve dropped most of the odd habits I picked up.

If you’re a reporter who has found yourself experiencing heightened levels of stress, anxiety, nightmares, or other symptoms listed above, here are some strategies for coping that were helpful to me through my process of reporting on child deaths. I hope they can be helpful to you.

1. Seek therapy. This is the single most helpful piece of advice I can offer. If you think you might need professional help, get it. If you can’t afford it (and many people can’t), research community mental health centers near you that might offer lower rates. Ask if your employer has a program for mental health care. Some clinics offer sliding scale fees based on your income.

2. Ask for help. I was the only reporter on this project, and I wish I hadn’t been. I wish I had stopped and said I needed someone else to work on this with me, so we could lean on each other and give each other occasional breaks. If you can’t find someone else to work on a project with you, reach out to another person you trust to talk with.

3. Take breaks. If you can, set aside the project that’s giving you stress for a few days and work on something lighter. If you don’t have the time to take a break and work on something else, don’t let your free time be consumed by the project. Use your weekends to get outside, visit friends, talk to your family, but try not to spend your free time thinking about or working on your project.

4. Practice self-care. Self-care doesn’t look the same for everyone. It can mean something as small as drinking a glass of water or taking a break from reading the news for a day. For me, it often means going outside for a run and listening to an audiobook I enjoy. I’d recommend making a list of activities that you enjoy, that make you feel happy, and when you’re feeling down, pick something on your list and do it.

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Related coverage: It’s time for journalists to take their own mental health seriously

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