We need informed, not inflamed, news in a time of global fear. The old rules of reporting don’t serve us now. This is a pivotal moment to reimagine the role of the press in a new world of threat and uncertainty where ‘back to normal’ is no longer an option.
By Lu Hanessian, MSc
It’s hard to fathom where we are. A virulent pathogen has invaded all fifty states, and hundreds of millions of Americans are living in a social and economic recession for collective survival. For the nation’s psyche, it’s an open-ended experiment in coping with uncertainty and fear on a scale we’ve never experienced before. And when we most need connection for comfort, we must physically retreat from each other for safety.
We have no roadmap. We have models. Medical experts warn us to steel for a staggering loss of life in the coming weeks and months, potentially more than the Iraq, Afghanistan, Vietnam and South Korean wars combined.
Nobody knows what lies ahead, or when and how we will re-animate our lives, but it’s dawning on us now that there’s no getting ‘back to normal’.
The world has changed.
And, your audience has changed, too.
We’re not the same viewers as we were before city streets became deserted, schools and businesses closed, and more than sixteen million people filed for unemployment. In a flash, we went from primaries to pandemic, and fear is now our common denominator.
Every day, the bold graphic box on our television screens bears the savage math of this pandemic. Breaking news alerts compete with harrowing video of makeshift morgue trucks. We hear the battlefield language: ‘apocalyptic’, ‘catastrophe’, ‘invisible enemy’. Doctors and nurses are called ‘soldiers’ working the ‘front lines’ of this ‘war’. Health care workers beg for protection while medical gear is pushed to the highest global bidders, in cruel contrast to thousands of heart-wrenching FaceTime farewells in overcrowded hospitals.
Our nervous systems are on overload. Disoriented and desperate for distraction and connection, we turn to social media, where a growing push to “limit news consumption”, to just … “turn off the news” is becoming widespread advice.
This concerns me. I don’t think we can afford to tune you out now.
I have a vested interest in broadcast media and the role it plays in our daily lives. I used to be one of you. As a former network television anchor and host of a dozen TV shows over the course of twenty-five years, I get it.
As a neuroscience, trauma and resilience educator, I understand fear very differently. We’re not built to thrive under prolonged threat. Fear travels at lightning speed across both neural and digital networks. As the virus and our fear spreads, our brains perceive danger everywhere.
And the current news cycle is contributing to our panic and dread.
In the face of unprecedented and unrelenting chaos and trauma, we are wired to freeze. Helplessness can produce immobility, lethargy and apathy. What is the consequence of collective trauma, of mass passivity?
The public and the press are at a critical threshold.
We need to stay connected. To be alert, not alarmed.
But, the old rules of reporting don’t serve us anymore.
We are in uncharted territory. And, we need uncharted news coverage. This is a pivotal moment to reframe and reimagine the role of the media in a new social and societal order.
Trauma-informed, not inflamed
We need “trauma-informed” journalism. That doesn’t mean we want you to sugar-coat adversity. It means you anchor your coverage in an understanding of and responsiveness to the impact of trauma, and apply trauma-informed principles into your writing and story selection, guest bookings and interviews, your graphics, tone and delivery, and your coverage of the president and his administration’s response to this crisis.
Implementing trauma-informed principles into broadcast news means applying key science-based approaches to communicating effectively and responsibly with an increasingly traumatized population. I recommend focusing on four science-based tenets: Predictability, Digestibility, Sensitivity, and Inclusivity.
- Build Trust through Predictability:
- Create reliable routines to help cultivate calm during chaos. In New York Governor Cuomo’s daily briefing, he has effectively dropped an anchor in agitated waters. He addresses collective trauma through facts — and heart. “New York loves you,” he said. The science of trauma tells us that we need structure and predictability to mitigate the effects of it. Carry live briefings of local leaders around the country who are effectively creating trust scaffolding with citizens. It can provide the same for viewers everywhere.
- Discern truth from threat. ASAP. We need you to be tough and trauma-informed at a time when the familiar scaffolding of our lives has collapsed in breathtaking ways. We need more than fact-checking of White House officials. With countless lives on the line, supply chain bidding wars are an unconscionable injustice. Delay leads to death. Reporting has become time-sensitive. Tracking stories along a timeline can provide a point of linearity and focus when attention is scattered. Track testing kits and masks by geography in a daily graphic so we can see, not just where the virus is spreading, but where PPE is delivered, dismissed, or diverted.
- Connect. You clip on your mic every day, and look into the camera. Right now, it feels personal. We are all searching for updates — and cues of safety. That’s the biology of trust. Consider that what you tell us in these troubling times is as important as how you tell us. Tone down fear-based delivery; tune in to the public’s need for a modicum of stability. Consider that, for many people, you are their only human contact right now, their conduit to the outside world.
2. Make Journalism Digestible, Substantive and Contextual:
- Break it Down. Newscasters are called anchors. Anchor this crisis through providing digestible information. Book experts who succinctly explain the facts in context. Send science and health reporters to coronavirus task force briefings. We need substance, not sound bites. Break it down to give us the whole story. Give context to content. Don’t dilute complexity. We know better. Report the growing crises within the crisis. We need multi-level storytelling to help make meaning in the face of so much loss and grief.
- Establish and enforce boundaries which protect the public. Opt out of live-broadcasting press briefings that denigrate reporters, push falsehoods, and pose a dire threat to public health. Show solidarity. Refuse to be abased for doing your job. Stand up for each other. Ask each other’s questions. Stop tolerating and normalizing presidential targeting of journalists. Reclaim dignity. For yourselves, your profession — and us.
- Have foresight. Stay apprised of critical issues that will affect all of us in the coming months and years. Include important ongoing segments on tele-medicine, tele-education, the climate crisis and its link to infectious disease, on issues that confront the pressing needs of a post-pandemic society. Bring these insights into debate moderation and analysis.
3. Make Sensitivity Your Strength
- Balance gravity with humanity. Establish a synergy of message, laser-focused on science. Balance it with first-person stories of hardship and healing. We need to hear from mental health experts and faith leaders. Book grief counselors to help de-stigmatize trauma. The swelling mental health crisis is becoming collateral trauma, a “slow-motion disaster”. Anxiety, depression, and PTSD will affect millions of people, especially health care workers. You can provide the investigative groundwork for help, healing and resilience.
- Air generative stories. We simply can’t process wall-to-wall coverage of risk, loss and untold suffering. A constant negative news cycle can cause more distress. We need hope. The courage and commitment of doctors, nurses and health care workers can cultivate vicarious resilience. Inspiring stories inspire empathy and public confidence. Stories unite us, buffer us in adversity, and can pull us out of helplessness into action. Practice generative journalism.
- Cultivate EQ. Right now, affective journalism is effective journalism. You show your humanity when you shed a tear, break from script, and bear your vulnerability. Truth-telling encompasses the message and the messenger. Congruence between tone and substance shows sensitivity and strength. It bolsters emotional intelligence, and engenders public trust. In this collective emergency, you must do emotional and psychological triage with your audience.
4. Make Inclusivity a Journalistic Imperative
- Create frameworks that humanize. Expand coverage to all sectors of society, those who can’t stay home, those without shelter, those whose children count on school for food, DREAMers, the incarcerated, the homeless. Who will be most vulnerable to the lethality of this virus, where and why? Research and report the story inside the story. The social justice crisis within the public health crisis.
- Encourage empowerment, not victimhood. By covering this crisis through a trauma-informed lens, you offer people an opportunity to practice adaptive coping strategies while staying engaged with a changing news ecosystem. When you imagine all populations, you include all populations. As trauma becomes embodied, we lose our sense of time, place, and self-leadership. When we retain a sense of agency, we build resilience. By reporting with public agency in mind, we are reminded of our power.
- Be solutions-focused. Helplessness and trauma go hand and hand. We can’t march now. But, we can organize. Be solutions-focused. When you share stories of proactive Americans stepping in to help, we become mobilized. As this pandemic has gripped us and emptied our gathering places, it has also exposed and amplified long-suffered inequities. A press that recognizes trauma also resists re-traumatization. Know that your journalistic choices impact people’s lives.
We know you’re working without a ton of sleep while you also tend to your family members, partners, and personal safety. As you manage your own fears, risks, and health challenges, you still keep showing up.
And that’s why we must keep tuning in.
Viewers don’t mind if you broadcast from your makeshift basement studio or from the rooftop. Stay safe. We all need to know we will be accompanied throughout this process by people with the will, courage and empathy to tell the truth especially when it hurts. In a world of unknowns, you and your audience will need each other to stay calm and informed, to map out and co-navigate the way through — and forward.
Lu Hanessian, MS, is a stress and trauma resilience researcher and educator, an award-winning journalist, former NBC network television anchor and Discovery Health Channel host, founder of “Raising the Future Now” and host of an upcoming podcast.