When Carla Judah, a news producer at Portland, Oregon’s KOIN-TV, watched a clip of two journalists who were conducting an interview get killed on live television, she said “the floodgates opened.”
“I just remember crying harder than I had ever cried before,” she said. The event, Judah said during Society of Professional Journalists Zoom workshop Trauma Exposure to Local Broadcast Journalists, completely transformed her response to trauma and sent her mental health into a downward spiral.
The 2015 murders of WDBJ-TV journalists, news reporter Alison Parker and photojournalist Adam Ward, shocked her and marked a clear turning point for her mental health and career, Judah said, describing their deaths as her “most difficult coping process.”
Before then, Judah said, she hadn’t allowed herself to feel the pain of traumatic events while on the job. She said situations in which she watched her team dodge canisters of pepper spray and get hit with rubber bullets while covering protests and rallies happened so often in her career she had gotten used to “the brutality of the field.”
But for Judah, this incident was different. She said she felt that by watching the footage of their deaths she was giving herself the freedom to decompress, and finally letting her anger, sadness and pain out.
“I had kind of been holding back tears all day knowing what had happened to them,” she said. After watching it, nothing was the same. Judah said prior to the murders of Parker and Ward, after each shift with terrible news, she’d tell herself the same phrase: “At least no one died.”
But that didn’t really work this time. And alcohol, she said, made a very quick and debilitating appearance in her life.
“One beer turned into two, then three, then four and I don’t remember how much I had that night but [two journalists] died doing their jobs that day,” she said. “I did a lot more drinking … and then moved to marijuana.”
A Better Option
Though recreational marijuana is legal in Oregon, Judah said she felt it wasn’t OK to use the plant the way she was. She said she knew there was a better option to work through what she was feeling and took it upon herself to find it.
“I quickly realized that using alcohol and marijuana to knock myself out and numb the feelings was not acceptable,” Judah said. “I realized I needed help and I found a counselor … and built my own mental coping mechanisms.”
Judah said she’s watched many journalists quit their jobs because the trauma of reporting certain stories became too much to handle. Thankfully, she said she was able to find what works for her and can now keep doing what she loves and coping with the trauma in a healthy way.
Judah said she now attends therapy sessions intermittently with a focus on having an honest conversation with herself about her mental health and encourages other journalists to similarly evaluate their own situations.
More Must be Done
In a follow-up conversation with The SPJ News, Judah said centering on hobbies and “putting my phone away” have helped her reconnect with reality and has allowed her to address her trauma. She also offered a simple unplugging option for journalists who can’t always get away from the newsroom but can turn their phones off.
“If you can, go out in nature, go out in a place where you have no cell phone service and just enjoy being away from it all,” Judah said. “It’s good for you to do these things because if we can’t take care of ourselves, how can we possibly be expected to effectively do our jobs?”
Judah said a major goal for her is to continue working towards the destigmatization of mental health and therapy in newsrooms and said its imperative for newsroom operators to provide journalists with more ways to cope with the traumatic events they witness and report on daily.
“I know they’re offering confidential helplines and many are offering up to three free counseling visits, but let’s be honest, three is never going to be enough,” Judah said, noting that though progress has been made, more must be done in this regard.
She also stressed the importance of free counseling and the need for trauma literacy to be taught in colleges to prepare young reporters who once in the field are likely to witness and report on traumatic events.
“Employers and newsroom managers need to understand that if they want to keep us [in the newsroom] and keep burnout low, they’ve got to meet us halfway,” Judah said. “We need young journalists to develop [healthy] coping mechanisms and have them already in place before they ever get to that first newsroom.”
Are you a journalist looking for a mental health resource?: Newsroom Mental Health Resource Guide