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What if the Media Were Trauma-Informed?

Heather Pierce, MSEd, LCPC

Owner and Managing Director

Trauma Therapist and Consultant

Thoughts from a Journalism Major turned Trauma Therapist

In 1990 as an undergrad in Journalism at the University of Oregon, I barely passed J202 Information Gathering. It was one of those so-called “weed out” courses required for acceptance into the major, and it was known as “Info Hell” by J-school students.

Thirty years later I find myself in a new kind of info hell: the constant tension of wanting to have my eyes, ears, and heart open and desiring to shut it all down. As a trauma therapist, I know this polarization well – wanting, needing to bear witness to horror and injustice, and at the same time wondering if I can or want to bear it.

In J-school, I learned journalistic values of honesty, impartiality, independence, humanity, and accountability. As a trauma therapist, I learned another set of values: curiosity, courage, kindness, humanity, accountability, and a commitment to building a safe place for myself and my clients physically and emotionally.

The media used to be a safer space. It was more like a parent with the values and intent of educating, protecting, and bringing the outside in. It better empowered us to live our lives in greater awareness and, dare I say, empathy, with the knowledge of what was happening in our communities and our world.

Humanity and accountability are what I see as the two most foundational places of common ground in being a journalist and being a therapist. If the media were trauma-informed, it could return to its roots and embody that common ground in seven important ways:

1) Honoring Complexity

Simpler is easier when it comes to delivering information in the confines of modern media. However, what is delivered is almost always connected to the human experience; a complex and emotionally rich landscape that cannot be reduced to one dimension or segment. If it is oversimplified, the information will either hit us inaccurately or harshly or both.

2) Aiding in Digestion

Reporting in the current media environment is often a “dump and run.” Trauma therapists know that when we witness or experience trauma, it polarizes our psyche. So much of the news is replete with trauma. When the media provides no space or time for meaningful reflection or processing of the information, we can’t metabolize it. Instead, it enters our brains and our bodies as all or nothing, right or wrong, safe or dangerous.

3) Empathy Over Exploitation

The media thrives on its ability to probe and propagate many aspects of the human experience. These stories can be both compelling and repellant. Either way, honoring our humanity requires that our stories be treated with respect and heft, rather than voyeurism and sensationalism.

4) Congruence Over Confusion

“Just the facts” might be useful for investigators, but facts without feelings is damaging when it comes to dissemination of the news. Traumatic content delivered matter-of-factly won’t land well. We can’t be neutral and numb and still embrace our humanity. We must speak about horror and injustice in a way that doesn’t make us depleted or dissociated; normalizing things that are not OK. Sharing information without emotion has the opposite effect from what journalistic values strive for — it confuses, causes harm, and renders invisible the very messages that need to be conveyed.

5) Containment and Pacing

The media, for a myriad of reasons, delivers information in ways that inundate us – via the 24-hours news cycle, the perpetual “Breaking News” banner, and the focus on the most sensational and inflammatory. Many of us are overwhelmed by this (consciously or unconsciously), and we respond by either shutting down or shifting into hyperdrive.

Trauma therapists call this being “out of our window of tolerance.”

We can’t possibly integrate or reflect on information delivered in this way; it takes our brains and our empathy offline. It draws us in like a moth to flame, fearing that we might be at risk if we aren’t paying attention. We may be drawn in by the false hope that taking it all in will make the uncertain certain. But it can’t, and it won’t, and it is not for our benefit.

Pacing and containment are fundamentals of trauma therapy, especially when our systems are overwhelmed and in need of safety and stabilization. Print journalism is actually a model for journalistic pacing and containment because it allows us to choose what and how much we take in. Yet, newspapers are a dying form. They are no match for the fear that fuels other forms of media.

6) Relationship and Regulation

Each of us has a relationship with the media we consume, and the media certainly wants a connection with each of us. Trauma therapists know that relationships with people and systems can either be emotionally regulating or dysregulating. Emotionally regulating relationships have conditions of trust, accountability, open communication, and mutuality. They help us feel calm, safe, and empowered.

In our relationship with the media, if everything is “breaking news,” than nothing is breaking news. It’s emotional manipulation that erodes trust and keeps us in a state of hypervigilance.

In a recent podcast with Oprah, Eckhart Tolle talked about inner stillness as an antidote to hysteria. Much of the media is hysterical. They can’t help themselves right now; their systems aren’t set up to be regulating, contained, congruent, or still.

7) Surviving vs. Thriving

Anyone who has ever tried to hold on to their authentic self while being abused understands the tension of “both/and.” Trauma survivors healing from abuse learn that there are both many dangers that we face, and we can keep ourselves safe right now in this moment.

Today’s media has a similar tension at play: both holding on to their core identity and surviving in a highly complex, competitive, and uncontained environment.

If the media is unwilling or unable to change — to have both humanity and accountability--it will lose the very impact it strives to have. Like an abusive, neglectful, or overwhelming parent, it will teach us the wrong lessons, failing to keep us safe or to help us become better people. We will continue to live in Info Hell, and in the presence of too many voices and too many opinions, we will become even more confused and disconnected.

We will stop listening.

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