What being an EMT taught me about journalism


What being an EMT taught me about journalism

I was an EMT before I ended up in journalism. I actively served for about 4 years, most of which I spent as a volunteer in my hometown of Fair Lawn, N.J. Some of it was spent as a paid EMT in other parts of the state. I have probably responded to at least 100 medical emergencies, including strokes, heart attacks, car accidents, and bleeding or trauma. I’ve given CPR twice and succeeded once.

So much of that experience informs my work in journalism. And Maddie Poore, membership coordinator at WAMU’s DCist, asked me to write down some of my thoughts.

The first thing I’d like to highlight is the standard of care.

The standard of care is the type and quality of treatment a caregiver gives a patient. In emergency medicine, standards are set through a scientific process, written down, and taught to every EMT. Those EMTs are then expected to uphold those standards or face potential disbarment. The quality of your average medical practitioner also plays a role in determining if standards of care are being met.

Standards of care in journalism are generally unenforceable. But while we can’t really control for the minimum type and quality of coverage a journalist offers their community, we can influence the average by being better than it so that others must be measured against ever increasing standards.

Beginning to communicate our intentions is one way to set a higher standard.

One call I responded to was for a woman with stomach pain and internal bleeding. When we arrived, she was sitting on the toilet, bleeding and in tremendous amounts of pain. My partner and I greeted her, asked her a few questions, and then sent for something from the ambulance. A minute or two had passed as I was waiting for this piece of equipment to be hauled up the stairs when she screamed, “Why are you just standing there?”

Communicating intention eases suffering. She just needed to know what was going on. And I needed to be more intentional about communicating with her. In some ways, journalists are always being asked similar questions: “Why don’t you cover my community?”; “Why do you only cover the worst parts of my community?”; “Why are you ignoring my needs?” Listening for those questions and honestly responding to them is critical if journalists are to build trust with the public.

An important part of listening as an EMT was asking the right questions. A common mnemonic device EMTs follow is OPQRST. Each letter stands for one line of questioning that taken together lead emergency responders to understanding the patient’s condition.

EMTs then respond to what they hear from their patients. It changes the course of treatment. To be effective listeners, journalists must do the same by seeking a holistic understanding of their community’s condition and adapting to their needs.

Safety is one thing a community may need to engage journalists. That’s something EMTs are familiar with.

Creating physical and psychological safety is an important part of emergency response. The way EMTs park on roadways maximizes for the safety of the people on the road seeking help. EMTs carry stuffed animals to comfort children. Sometimes they put up physical barriers to keep patients from view because trauma creates psychological vulnerability. Being hidden makes people feel safer and give them a space to be vulnerable. (It also respects their privacy.)

For journalists, creating safety means minimizing the negative impact of their reporting. Here are some ways and resources for doing that.

Finally, different levels of emergency medical training are made available to the public because communities’ health outcomes improve with the decentralization of medical knowledge. The Heimlich maneuver is something anyone can learn to help someone who is choking. CPR is taught in high schools and community centers to increase the chance of survival for people in cardiac arrest. EMTs carry defibrillators for the same reason and they’re also outfitted with epinephrine to treat allergic reactions and naloxone to respond to opioid overdoses. Different people are taught to respond to different levels of crisis so that the impact of those crises can be mitigated.

That’s why training non-journalists to perform some of the traditional work of journalism is so important. It’s a way to empower communities to meet their own needs and improve outcomes. And here are some ways journalism organizations are already doing that.

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