Understanding and Building Resilience in Journalists

Journalist amid a protest in the Middle East (Photo credit Middle East Monitor - CC BY-NC-SA 4.0).

By Evgenia (Eka) Javakhishvili

It has been over a year since I joined IREXs SAFE Initiative, a program that delivers integrated safety trainings for media professionals around the globe, as a psychosocial trainer. At almost every training a participant asks me to help them manage their “paranoia,” which is their word for the anxiety connected to feeling unsafe while doing their job.

Generally, the media professionals that participate in our trainings understand the threats related to their work as journalists to some extent. They have read a lot about what they should or should not do to stay safe but sometimes the threat awareness only furthers anxiety. This is one of the many reasons why the SAFE Initiative has a holistic approach to training, addressing safety through the unique lens of digital identity, physical awareness, and psychosocial care. But how can journalists build skills and qualities that help them cope with the threats they face?

Previous research shows that media professionals are psychologically affected by the disasters and tragedies they report on. In most cases they are able to overcome the stressful or traumatic experiences and continue to function professionally. Yet, there is a risk that they may at some point become dysfunctional in one or more areas of life, and fear of failing in their career adds more anxiety and stress. One major protective factor, apart from personal coping strategies, is resilience. A concept which has been more widely studied since the beginning of the 20th century, it is frequently defined as a state or ability to recover from difficulties and it allows journalists to go through traumatic and stressful experiences without damage to self.

Building resilience in journalists

As a psychosocial trainer, my main goal is to equip journalists, media practitioners, and human rights defenders with means to build resiliency that will allow them to continue their important work and mitigate and manage the risks and threats they face in their professional life.  Considering the degree to which the stress and trauma can affect journalists’ lives, it is important to gain more knowledge on how to build resilience. We must use the best possible approaches to creating sustainable change and to provide participants with useable and tailored tools that enable them to make a positive change in their life and build resilience.

To gain more insight into the resilience of journalists who have experienced severe traumatic events, I am conducting research on these issues as a PhD Student of Tbilisi State University. In my research, I look at how resilience is built through interaction between the environment and the individual, as well as interaction between protective factors and risk factors. I investigate how resilience can empower individuals to shape their environment and how they are shaped by it in turn.[1] In addition, I look at the combination of resilience with how the individual develops interpersonal attachment. In the future, I hope that my research will enable us to create more tailored resilience building strategies for individual journalist.

According to my preliminary results based on responses from ten media practitioners, the main turning points in their lives[2] that resulted in an increase in resilience included:

  • Witnessing violence against people standing for their ideas through peaceful demonstrations;
  • Starting to work as an activist, helping and assisting civilians/citizens;
  • Loss of family members, including caring for the person prior to death;
  • Ending relationships (especially with a perpetrator of violence);
  • Starting a new life (having children);
  • Realizing or converting to a religion; and
  • Starting new opportunities for one’s self (such as changing profession or continuing education).

Action items for journalists and media practitioners

Resilience is a protective factor that can be affected by events throughout one’s life. Finding the most relevant and effective aspects of resilience will help refine a training methodology that will be helpful for journalists and will contribute to decreasing the level of traumatization among journalists covering war, conflict, or other crises and disasters.

At this stage the main actionable takeaways from my research are:

  • Work-life balance is comparatively more important for media practitioners and professionals who are working in a traumatizing environment, covering traumatic events in their home country, or living in a traumatic environment.
  • Forming a support network is essential for professionals who sacrifice their private life in favor of work.
  • Considering the role of appraisal in wellbeing and resilience, journalists need to give space for acceptance of traumatizing effects or stressful situations even though they feel resilient.
  • Cultivating self-awareness helps journalists stay conscious about their boundaries and allows them to be most efficient and competitive.
  • Although reporters and journalist write for the public eye, keeping a diary is important not only for venting emotions, but also for reframing and mindfulness.
  • The journalists who showed positive meaning-making and resilience skills noted that they had sometimes failed to appreciate simple positive events in their life. The easiest way to reverse that is to create a list a healthy behaviors that make us happy and introduce them more in our lives. When we are traumatized it gets more difficult to keep practicing those happy things, or even to create that list.

While this research is still a work in progress, I was invited to present about IREX’s SAFE Initiative and my working paper at the Conference on Safety of Journalists Covering Conflict and Sensitive Issues held in Oslo, Norway in November 2017. At the conference, researchers from all over the world, as well as professors from different fields, such as Trauma Psychology, expressed strong interest in the development and the coming results of the research. The research group at Oslo and Akershus University College of Applied Sciences also expressed an interest in the SAFE Initiative, proposing further cooperation with the holistic training program.

In the next step of the data analysis, I plan to disaggregate the data to provide more insight into cultural and gender-related factors. While the first draft of the research is expected to be completed by the end of 2018, stay tuned on the latest SAFE Initiative publications for findings on the most efficient ways to build resilience in journalists.

Evgenia (Eka) Javakhishvili is currently a Psychosocial Trainer for IREX’s Securing Access to Free Expression (SAFE) Initiative as well as a PhD Student at Tbilisi State University, where she is studying the psychology of trauma and resiliency in journalists. She has previously worked for Save the Children, UNICEF, and other international non-governmental organizations. She is also an advocate for children’s rights in the Caucasus region.

[1] Borman, G.D., Rachuba, L.T. (2001). Academic success among poor and minority students: An analysis of competing models of school effects. CRESPAR (Center for Research on the Education of Students Placed At Risk), Report No. 52, Johns Hopkins and Howard Universities, funded by Office of Educational Research and Development.

[2]Dan P. McAdam, et al.(2001). When Bad Things Turn Good and Good Things Turn Bad: Sequences of Redemption and Contamination in Life Narrative and Their Relation to Psychosocial Adaptation in Midlife Adults and in Students. The Society for Personality and Social Psychology, Inc

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