Strategies for overcoming “Assignment Stress Injury”

By Patrice Keats

“I have made a talent out of being able to bear any burden . . . I have managed it perfectly up to now and the lid just feels like it’s lifting up a bit. So, I’m starting to have a slightly different opinion . . . it’s maybe not such a great talent after all. It is in terms of a professional accomplishment, but maybe not for [being] a whole person.”

Over the years, the journalist quoted above has reported on many trauma events such as murders, car accidents, suicides and natural disasters. Bearing any burden seems to be a common consequence of working in journalism. This attitude appears to have a long history, as indicated by Fred Fedler in his article “Insiders’ Stories,”* where he quotes a 1922 journalist who described journalism as “always a hard, driving game” where the “best assignments were given to those with youths’ stamina and the ability to think quickly, move fast and live on black coffee and cigarettes for long periods.”

After interviewing 31 Canadian journalists and photojournalists** in my current study, I found that this belief lives on. As one long-time photographer states: “When you’re younger, you pretend like it doesn’t affect you, because that’s seen as a sign of weakness.” Indeed, journalists and photojournalists reported the presence of a stigma around psychological distress and worked to keep their perceived “weakness” under wraps among peers and management. Despite the tendency to avoid dealing with this type of distress, it appeared to manifest regardless in a number of different ways. People reported feeling depressed, having anxiety issues, relationship issues, difficulty sleeping, a tendency to drink excessively, feeling hypervigilant, feeling burned out at work or having other physical illnesses and chronic health problems.

In the course of the study, this sense of stigma surfaced as a key finding and tended to be a major reason that journalist and photojournalists found themselves dealing with sometimes very significant and unworkable situations. In an attempt to address the issues around stigma, I turned to an idea that came out of the Canadian military. Military psychologists’ attempted to influence the negative stigma of psychological distress by adopting the concept of an Operational Stress Injury (OSI) in order to put psychological struggles on par with physiological ones. OSI is defined as any persistent psychological difficulty resulting from operational duties during a mission. The term describes a broad range of problems including diagnosed psychiatric conditions (anxiety, major depression, acute traumatic stress), as well as less severe problems that interfere with daily functioning (lack of concentration, emotional exhaustion). As we also heard participants report similar repercussions from reporting or photographing trauma, I proposed the adoption of the term Assignment Stress Injury (ASI). This term describes a type of injury that may develop within a journalism context both on trauma assignments in the field and subsequently in the newsroom with its added stress and demands; consequences arising can include such struggles as posttraumatic stress, vicarious traumatization, hypervigilance, addiction or burnout, to name a few.

The next logical question is: what possible assistance do journalists and photojournalists need if they experience assignment stress injuries? For the answer, we asked study participants what they thought would help. They described their suggestions in three major areas: (1) self-help, (2) help from peers, and (3) help from other professionals. Below, I summarize descriptions of each area.


A primary desire for many participants was to have time to reflect on their experiences. Some suggested that the “decompression” experience acted as a reality check, whereas immediately moving to another assignment made the trauma event seem almost unreal. One journalist suggested reflecting time could help him cope with the effects before going back to the “grind, almost as if it never really happened.” Without time to acknowledge and make meaning of the experience, stress accumulates. Thus, a “cooling-off period” is needed between assignments and especially before coming home to family. In cases where stress has accumulated, people reported taking unpaid leave or even formal stress leave in order to buffer the effects of cumulative stress.

Dealing with management was another aspect of self-care. Journalists stressed the importance of editors knowing the impact of working in traumatic situations in reducing feelings of isolation and misunderstanding among colleagues. As one participant emphasized: “You go out there, go through all this stuff, you come back, and in their minds the whole trip is summarized by the stories you filed.” Editors who supported shift adjustments (such as half-shifts) helped journalists deal with feeling depressed or “spaced out” after a difficult trauma experience. Also, journalists found asking for a lighter load such as “an easy story or just laying low” was helpful. Avoiding dropped stories (not published) was also important. The experience of not being able to tell about the event (especially if they were at risk) added to journalists’ stress, as the story was left untold, incomplete, or unfinished. Finally, most participants reported a need to curtail the increase in the amount of work required in newsrooms due to layoffs, closures and leaves. Some participants cited the expectation that they be a “jack-of-all-trades” by wearing the hats of writer, photographer and videographer at the same time. An 18-year veteran reporter stated: “I come to work for 16 hours a day. . . . It’s just much, much more work than it used to be.”

Help from peers

Although many people talked about having good peer relationships, only a few reported being able to talk honestly about struggles with psychological distress. Press clubs, now mostly defunct, were identified by some as having provided opportunities to routinely meet peers for debriefing, support and connections. Although participants described excessive drinking at the clubs, having opportunities to talk about their experiences seemed to be a way of bringing people together to discuss trauma and its effects, if only on a surface level.

Journalists were skeptical about more regular formalized peer support groups, seeing them as an unviable option due to competitive dynamics among peers. This competitiveness resulted in a high level of distrust when it came to talking about or admitting to struggles with assignment stress injuries. However, regular formal debriefing after individual trauma events was seen as important. One journalist stated: “We don’t do that and I can’t think of any newsroom, in [this province] anyway, who does. I think it would be valuable.” In terms of workshops or discussions as a possible means to debrief with peers, journalists suggested it might be helpful if offered occasionally so that they could have “a sounding board” or “advice on how to deal with the images we see and the things that we write about.”

Another aspect of peer support was journalists’ desire to learn about trauma and ways of talking about it (other than using “gallows” or “black” humour) when communicating with each other, editors or survivors and family members of victims (including understanding how to draw a line when sources became too demanding of a listening ear). In this way, education about trauma can assist journalists and photographers in recognizing cumulative responses in themselves, typical trauma-related behaviour in others and how to manage both. Extending this idea, people emphasized the need for training students about trauma in journalism programs so they have a “heads-up” once they are in the field.

Help from other professionals

All staff employees in the interview group had access to psychological care through Employee Assistance Programs (EAP), although some did not know this service was available. There was widespread mistrust about utilizing these services because of a false belief that employers had access to or knowledge of client records. As one person said: “I have a deep distrust of the human resources department which probably sounds unbelievably paranoid but there is no way that I would admit to the company on any level that I’m unable to do any aspect of my job.” Another participant stated: “If anyone ever found out that you’re going for some psychological help because you’ve covered too many stories, it might almost be a sign of weakness.” Another problem is that advertisements for EAP services seemed generalized to fit any workplace, rather than specific to newsroom employees. Consequently, journalists did not consider assignment stress injuries as a concern these services addressed. They agreed news organizations should cover the costs of seeing all appropriately qualified therapists, such as registered social workers or registered clinical counsellors, especially for employees who have established relationships with counsellors outside of the EAP program. Journalists wanted autonomy in their choice of professional assistance. Finally, it became clear these mental health professionals needed to be trained specifically for working with journalists; at minimum, referrals need to be directed to effective and well-trained trauma therapists, as people in this study wanted assurances of the expertise and competency of these professionals. In general, all participants agreed that when someone is in distress, “help should definitely be immediate.”

Journalists’ and photojournalists’ recommendations for assistance, as reported here, are a first step in mitigating the costs of reporting trauma events and managing any subsequent assignment stress injuries that result. Seeking help needs to be seen as a strength and a sign of good mental health. Counteracting the stigma of psychological distress begins by hearing the voices of newsworkers and establishing a different discourse to mitigate the effects of journalists suffering in silence. A photojournalist makes the message clear, “your job will not be in jeopardy if you seek help!”

* Fedler, F., “Insiders stories: Coping with newsroom stress: An historical perspective”, American Journalism, 21(3) (2004), 77-106

**The group consisted of 14 photojournalists and 17 journalists from across Canada. Seven were women and 24 were men. Four currently work in broadcast media.

For fuller details about these results, please see the article “Addressing the Effects of Assignment Stress Injury: Canadian Journalists’ and Photojournalists’ Recommendations,” Journalism Practice, Vol. 3, No. 2, or contact Dr. Patrice Keats at or (778) 782-7604

Patrice Keats is an assistant professor in the Counselling Psychology Program at Simon Fraser University’s Faculty of Education