Don’t forsake front-line reporters – they carry deep scars for us

The dauntless personas of war journalists, who witness death and violence and are themselves exposed to danger, does not mean they are immune to mental trauma. (Manu Brabo/AFP)

The dauntless personas of war journalists, who witness death and violence and are themselves exposed to danger, does not mean they are immune to mental trauma. (Manu Brabo/AFP)

In the four-plus years of World War I, two journalists were killed. The number rose to 69 in World War II, fell back to 17 during the Korean War, before increasing to 63 in the United States’s almost decade-long war in Vietnam.

Since the invasion of Iraq in 2003, more than 200 journalists and media support workers have been killed in that country.

What has changed with time, however, is not just the increasing mortality rate among journalists, but also the manner in which they die. Most of the deaths in Iraq were targeted killings. Furthermore, the ongoing civil war in Syria has spawned a new threat – kidnap for ransom or, worse, murder choreographed for the internet in an attempt not just to muzzle the press but also to instil fear.

With attention understandably focused on keeping journalists physically safe, there is one question that is often not asked enough: How are journalists faring emotionally when confronted by such grave risks?

A year before the attacks of September 11 2001, I received a grant from the Washington-based Freedom Forum and began researching this topic. Even before I got to interview journalists I came across a surprising fact. Research generally starts with a review of the existing literature, but in this instance there was nothing to review. Not one publication in a vast trauma literature was devoted to this topic, a surprising omission given the strong association in general between life-threatening events and emotional distress.

Citing this absence of data, I approached news organisations such as CNN, the BBC, the Associated Press, Reuters and others and asked for access to their front-line journalists. They obliged with 140 names of men and women who, over the course of a few decades, had come to define their careers by their work in war zones.

The results that emerged from a detailed behavioural inquiry should come as a wake-up call to the profession. War journalists are undoubtedly a resilient group, confronting death and dying on a regular, at times almost routine, basis. But resilience does not imply immunity to distress. When compared with their colleagues who have never been to zones of conflict, journalists who chose to cover war have significantly higher rates of depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and substance abuse. They are also more likely to be divorced or remain single.

The clear message that emerged from the data was that some journalists pay a considerable emotional price to bring us the news of war. Sitting back in the comfort of our homes watching the evening news, it is easy to overlook this fact.

The persona of the front-line journalist – dauntless, insouciant in the face of grave danger – can at times obscure a very different and painful reality. The eloquent voice of veteran BBC journalist Allan Little summed it up well when he cautioned his colleagues: “Do not delude yourself into thinking you can swan in and out of other people’s wars year after year and not be affected in some way.”

A few news organisations reacted positively to the results of my study, setting up confidential counselling services for their journalists, should the need arise. But others still lag far behind, sending their reporters and cameramen into harm’s way without a system in place to deal adequately with the emotional fallout of some catastrophic event.

At times they have been left scrambling in trauma’s wake, increasingly good at putting the body together again while forgetting about the mind.

Such neglect does journalists a major disservice. Disorders such as depression, PTSD and substance abuse may exact a telling toll, not only on the journalists but on their spouses and children too.

Apart from the ethical issue of ignoring, minimising or dismissing these concerns, organisations do themselves and their public a disservice too. Good journalism depends on healthy journalists. Having the news of war pass through the filter of a journalist’s distress may distort the story. “The reporter is the last bastion of truth,” noted the journalist Jon Swain, on the eve of the US invasion to topple Iraq’s president, Saddam Hussein.

If proper credence is to be given to these words, the time has come for certain news organisations to take their heads out of the sand and address the possibility that some of their journalists carry emotional wounds from what they have witnessed and experienced.

Anthony Feinstein is a professor of psychiatry at the University of Toronto. Last week he delivered a public lecture at the University of the Witwatersrand on journalism and trauma

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