Leading by Example

Frank Carroll
, a journalism instructor at the College of the North Atlantic, in Newfoundland, has introduced 
a course called Professional Wellness into the college’s two-year journalism diploma program. 

"The course gives students skills to protect themselves physically and emotionally," he writes. "They complete a first-aid course and components on staying safe in combat and disaster zones. Just as important, they acquire skills in coping with stress and trauma.” 

Professional Wellness

By Frank Carroll

A few years ago, I learned a dear friend had killed himself. The very next day I taught a journalism ethics and law class about suicide coverage.

It was a rough session for me.

In retrospect, I ask myself why I didn’t just move onto something else and revisit the topic on another day. The answer – that I’m rigid about following a schedule – isn’t good enough.

The experience accompanied my growing awareness that I don’t need to unnecessarily expose my students to potentially traumatic subject matter.

Like many journalists of my generation, I worked in an era when no one in the newsroom asked you how you were feeling about the tragic stories you were covering – sexual assault trials and youth suicides among them. No one asked, and I certainly didn’t volunteer to share my feelings. Nor did I ever refuse an assignment because it was tough.

I began my career as a journalism educator 16 years ago with little awareness of mental health issues. It never occurred to me, for example, to give students the option of not attending a murder or sexual assault trial or to excuse students from class if they could not handle a discussion about suicide at the time.

Every fall, I bring my students to a jury trial in Newfoundland and Labrador Supreme Court, and they have to write a story about that day’s proceedings. Often, the testimony and evidence are disturbing. I’ve only recently begun giving students an out if they don’t feel up to the assignment. They can cover a different trial if they wish.

Some journalists and educators might object to this approach. I can hear some say, ‘Well, perhaps journalism isn’t for students who can’t handle these trials. We can’t always choose our assignments.’

They have a point: Many journalists begin as general assignment reporters in smaller communities. If you’re the only reporter in town and it’s in the public interest to cover a sexual assault trial, you have to cover it.

But not everyone has the disposition to cover such assignments. And you don’t have to cover trials to have a career in journalism. You can cover sports; you can be a lifestyles reporter, just to name a few options.

Similarly, I tell my students that if they’re not up to discussing suicide coverage in class at a particular time, they can leave with no questions asked.

The thing is, I don’t know what my students have experienced or what they’re going through in their lives at any given moment. I can’t tell if they’ve been sexually assaulted and if bringing them to a trial will trigger their trauma. I can’t tell if they’ve recently lost someone to suicide.

I realize I cannot shield my students from every unpleasant story – nor should I. They still have to learn how to respect publication bans in sexual assault trials. They have to build critical thinking skills in order to decide when it is or isn’t necessary to include graphic details in a story. They still have to learn when suicide coverage is or isn’t in the public interest and how to choose language appropriate to the subject matter.

So, student journalists cannot completely avoid the unpleasant things of life. And we journalism educators have to help them acquire the skills to cope.

Following our most recent program revision, our journalism program at College of the North Atlantic introduced a Professional Wellness course. Of all the changes we introduced – including new content on freelancing, investigative reporting and drone journalism – it’s the course I’m most proud of.

The course gives students skills to protect themselves physically and emotionally. They complete a first-aid course and components on staying safe in combat and disaster zones. Just as important, they acquire skills in coping with stress and trauma.

I’ve come to believe such a course is essential to journalism education. The just-suck-it-up approach is worse than outdated; it’s negligent.

We’re sending these (mostly young) people out into a field where it’s common to cover potentially traumatic stories. We should know better than to graduate them with no information about how to take care of their own mental health.

Frank Carroll can be contacted by email: Frank.Carroll@cna.nl.ca

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