Academic journal article Journal of Child and Adolescent Psychopharmacology

Clinicians and Journalists Responding to Disasters

Academic journal article Journal of Child and Adolescent Psychopharmacology

Clinicians and Journalists Responding to Disasters

Article excerpt

[Author Affiliation]

Elana Newman. 1 Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma Research Office, The University of Tulsa, Tulsa, Oklahoma.

Bruce Shapiro. 2 Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, Columbia University School of Journalism, New York, New York.

Address correspondence to: Elana Newman, PhD, Department of Psychology, The University of Tulsa, 800 South Tucker Drive, Tulsa OK 74104, E-mail:


In the aftermath of disaster, no professional first responders play as controversial a role as journalists. Local news professionals may arrive on a disaster scene with the speed of emergency services and begin relating information before the situation is clear; in a large-scale event, national and international media may blanket a town or region, adding to the overwhelming sense of chaos and burden for local leaders and survivors. Child clinicians in particular may find much to question in media practice: Interviews with children that seem insensitive or unethical; a physical presence that may be overwhelming and an ongoing source of anxiety or anger for community members and families; and coverage that seems to oversimplify psychological recovery, or that anoints charismatic victims or survivors at the expense of a nuanced portrayal.

However, news professionals also serve a crucial function in mass disasters that can promote community recovery and foster mental health interventions. Journalists may play a vital role in defining the extent of the damage by leveraging resources by making stakeholder agencies and the broader society aware of survivors' perspectives and needs, connecting survivors with one another and their families, and educating survivors and the broader society about mental health and related psychosocial aftermath issues.

We believe that clinicians are well positioned to help journalists and the public understand the psychological dimensions of recovery from such events. This is particularly the case with mass casualty events heavily impacting children and families, in which journalists, policy makers, and the public alike may have little insight into the special needs of young people, the developmental implications of childhood trauma, and the value of evidence-based interventions.

However, few clinicians are trained or prepared to interact with journalists, to explain the unfolding events to the community, or to create resources through media. This article will focus on the knowledge, skills, and attitudes that child clinicians and other mental health professionals need to consider when working with news professionals. We will also consider the questions of ethics and practice that can arise when clinicians and media interact in times of crisis, with particular attention to children. Although this article is primarily framed in a North American context (both of media culture and disaster response) we will also draw on lessons from international disasters and news organizations in other regions.

Journalists' Roles in Disaster and Recovery

During mass disasters and their aftermath, journalists and media institutions play multiple roles. The first is simply to bear witness. Because of this professional obligation, news professionals rush toward disaster zones, often at considerable personal risk. In 2005, reporters from the New Orleans Times Picayune drove newspaper trucks back into the city at the height of the storm even while their own newsroom was under water (Horne 2006). In December 2012, Connecticut journalists sped to Sandy Hook Elementary School amid reports of an active shooting - including a reporter for the Hartford Courant who learned only after arriving on the scene that his stepdaughter was among the educators killed (Shapiro and Leukhardt 2013). A few months later, Boston Globe photographer John Tlumacki, assigned to the Boston Marathon finish line, instinctively moved in on the scene of the first bomb blast even as spectators fled (Irby 2013), capturing what became iconic images of a terrifying day. …

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