Journalists, like fire fighters, police or soldiers, are first responders. They run towards trouble when everyone else is running in the opposite direction. As a result, they bear witness to human suffering in the most horrific of conditions. As a correspondent in Africa, I and other reporters spoke of covering the five D’s: the dead, the dying, the displaced, the diseased and the depressing.
Whether war or natural disaster, a plane crash or famine, genocide or rioting, child abuse or rape, regular exposure to these kinds of traumatic events can take a toll – because journalists are people and sometimes they can hit an emotional wall.
“Breaking News, Breaking Down” is the title of an award-winning documentary by former television reporter Mike Walter. He visited VOA this week to hold a workshop to help reporters and editors understand the impact of trauma reporting on journalists.
Mike recounted his own emotional breakdown after being an eyewitness to the 9/11 terrorist attack on the Pentagon. He literally watched as the hijacked airliner flew into the building, triggering a massive explosion and fire. He spent that day being interviewed over and over by news organizations about what he saw. He couldn’t shake the images from his mind. It changed his life, leading him to produce a film about his experiences and those of other journalists, shedding light on a topic that had previously been largely ignored.
The Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma says research shows most journalists are resilient despite repeated exposure to work-related traumatic events. “This is evidenced by low rates of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other psychiatric disorders,” the Center says.
But it goes on to report: “A significant minority, however, are at risk for long-term psychological problems.”
The biggest risk falls on war correspondents. A 2003 study of 160 war correspondents found close to 30 percent had symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder.
Editors and journalists alike need to be aware of these risks in advance of an assignment and support structures need to be in place to help a journalist returning from a traumatic assignment. The Dart Center says if that is done, “the likely result is reduced risk of harm, as well as greater work satisfaction and productivity among journalists.”