A Dart Center briefing for the information-sharing group on support for Ukrainian media and journalists convened by the Global Forum for Media Development (GFMD). Also available in Ukrainian
The briefing has been compiled by the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma with assistance from the Global Forum for Media Development . It comes in response to a need identified by the information-sharing group on Ukraine (convened by GFMD).
According to a recent needs assessment by Lviv Media Forum 36 per cent of editorial boards have identified psychological support as a priority area, and international organisations have been quick to offer counselling services but there is uncertainty on what formats are likely to be helpful and effective .
Individual counselling appears to be the natural starting point for a discussion on meeting mental health needs for journalists. But it is the only element in a complex mix and should not be seen as the sole or even prime axis for effective psychological support interventions.
The document draws on the Dart Center’s twenty years of experience working with journalists in crisis zones, as well as recent conversations with Ukrainian journalists and staff working in media support organisations. It is also informed by scientific research into best practice interventions during crises involving mass violence.
Here are some preliminary orientations that serve as background for the recommendations that follow:
- Ukrainian journalists have proved themselves to be remarkably resilient in the face of extraordinary challenges. The sense of purpose that comes from reporting on this Russian war of aggression and uncovering evidence of abuse is likely to be protective for those journalists (compared, for example, to other members of the population who are caught up in the same events but have less active and defined roles).
But media work also carries additional risks associated with both direct and indirect trauma exposure. (The latter, usually referred to as vicarious trauma exposure, refers to situations where journalists are working with harrowing witness testimony, viewing traumatic imagery, or experiencing the constant saturation of war-related news content, rather than being directly on the scene of those incidents as they unfolded.)
- In popular, everyday speech, the noun trauma and the adjective traumatised are sometimes used as a shorthand for pathology, experiences that are certain to be problematic in the future. This is misleading. During wartime, people can have powerful emotional reactions to violent situations without that being any indication that they are likely to develop long-term psychological impairments of any kind. The physiological and emotional reactions that accompany exposure to violence can be unpleasant, tricky to manage and often hard to understand. But these responses are the product of how the human body is designed to respond to threats and have important protective functions. Exposure to destruction and loss on this scale also throws up profound moral emotions, such as guilt, shame, injustice, and helplessness, all of which are challenging and need attention but are equally not, in themselves, pathological in any clinical sense.
- The wartime strains that weigh most heavily on individuals’ mental health may not be immediately trauma related. Difficulty in planning for the future, worries about separation and relationship breakdown, doubts about the financial viability of the media organisations they work for, the challenges of dealing with electricity cuts, and so on, are ultimately consequences of the war but don’t arise directly from proximal exposure to catastrophic situations which involve death, injury, or sexual violence. These two related but nevertheless distinct sets of stressors – daily war-related strains and explicitly traumatic – operate at different intensities and play together in complicated ways, each potentially exacerbating the other . Different stressors require different strategies but effective psychosocial support in a war context should seek to encompass the broad continuum of challenges.
- This need to take a holistic approach is embedded in the work of an important expert group of trauma specialists which reviewed and codified more than twenty years of scientific research on responding to armed conflict, terrorist attacks and other humanitarian crises. They concluded that civil society organisations and other agencies need to embed the promotion of the following five dimensions: “a sense of safety, calming, a sense of self– and community efficacy, connectedness, and hope”, in all their interventions . These five principles have become the bedrock of international guidelines in disaster response . In some ways, these documents are not sufficient for this moment in Ukraine – as they were not written with the context of a land war in Europe at this scale and duration in mind. There are gaps in expert knowledge around what the most effective interventions in programme design, therapeutic support and training are likely to be. Nevertheless, the five key principles still provide a solid starting point for any media development organisation looking to structure their own programmes. (What this means in practice will be clarified lower down in the recommendations section.)
- Journalists work for organisations, if not always within them. While media workers are not soldiers, research on resilience in the military has real relevance here. Studies on combat stress in the military show how the broader organisational context has a significant bearing on how well individuals do. Cultures, which are well led, prioritise group morale, a sense of mission, pride in one’s abilities and working in accordance with professional values lead to better outcomes . For media development, this means recognising the importance of the newsroom, not just as an engine of the news publication, but as a key incubator for psychosocial support for both permanent and freelance staff.
- Trauma-focused therapeutic support for individuals has a part to play in the response to this crisis, but it also has limitations which should be understood. At this juncture in the war, the role of trauma-focused counselling is primarily educational and supportive. Diagnosis or treatment for possible post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is not recommended. That is because Ukraine is not yet in a post-disaster, post-trauma situation. Most journalists who are experiencing elevated states of trauma-related arousal will return to baseline when Ukraine moves beyond the immediate focus on collective survival.
This is a complex area: some journalists, for example, those in acute crisis and whose daily functioning is significantly impaired or those with pre-existing mental health conditions may benefit from specialist trauma-focussed support now. The main thing to understand is that in most situations – even if individuals appreciate therapeutic input and find it helpful – it is unlikely to be providing a long-term solution. It is only when the active phase of the war is over that clinicians will be able to identify who needs specialist treatment for longer-term impacts of the war (for example PTSD) and to put treatment plans in place .
- It may be tempting to assume that after twelve months of living in this crisis, psychoeducation has limited value because people will have a thorough understanding of how stress impacts them. However, that is not always the case. Trauma reactions can be notoriously hard to track and give appropriate language to. A journalist who describes themselves as being in an “existential crisis” and expresses that by saying “I am no good at my work”, “my colleagues don’t understand me”, “or journalism is pointless”, etc. might be experiencing trouble that stems in large part from repeated exposure to highly traumatic content, such as witness testimony encountered during investigations into Russian atrocities.
Here, there is an important role for newsroom-based discussion that normalises reactions in the context of doing media work. The advantage of workplace psychoeducation over individual counselling is that it can reach larger numbers of people at one time and happens in a context – a team of media co-workers – which helps to promote those principles of connection and self– and community- efficacy.
Creating spaces for acknowledgement and connection is a particular challenge for newsrooms right now, one that has been exacerbated by the stresses generated by the post-October 10 attacks on critical infrastructure. In traumatic situations, there are undercurrents that bring people together (as we saw so clearly last year) and those that pull in the other direction, increasing isolation and potentially leaving some people feeling alone in their reactions. The stigma around expressing vulnerability may sometimes be an issue. Or journalists may feel that if everyone is in the same situation why should my difficulties be of any note? Both attitudes can narrow the space for practical problem-solving.
Keeping teams together, avoiding latent conflict between colleagues, and motivating staff are all concerns that managers and editors have raised in conversations with the Dart Center. Finding ground for talking about these issues is not easy but it can be done.
And so, what helps?
We can place psychosocial support measures on three-tiered levels, with the higher ones having the widest potential for reach.
Level 1: The basics
First, it is important to recognise that many measures that network members already have in place contain crucial elements of psychological support. One can’t emphasise enough how important in a psychological sense fundamental support is when done well.
Funding and helping media organisations in Ukraine with concerns about their future financial viability, offering equipment and training that address physical safety needs, fostering any initiatives which promote dialogue and connection between journalists inside and outside of the country, training which helps organisations serve their audiences better, all of these are in line with the five general principles described in point 4 above. These interventions can all bolster a sense of safety, calm, efficacy, connection, and hope. Timely delivery of meeting these essential practical needs is one of the most important roles network members have in providing genuinely useful psychological support.
A corollary of this is the need to avoid anything that could potentially undermine those same principles. A starting point for any international organisation interested in improving its psychosocial assistance is to first ask whether there are any design features in new or existing programmes that might increase participants’ isolation or undermine a local sense of efficacy.
Examples might include off-the-shelf journalism training packages (perhaps developed in other conflict situations) which are out of date when it comes to responding to disinformation, not fully attuned to the situation on the ground or blind to the cultural and historical specifics. Training, which inadvertently disregards Ukrainian journalists’ own solutions for navigating the complex ethical and editorial realities they face, may not only be unhelpful journalistically but also undermine community- and self-efficacy .
More broadly, all support interventions in a time of war need to be trauma-informed, which means being attentive to how subtleties in programme design and implementation can either augment or diminish feelings of safety.
Level 2: initiatives which centre primarily on psychoeducation and peer support
The American Psychological Association defines resilience as the “process and outcome of successfully adapting to difficult or challenging life experiences”. For it to happen, cultivating psychological flexibility is key: individuals may need to adjust, which involves shifting perspective, processing emotions, or altering certain behaviours. One major conclusion in trauma research is that resilience is not just an innate quality that simply exists in specific individuals, it is also crucially a product of people’s social and work environment – the sense of validation they receive, the role models around them, the information they have access to and the opportunities which exist to give as well as to receive support .
And so, the interventions that are likely to have the greatest reach are those that seed knowledge and encourage peer-to-peer mentoring and connection.
Opportunities for recuperation and connection
Ukrainian media support organisations and their international partners have been experimenting with different retreat and recuperation formats, designed to give journalists opportunities to physiologically calm down, rest, recharge, and shift perspective where that is useful. Such events may also provide powerful opportunities for reaffirming social connections.
Some observations on programmes that bring groups together:
- Locations in safer, less-targeted parts of Ukraine, especially with proximity to nature may be ideal locations. Lviv Media Forum has pioneered an interesting 8-day retreat format that allows for autonomy and community building and has received enthusiastic feedback from participants.
- Retreat-style gatherings do offer a potential venue for acknowledging personal impact. Schedules, however, should not be heavily packed with training or discussion on reporting the war, as that is likely to maintain high levels of arousal. Spaces for reflection are more likely to occur where people are more physiologically and mentally rested and calmer.
- Funders should recognise the benefits of allowing extra time for participant travel and ensuring that accommodation, etc. is of a standard that helps people unwind.
- Varieties of group stress and trauma work facilitated by mental health professionals which put pressure on individuals to share aversive details in groups, sometimes called psychological debriefing or CISD (critical incident stress debriefing), should be avoided, as there is evidence, they may be harmful .
- Some journalists do find presenting their work and engaging with non-Ukrainian journalists at conferences outside of the country helpful, as it can create spaces for temporary respite and offer chances for journalists to affirm a sense of mission. (This is, of course, an individual thing, other journalists may prefer not to travel or be able to.)
- Organisations have offered group workspaces outside of Ukraine. While these may meet some journalists’ needs, care should be taken that arrangements don’t amplify social isolation.
In the Dart Center’s experience, psychological safety training works best if the conversation meets media workers where they are, that is grounded in a discussion of the practical and craft issues that arise during the work itself, rather than being treated as a mental health-oriented add-on – something that is extraneous to the journalism. Discussing the professional challenges of working with witnesses and other vulnerable contributors, for example, can open important opportunities for journalists to discuss the personal impact and related issues that some journalists might otherwise be wary of approaching. Discussions and trainings should span the following elements:
- A precise, science-informed briefing on how the mind and body respond when exposed to war-related stresses. This needs to tackle common myths and misunderstandings in a way that is non-pathologising. (As a component, it addresses safety, calming, efficacy, connection, hope, etc.)
- Discussion of vicarious trauma and how remote viewing of images and hearing witnessing testimony can impact journalists in Ukraine. (Again, this augments safety and calming.)
- Strategies for interviewing vulnerable sources. This is not just an important journalistic and ethical good in itself. Our experience indicates that journalists often suffer emotional consequences due to regrets and concerns about mistreating vulnerable sources and contributors. (The tools needed to interview sources affected by trauma differ substantially from those that are commonly taught to journalists for interviewing political and business figures.)
- Emphasis on mission and meaning. A sense of purpose is a core element in the resilience of media workers. It is important that training creates a constructive space in which to explore ethical and moral dilemmas in a realistic grounded way. (Some highly experienced journalists have left media work for the military out of the sense they are not doing enough for the war effort. This is an individual choice, of course, but it may be that the biggest personal contribution they can make to Ukraine’s future is mentoring junior colleagues.)
- Self- and collective-care strategies. This component includes advice on coping with ongoing physiological and psychological war stressors and on being a good colleague. (A critical component here includes helping journalists who could potentially work around the clock develop the ability to take breaks and to find ways of preserving a sense of meaning and enthusiasm.)
- Specific training for managers and editors. Newsroom leaders play a pivotal role in supporting their colleagues. Leaders not only have responsibility for the physical safety of their staff but also shape a sense of mission and meaning. Studies have demonstrated that trauma exposure combined with perceptions of mismanagement lead to trauma-related difficulties among staff . Furthermore, the responsibility can be both burdensome and isolating for managers and editors, hence editors also need specific support. (Different media organisations will have different requirements that might require specific needs assessment.)
There is also space under this heading for a discussion about narrative strategies when telling hard stories, the impact media coverage has on audiences and sources, and the future role of journalism in covering the longer-term psychological aftermath of this war. Even though the fighting is far from over, many thought leaders in Ukrainian journalism are finding it helpful to start thinking through how to report on the process of recovery that will follow once the violence subsides.
Level 3: clinical support for those who need it
Therapeutic support is clearly important for individuals experiencing psychological emergencies. Talking to a mental health professional can also be useful for journalists who are struggling with mental health issues that predated the war or who are feeling stuck and unable to cope.
The role of trauma-focused therapy at this stage is for intense problematic reactions which leave someone unable to function on most days. Individuals who have left the country and have no short to midterm plans to return, and who would truly be in a post-event situation, may also find this kind of intervention useful. Occasionally, it may be helpful for some journalists to receive supportive and educational treatment to help them address concerns such as problematic behaviours or thoughts that they cannot manage. Typically, such therapy should be focused on the present, on strengthening coping strategies and managing particularly problematic reactions. (As discussed above, actual treatment for trauma-related conditions is something that comes after the war.)
GFMD members have set up psychological assistance programmes of various kinds. From GFMD coordinating calls, it appears take-up has been mixed. Some organisations report high demand, others a low level of interest.
Here are some issues to bear in mind when configuring support offerings:
- Large outsourcing companies that work primarily as employee assistance providers (EAPs) for large international companies may not have sufficient on-the-ground engagement in Ukraine or the requisite trauma-focused clinical expertise.
- We have also heard of situations where Ukrainian journalists are offered therapy in the Russian language in the first instance or therapists who are Russian nationals, which can automatically compromise the relationship between therapist and client. (Note that it is not the language itself that is necessarily the issue. Some Ukrainians speak Russian at home and may respond well to a therapist who is a non-Russian Russian speaker. But that is something that should be carefully explored before a first session happens.)
- Ukraine already has a large and well-trained network of psychology professionals, who are well-versed in the complexities of working in the current situation and understand how to respond to psychological emergencies. These could be used more effectively for media workers, especially seeing how important developing these capacities and connections will be in Ukraine’s recovery phase.
- It is important that therapists understand what journalism involves. We have heard of one case where a therapist’s initial response on hearing what a journalist’s work entailed, suggested finding another line of work. (The Dart Center is currently working with partners in Ukraine including the Suspline Foundation to brief Ukrainian therapists on issues specific to media work.)
- It is also important that therapy is non-pathologizing and focuses on clients’ pre-existing strengths and an underlying sense of personal efficacy. In most cases, a therapy programme is likely to be short-term for work-related issues. Anything that encourages longer-term dependencies between therapist and client should be avoided.
- Finally, all programmes should be set up in ways that ensure confidentiality and use communication platforms that are sufficiently secure.
There is also a range of self-directed online tool kits. This package from the WHO is not specific to media work but it has recent research data which support its effectiveness in the general population.
Gateway to the app in Ukrainian here.
Guide: in English and in Ukrainian
Capacity statement from media support organisations
The following list collated by the Global Fund for Media Development tracks recent psychological support initiatives for media workers in Ukraine.
- The National Union of Journalists of Ukraine, with the support of UNESCO, is launching a program of psychological support for journalists and their family members. As part of the program, Ukraine’s first 24-hour “hotline” for media professionals will operate and webinars with psychologists will be held.
- Lviv Media Forum has launched a programme on fostering the psychological resilience of journalism and got around 700 applications.
- RSF organised training sessions on psychological safety + individual psychological support for journalists on online platforms. Most training has been carried out online in Ukraine. Collaborate with Caring by Eutelmed which provides psychological safety hotline (24/7): chat, telephone, or secure messaging with an experienced psychologist at any time (online in English and Ukrainian among other languages)
- Samopomich program. This project has a specific provision for trauma-focused therapy for media workers in need, funded by the Norwegian Union of Journalists. Details here. The service was developed in Ukrainian by the Federation of Global Initiatives in Psychiatry (FGIP) together with the Czech National Institute of Mental Health as a multi-stakeholder platform to help Ukraine cope with the psychological consequences of the war.
- Rory Peck Trust launched Resilience Programme which provides specialist trauma-informed training and access to psychological treatment, enabling freelance journalists to develop the skills they need to build resilience when exposed to conflict or covering traumatic events.
- ECPMF organised the RE:Cover Conference that took place in Bratislava, Slovakia, on 9 to 11 December. One of the sessions was specifically dedicated to providing physical security and psychological assistance to journalists.
- IREX provides holistic safety training and individual consultations (including psychosocial).
- MiCT is running a fellowship with MDF for almost 30 young Ukrainian regional journalists, who are supported with stipends, legal support, psychosocial support and training that they specifically requested.
- DT Global / EU4Independent Media are working with a therapist in Kyiv, producing a video for managers because it was noticed that training on trauma was mostly attended by female journalists and very little by males and even less by managers.
- Vital Voices Global Partnership has an urgent assistance fund which can cover psychological and psychosocial support costs for female journalists and media workers.
- EED has been running a “Work&Rest” residency programme in Przemysl in Poland (70km from Lviv) since May 2022. The programme is intended to provide assistance to journalists and activists (mostly women, often accompanied by children) from Ukraine. A single residency lasts 2-3 weeks and includes psychological support, either through individual or group sessions.
Resources for psychological and psychosocial support
- Leading Resilience: A Guide for Editors and News Managers on Working with Freelancers Exposed to Trauma. A collaboration between ACOS Alliance and Dart Centre Asia Pacific, this guide is designed to help editors and managers understand and support their teams. (A new Ukraine-specific update will be released shortly.)
- Reporting War. The Dart Center for Journalism & Trauma has put together this booklet, collecting recommendations for meeting the emotional challenges of covering war, from a group of seasoned veterans. Also available in Ukrainian. A more comprehensive selection of relevant resources is available here.
- Journalism and Mental Health Toolkit. In this toolkit, International Journalists’ Network has collected resources to address many different aspects of the issue, from post-traumatic stress disorder to digital wellness.
- Surviving Wartime Adversities. This article written by a leading disaster specialist contains a useful framing of what helps. It is available in Ukrainian here
Other useful information/resources:
- GFMD has curated a comprehensive list of mental health resources for Ukrainian media and journalists available in Ukrainian and English.
- The Perugia Declaration for Ukraine (signed by over 200 organisations) features calls for action from key actors including private and public donors and funders of professional journalism. The declaration is available in 10 languages.
- Funders can join the GFMD Ukraine media support information-sharing email list by sending an email to gfmdUKRAINEemail@example.com The group meets to share information and discuss priorities for media assistance monthly.
Gavin Rees, Gavin.Rees@dartcentre.org
Tom Law, firstname.lastname@example.org
- The author is Gavin Rees, the Dart Center’s Senior Advisor for Innovation and Training. This briefing also includes input and perspective from Elana Newman, the Dart Centre’s Research Director and McFarlin Professor of Psychology at the University of Tulsa, and Jana Javakhishvili, who is a Dart Centre Europe Trustee and president of the Georgian Society of Psychotrauma and a leading specialist in establishing trauma education and treatment programmes in post-Soviet countries. (Note that Dart Centre is spelt re in Europe and er in the US.)
- Lviv Media Forum’s report: The research of local media needs during wartime can be found here.
- For example, relationship difficulties may compromise a journalist’s ability to weather distressing traumatic material they come across in a story; and, equally, the reverse is also possible – difficulties in metabolising disturbing content encountered during work may have a negative impact on important personal relationships; and so on.
- See: Hobfoll, S. E., Watson, P., Bell, C. C., Bryant, R. A., Brymer, M. J., Friedman, M. J. et al. (2007). Five Essential Elements of Immediate and Mid–Term Mass Trauma Intervention: Empirical Evidence. Psychiatry, 70(4), 283-315. These principles can be found in best practice guidelines by such organisations as NATO, WHO, IASC (Inter Agency Standing Committee and ESTSS (European Society of Traumatic Stress Studies).
- This briefing compiled earlier in the war is an excellent example of the fundamental principles embodied in guidance: Shalev, A. (2022). Surviving Warfare Adversities. A Brief Survival Advice for Civilians Under War Stress. Psychosomatic Medicine and General Practice, 7(1).
- For one example of research in the military see: Jones, N., Seddon, R., Fear, N. T., McAllister, P., Wessely, S., & Greenberg, N. (2012). Leadership, cohesion, morale, and the mental health of UK Armed Forces in Afghanistan. Psychiatry, 75(1), 49-59.
- For a summary of past research on trauma impact among journalists see here.
- International dialogue and solidarity is a vital ingredient in fostering connection but initiatives should take care not to bypass local expertise, undermine naturally occurring social networks, or imply that only outsiders can impart valuable knowledge
- For a discussion: Southwick, S. M., & Charney, D. S. (2018). Resilience: The Science of Mastering Life’s Greatest Challenges. Cambridge University Press.
- Rose S, Bisson J, Churchill R, Wessely S. Psychological debriefing for preventing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2002;(2):CD000560.
- For a summary of the research see here.