Self-Care in Crisis and Trauma Reporting

No. 21

Hello friends, 

I am Mengwen Cao, an independent documentary photographer and visual artist based in New York. 

How are you? Is your knee-jerk reaction to say: “I'm good, thank you. You?” 

But seriously, how are you? How are you feeling? 

Despite always being advised to be a “fly on the wall” as a student in photojournalism classes, for me, becoming a photographer meant spending quality time and forging deep bonds with my subjects. Often, though, heart-wrenching stories are hard to process. In my mind, showing emotion as a journalist was unprofessional. 

Once, a human trafficking survivor described his painstaking journey crossing the U.S-Mexico border and cried on camera when I asked him about his daughter. The reporter I was working with commented, “You made him cry, that’s good footage!” I was taken aback – on the inside, I was crying, too. The truth is, I can’t just be a fly. I am a human first and journalist and storyteller second. 

Last September, after a traumatic experience dealing with Chinese state security, I finally decided to slow down and set aside time for self-care. Since then, I’ve written more than 300 pages of handwritten journals and dug deep into my suppressed emotions caused by stress, deadlines, cyberbullying and freelance bookkeeping, among other things. It is difficult but necessary to remember how to rest and experience happiness without guilt, even when the world is burning.

This resting time allows me to see the other side of the coin. Now with steady practice of meditation and journaling, I am more aware of my emotions and feelings. Instead of treating them as monsters to hide from, I invite them to have tea with me. I begin taking pleasure in breathing, listening to my cat purring, noticing a ray of rainbow at 9:23 am in my apartment, feeling the flow of the water while cleaning dishes, smelling flowers on the street, smiling at a stranger and getting a smile back. This gratitude for just living allows me to go back to my work with more love and compassion. 

Right now with the coronavirus outbreak, many Chinese journalists are expected to report on trauma while experiencing trauma at the same time. 

In this issue, I want to invite storytellers to discuss the importance of mental health and self-care during trauma reporting.

Mengwen Cao


Best work from our members.  

㊙️Creative Anti-Censorship Apps
Inkstone’s Qin Chen 陈沁 looks at new online tools that use creative methods–like reordering words, deforming photos and Morse code–that help social media users circumvent censorship. Try decoding this: “--..-.--.--..../-..-.-.------.--/--------....--../-...-.-........./-...-.---.---.-./-......----.-.-./---.-.-..--...-/--------....--../------.--.-..--/--..---.-.-----/-..---........./-.-...-.-.--.-./-..---....-..--/--..-.-..------”

(Illustration: Inkstone/Tom Leung)

💔My Hometown Is in Pain
“Don’t come back for Chinese New Year.” After receiving this warning from her childhood friend, Wuhan native Xinyan Yu 余心妍 canceled her flight home. In this essay for The Atlantic, she writes about how her friend fought the virus with her mother. 

😷“I Feel Abandoned”
Wuhan, a Chinese city of 11 million people, is still under lockdown. In a video she produces for The New York Times, Muyi Xiao 肖慕漪 shares Wuhan residents’ voices from the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak.

🖥️First Social-Media “Infodemic”
The World Health Organization dubbed the coronavirus outbreak a massive “infodemic”, referring to the overabundance of information and misinformation. MIT Technology Review's Karen Hao 郝珂灵 and Tanya Basu analyze the role of social media not only as a hotbed for panic and racism but also as an incubator for truth and hope.

🇰🇪Africa and the Coronavirus 
The coronavirus’ spread has brought unease to countries like Kenya, which has strong commercial ties to China but limited health resources. Is Africa prepared to combat the sickness? Nairobi-based writer April Zhu 朱萸 breaks down in an analysis for the New Humanitarian

👩‍⚕️The Overlooked Female Medical Workers 
Many female medical workers are fighting against the coronavirus on the front line, but some of their basic needs are being overlooked. Inkstone’s Viola Zhou 周易 writes about their struggles.   

🗣A Hero Who Told The Truth
The Guardian's Verna Yu examines an explosion of anger, grief and demands for freedom of speech among ordinary Chinese in the wake of coronavirus whistleblower Dr. Li Wenliang’s death.

🏥China’s Weakness in Handling Public Health Crises
Quartz video journalists Isabelle Muge Niu 牛牧歌 & Tony Lin unpack why China continues to fail at identifying emerging problems and communicating critical public health information. 

🍜Wuhan’s Favorite Breakfast
“Big Bear” runs Heat Noodles, a food stall in Flushing, New York, that sells Wuhan’s hearty, sesame sauce-smothered hot dry noodles. He told South China Morning Post’s Xinyan Yu 余心妍 how fears of the coronavirus outbreak have impacted the Chinese-American community.

😷Dying a Desperate Death
As Wuhan’s medical system has been overwhelmed by the coronavirus outbreak, ReutersYawen Chen 陈亚雯 tells the story of a desperate family in a temporary quarantine facility converted from Wuhan hotel.

🇭🇰Battle for Hong Kong
Filmmaker Crystal Wong was part of the team that produced and shot the PBS Frontline documentary “Battle for Hong Kong,” featuring pro-democracy protestors.

䷤More Than a Celebration
In a three-part series exploring the meaning of the Lunar New Year for Chinese families, Beimeng Fu 傅蓓梦 wrote about filmmaker Lu Qingyi and his award-winning documentary, “Four Springs”, which charted the fortunes of his own family across multiple Spring Festivals.

👩The Chinese Moms In America’s Massage Parlors
Chinese women aged 35-55 make up most of the staff in more than 9000 illicit massage parlors in the United States. Many of them left their children behind in China while working in America. Teng Chen brings to life the story of one of them. 

👋Submit your published work in three ways: 1. DM us on Twitter; 2. Post it on the Slack channel #shamelessplugs; 3. Email


Thoughts from our members and beyond on topics about the media industry, diversity and more.

How do you take care of yourself during crisis reporting? How do you process your feelings and emotions when you are inundated with trauma and injustice? How do you see light in the dark? 

Inkstone’s multimedia producer Qin Chen 陈沁 shares her feelings and coping mechanism: 

Sometimes I feel an intense wave of sorrow hitting the heart when talking to patients in need over the phone. I just try to breathe in and out and try my best to listen and be there for them. 

Most of my reporting won't bring immediate relief or help to those people, so I usually tell them that up front. If they still want to talk, then I'm guessing compassionate listening might be what they need. 

If I'm feeling down and angry for a longer period, I go for a chocolate cookie or watch a skateboarding video on Thrasher's Youtube channel, or both.

South China Morning Post’s video producer Xinyan Yu 余心妍 talks about what it’s like to report on her hometown:

Covering a health crisis that affects millions of people in my hometown has been an emotional rollercoaster. My mood is constantly swinging from anger and fear to sadness and despair. I feel guilty that I’m not in Wuhan facing this cruel situation alongside family and friends. I’m glued to my phone trying to translate and pass on information for those concerned about the city.

The stories I did on patients, evacuees and Chinese diaspora overseas; each one of them weighs me down emotionally. I wake up exhausted every day and forget what my own life is like. I want to remind every journalist that removing yourself from social media is essential to maintaining a healthy mind. When talking to those who are suffering becomes emotionally unbearable, taking a step away doesn’t mean we are bad journalists. Sometimes, it helps us dive into the next interview more readily. It’s always useful to talk to friends when your chest feels tight and have a weekend getaway to remind yourself you also have a life to live.

International Women's Media Foundation Program Manager Jin Ding 丁进 explains how newsroom hierarchy makes it harder for reporters to deal with trauma:

Newsroom leaders in international news organizations often fail to understand that it is a privilege to be able to take a break from traumatic events. Often working at a headquarters far removed from the epicenter, neither them nor their families are directly impacted by what happens day-to-day on the ground.  

One-third of the emergency assistance cases received by the Committee to Protect Journalists in 2019 were psychologically-based. ‘Continue to push through’ is a mantra that neglects the secondary trauma and emotional distress that can often affect journalists. Mental health issues are pushing staff, freelancers, fixers, and researchers to leave the industry, a cost newsroom leaders are not seeing on their budget sheet.

How do we address this issue using preventative methods? While we teach Chinese journalists that it is not ‘weak’ to ask for help, news organizations should learn how to lead teams that are coping with on-going trauma and provide employees at overseas bureaus with the essential resources that employees at headquarters have access to.

Missouri School of Journalism doctoral candidate Lei Guo 果蕾 sheds light on journalists’ emotional labor and the consequences of ignoring it: 

The sociologist Arlie R. Hochschild says emotional labor requires one to induce and suppress feelings to make others feel safe and comfortable. Journalists’ engagement in emotional labor has not been studied in detail since it is usually regarded as antithetical to professionalism and objectivity. But journalists must perform “face to face” interactions with interviewees, and as “first responders” to their stories, sometimes we must suppress our own feelings to continue reporting.

A front line journalist told me about his experience reporting on the 2008 Great Sichuan earthquake: “There were corpses, dust, and debris everywhere and people were crying and shouting. But I am a reporter; I couldn’t collapse and I had to hide my true feelings at that moment. When I finished my reports and returned to Beijing… I didn’t want to talk to anybody and just locked myself in the bedroom and smoked every day.” 

Unfortunately, most of my interviewees told me their company and editors could not help them defuse negative feelings. Instead of pursuing organizational support, many are used to internalizing such feelings by using dark humor to dismiss uncomfortable working experiences, doing exercises to relieve stress and tension, or even using substances, such as alcohol or nicotine.

Mental Health Resources for journalists


🤔Tag @CNstorytellers on Twitter to keep the conversation going.


We recognize our members’ professional achievements (and flatter them).

🤖 Karen Hao 郝珂灵 and Jonathan Stray’s piece Can you make AI fairer than a judge? Play our courtroom algorithm game on MIT Technology Review is shortlisted for the 2020 Sigma Awards’ best visualization (small newsrooms) category.

💐 Jin Ding 丁进 was appointed as the Asian American Journalists Association(AAJA)’s 2020 national convention programming committee co-chair.

🎤Al Jazeera English’s The Listening Post interviewed Quartz Tech reporter Jane Li and ChinaFile Visuals Editor Muyi Xiao 肖慕漪 on censorship, freedom of speech and state-run media’s reaction to the death of Dr. Li Wenliang. 

🏆Mengwen Cao 曹梦雯 served as Special Jury for The Lit List, recognizing and awarding marginalized visual artists. 

📸Yan Cong 丛妍 was selected as a fellow at the Logan Nonfiction Program, working on her long-term documentary photography project. 

🥂 Tell us what makes you proud via email, Slack or Twitter.


Jobs, gigs, grants, fellowships, etc. 

Asian American Journalists Association (AAJA2020) [DC] is accepting proposals for pitches. The theme of this year’s convention is visibility. The deadline is February 23, 2020. SUBMIT

The New York Times [NYC]
is hiring an Opinion Video Journalist. APPLY

Group Nine Media [NYC]
is hiring interns to join a ten-week paid summer Internship program. The deadline is March 31st, 2020. APPLY

Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting [Emeryville, Calif]
is hiring a data reporter. APPLY

Blink [NYC]
is holdingits fourth annual video and photo portfolio review in partnership with the International Women’s Media Foundation (IWMF) on Thursday, April 2. APPLY

VOA is hiring
a digital video producer for its Global Mandarin service. APPLY

is seeking a global finance & economics editor. APPLY

The New Yorker [NYC]
is seeking an experienced copy editor and Web producer to join its digital operation. APPLY

The Logan Nonfiction Fellowship [NY]
is accepting applications till June 1, 2020. APPLY

👀Find more on the #opportunities channel on Slack.

Writer: Mengwen Cao; Editor: Xinyan Yu; Copy Editor:Miles Goscha.

Contributors: Qin Chen, Xinyan Yu, Jin Ding, Lei Guo

Chinese Storytellers is a community that empowers Chinese non-fiction content creators. Follow us @CNStorytellers. Questions? Suggestions? Comments? Tell us.