The history and future of trauma in journalism

by Stephen J. A. Ward

“If I get killed, I kind of think, so what? People die all the time. I watch people die. I’d rather it not be me. I want to do more stories.”
Rita Leistner, war photojournalist, quoted in The Globe and Mail, June 6, 2004

Trauma as an ethical issue

Journalists, especially reporters who cover conflict and disaster, are as vulnerable to stress and trauma as other professionals, from firefighters and disaster counsellors to combat soldiers. Foreign reporters often work alone in the field, with limited support. The results can be tragic when stress rises to debilitating levels and goes untreated. Journalists may abuse drugs or alcohol and struggle in their marriages and personal relationships. They may endure, often silently, such recurring problems as lack of sleep, hyper-arousal or emotional numbness.

Trauma, when sustained and serious, can affect the performance of journalists, shorten their careers or require sick leave. News organizations have a long-term interest in making sure that journalists are aware of trauma and can access counselling. A trauma program needs to be part of an organization’s efforts to promote employee well-being and health in the workplace. Newsrooms have an ethical obligation to establish such programs, since it is they who send journalists into the field.

It seems obvious that journalists should be concerned about trauma when:
• More than 1,200 journalists were killed in the past 10 years of foreign reporting
• More than 80 journalists were killed in Iraq since the 2003 war began
• Journalists may be targets of terrorists, or military units
• Growth of media means more journalists are in the line of danger
• Trauma exists at home: the Oklahoma City bombing, the Columbine shooting, “9-11” in New York, the SwissAir crash off Nova Scotia, Katrina’s attack on New Orleans. City-desk reporters cover horrific car accidents, suicides, and fires on a daily basis

Therefore, journalists experience:

• Sustained direct exposure to potentially traumatizing events
• Secondary or indirect exposure through interviews with traumatized persons
• Recurringexposure through new assignments

What is psychological trauma?
Psychological stress and trauma is real, and a part of life. Neither journalists nor other professionals can escape it. But we should not confuse ordinary, stressful experiences with serious, debilitating trauma.

Trauma, like stress, is a matter of degree, and the effects may be temporary. The most serious trauma for journalists is not everyday stress or deadline pressure, but the trauma that results from disturbing, shocking, non-ordinary experiences.

Trauma is not limited to journalism. It can be caused by child abuse, threats of violence, rape, domestic violence and human rights abuses. Serious trauma occurs either through exposure to one horrific event, or through repeated exposure. Trauma is debilitating when it reaches the stage of post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, where symptoms are sustained and interfere with the person’s life and career.

Psychological and medical studies have identified processes in the brain and nervous system that correlate with trauma. Trauma is both psychologically and physically ‘real.’ The shock literally enters into the body, and leaves a physiological trace, accompanied by symptoms.

It is foolhardy, then, to think that journalists are immune from trauma because of their “strength of will” or their ability to “not get involved” with the story. Even the most professional counsellors and experienced police officers risk trauma. We should not be ashamed of trauma. It is a natural, understandable reaction to events. It is what you do about those reactions that count.

The person has experienced an event outside the range of usual human experience that would be markedly distressing to almost anyone, such as a serious threat to his/her life or physical integrity; serious threat or harm to his/her children, spouse, or other close relatives or friends; sudden destruction of his/her home or community; or seeing another person seriously injured or killed in an accident or by physical violence.

Post-traumatic stress disorder:
PTSD is an anxiety disorder that can develop after exposure to a terrifying event or ordeal in which grave physical harm occurred or was threatened. Traumatic events that may trigger PTSD include violent assaults, natural disasters, terrorist attacks, vehicle accidents, rape, physical abuse and military combat. PTSD sufferers have trouble functioning in their jobs or personal relationships. Children can be traumatized and have difficulty in school, become isolated from others or develop phobias. PTSD, which admits of degrees, is diagnosed when symptoms last more than one month. Untreated, PTSD is unlikely to disappear.

The American Psychological Association estimates that 5.2 million American adults ages 18 to 54, or 3.6% of the population in this age group, have PTSD. In 1990, anxiety disorders cost the U.S. an estimated $47 million.

Secondary or Vicarious Trauma:
Secondary trauma is a stress reaction experienced by therapists, journalists and others as a result of interviewing and listening to accounts of trauma by victims, clients and others. It can lead to Secondary Traumatic Stress Disorder (STSD) with symptoms similar to PTSD. Secondary trauma is the result of empathic engagement with other people’s traumatic experiences. It is an occupational hazard. It reflects neither pathology in the journalist nor intentionality by the traumatized client. It is a long-term consequence of working with suffering people.

Symptoms of PTSD
Not all trauma victims manifest exactly the same symptoms. But there is a collection of symptoms found across most cases.
• Hyperarousal
• Insomnia, decreased concentration, increased startle response to stimuli, irritability and anger, hyper-vigilance (scanning environment for danger).
• Avoidance and/or numbing
• Withdrawal from life or activities previously enjoyed, depression, shunning anything that reminds one of the traumatic event.
• Re-experiencing intrusive recollections of events: nightmares, flashbacks, responses to specific sensory triggers (e.g., a smell associated with an event). Other signs:Increased rates of illness, loss of efficiency, judgment errors, cynicism, intolerance of emotion, addictions. Also, “burn-out”: physical, emotional and mental exhaustion, depersonalization and detachment, loss of ideals.

Coping Strategies
Work-related support (effective debriefing procedures, counselling, education, relaxation techniques, monitoring of trauma); social support; commitment of individuals to a “self-care plan.”

For more information on trauma, see the American Psychological Association or The Sidran Institute.

For coping methods, see Jon G. Allen, Coping with Trauma: A Guide to Self-Understanding. Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Press, 1995

For the latest on trauma issues in journalism, see the Dart Centre for Journalism and Trauma.

Responses to trauma in journalism
Denial, dismissal, avoidance…

Despite scientific knowledge of trauma, only in the past several years have major news organizations begun to establish trauma programs. Progress has been made in the face of scepticism and resistance among many journalists and editors. Still, there are too few scientific studies of trauma and journalists, too few trauma services for journalists, and only a growing recognition by news outlets. Journalists are unprepared for its impact, or they have limited knowledge of trauma.

Journalism is far behind other professions, such as educational counselling and fire and police departments, in recognizing trauma as a serious issue that must be addressed. The myth still exists that journalists shouldn’t need trauma programs because journalists are supposed to be “tough as nails.” When it comes to trauma, journalism sometimes appears to be one of the last “macho” professions.

Journalistic attitudes
The prevalent attitude toward trauma among foreign reporters was captured by a documentary about reporters titled Deadline Iraq: The Uncensored Stories of the War. The documentary contained interviews with over 50 journalists. Following are a sample of the reporters’ comments.

“The first combat that we saw was much like a video game…a flash from a tank, and a boom. I saw why people wanted to cover combat because it is an experience of awakening to your life that happens at some primal level, it is almost hormonal. Suddenly you’re there and they didn’t get you and you say, ‘Gosh, let’s do this again tomorrow.'”
Jim Dwyer, New York Times reporter, commenting on the adrenalin rush.

“This was the purest, most authentic thing I would ever do, professionally.”
Jim Axelrod, CBS news reporter

“I don’t know if surreal is the right word, but you don’t feel personally involved. You know it’s horrible, you can see people dieing in front of you, you see people burning. You cannot afford to get too involved in this emotionally, or you’re done for.”
Mathew Fisher, Canadian embedded reporter, CanWest News, on not getting “involved”

“War is a great waste, yet I still didn’t have any emotional connect(ion), because they were trying to kill me.”
Ross Simpson, AP Radio

“You smell it and you physically recoil.”
Jim Dwyer, on the “smell” of war (rotting bodies, etc.)

“It (the smell) stayed in your clothes for days, you didn’t want to eat after you’ve smelled this. It just turned your stomach.”
Ross Simpson, AP Radio

As the program unfolds, however, a change occurs. Statements by reporters at the start of the documentary tend to be full of “bravado” about the excitement of covering war. But as the documentary continues, and they reflect on what they’ve seen, their comments become more emotional. Some reporters break into tears as they recount horrific events.

Evidence of trauma among war reporters: A ground-breaking study

The first psychological study of war journalists, titled “A Hazardous Profession: War, Journalists, and Psychopathology,” was published in the American Journal of Psychiatry, September 2002. The study formed the basis for a recent book by Anthony Feinstein, a Canadian psychiatrist, titled Dangerous Lives: War and the Men and Women Who Report It (Toronto: Thomas Allen, 2003).

The study used self-report questionnaires and interviews to gather data from two groups: 140 war journalists and 107 journalists who had never covered war. The 140 war journalists included 110 men and 30 women with an average of 15 years experience from six major organizations: CBC, ITN, Reuters, Associated Press, CNN, BBC. There was an 80% response rate from both groups, including 28 interviews with war reporters.

The study concluded that war journalists have significantly more psychiatric difficulties than journalists who do not report on war. Lifetime prevalence of PTSD for this group was 28.6%, which is similar to rates reported for combat veterans, and which exceeds those of police officers. The incidence of major depression was 21.4%, exceeding that of the general population.

The study also found:

• Higher rates of alcohol use (14 units of alcohol per week; 7.6 for non-war reporters)
• Intrusive thoughts, replay of memories and hyper-arousal were common
• Low awareness of trauma
• All journalists interviewed had experienced social difficulties, such as re-adjusting to civil society, reluctance to mix with friends, troubled relationships, and embarrassing startle responses

Feinstein recommended that “these results, which need replicating, should alert news organizations that significant psychological distress may occur in many war journalists and often goes untreated.” He went further to describe “a culture of silence on the part of the news bosses and the journalists themselves.”

Why these attitudes?

• Discussing trauma is not encouraged or may be dismissed as psycho-babble.
“An admission of emotional distress in a macho world was feared as a sign of weakness and a career liability.” (Feinstein)

• Career ambitions: war reporting gives you a higher media profile; it is difficult to refuse assignments; there is pressure to stay in the field to justify the expense and trouble of getting you there; to prevent other reporters from “taking” your assignment; etc.

• Optimism that you can cover war and return “psychologically unscathed”

• Comforting myths: “My camera protects me.” “I’m too busy to be affected”

• Denial may be a necessity for continuing to return to war zones

• No clear signals from employers that it is okay to mention trauma

What can newsrooms do?
Newsrooms can develop an effective trauma program. Suggestions include:

• Media outlets must acknowledge trauma as reality and a concern; not as a career “stopper”
• They must regard trauma services as part of staff well-being, similar to other programs
• They need to make information available to journalists and hold information sessions
• They should offer confidential counselling
• They should encourage journalists to monitor themselves and their colleagues
• They need to develop a policy on reporting crises, such as rotating reporters and de-briefing
• Media outlets must make trauma training part of their ongoing training for war reporters

New developments and resources:
Programs on trauma and journalism:

Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, University of Washington, School of Communications,

Michigan State University: School of Journalism Victims and the Media Program

Prof. Philip Castle, Queensland University of Technology, Australia

Quick Study: Covering Violence: A Guide to Ethical Reporting About Victims and Trauma, by Roger Simpson and William Cote, Columbia University Press, 2000.

Journalism support groups:
The Frontline Club in London, England
International News Safety Institute

Future directions
• More research on trauma among non-war reporters
• More research on effects of interviewing the traumatized
• Coalition of researchers and news associations to develop awareness and services
• Programs that include and “reach” the families of reporters
• Study how services might prevent “burn-out” of staff and other benefits
• Educate students at journalism schools.
• Connect with larger ethical issues.