Eric Newhouse

Eric Newhouse

Invisible Wounds

Journalists Can Be Nearly as Prone to PTSD as Combat Vets

Some international news organizations now offer counseling

Posted Oct 06, 2015

            There’s yet another research study out that confirms what Charlotte Porter told us recently: Reporters and photojournalists covering combat are nearly as prone to PTSD as soldiers. (For background, see my blog of Sept. 9.)

            "We hope that this study will encourage news organizations in Kenya and other African countries that send journalists into harm's way to look out for their psychological health and offer confidential counseling as a matter of course," the study’s main author, Anthony Feinstein, was quoted as saying.

            The study, just published in JRSM Open, sampled 57 Kenyan journalists. It noted that “intimidation, assault, mock execution and witnessing death and destruction are just some of the occupational hazards that come with the job.”

            “These hazards can explain why the lifetime prevalence for post-traumatic stress disorder in journalists who have worked for over a decade in zones of combat approaches that seen in combat veterans and exceeds fivefold the rates in the general population,” it said.

            Researchers looked at journalists who had covered two traumatic events: first, the election violence of 2007 that pitted ethnic groups against each other and left more than 1,000 Kenyans dead, and second, the 2013 attack in the Westgate Mall by insurgents that left 67 Kenyans dead.

            “The post-election violence was experienced firsthand as neighbor turned upon neighbor, communities were destroyed and the media in some cases became the focus of mob rage,” it said. “Here, the risks of covering the violence were life-threatening.”

            Eleven journalists were wounded or injured on the job, it said.

            “Being wounded emerged as the most robust independent predictor of emotional distress,” said the study. “Journalists covering the election violence reported significantly more PTSD-type intrusion and arousal.”

Thirteen journalists received counseling, although those wounded were not any more likely to receive counseling than other colleagues, it added.

            “Good journalism, a pillar of civil society, depends on healthy journalists,” said the study. “”It is hoped that these data act as a catalyst encouraging news organizations encouraging news organizations sending journalists into harm’s way to look out for their psychological health in doing so.”     

Santiago Lyon, director of photography and director of Asian news coverage for The Associated Press, said The AP has had a policy of helping its employees process their traumatic professional experiences for more than a decade.

“We assess everybody on a case-by-case basis, and when we find individuals who need assistance in processing their professional experiences, we have an informal network of mental health professionals around the world that we can tap into,” he told me.  “Our job is to put them in touch with mental health officials who have a specialized knowledge of the issues that they are dealing with.”

Lyon noted that the “macho culture” of journalism had begun changing 10 or 15 years ago and that journalistic organizations like The AP have been more focused on how best to help their professionals cope with the emotional stresses of their jobs. AP is the world’s largest news-gathering cooperative, employing about 2,000 journalists and 300 photojournalists.

To show how widespread that realization has become, the National Center for PTSD now has a special section on journalists and PTSD.

“Although most journalists do not report chronic distress associated with their jobs, several recent studies have documented increased rates of psychological stress for journalists, especially those, such as war correspondents, whose assignments involve life threat and witnessing death, dying and human suffering,” said the National Center for PTSD. “These studies highlight that journalism can be a profession bearing some risk of physical harm and long-term emotional distress and that the greater the level of exposure, the greater risk of distress.

“Yet the literature also indicates that few employers of photojournalists recognize the stress and negative impact on mental health that is associated with some assignments,” it concluded. “Even fewer employers offer counseling services and education about PTSD symptoms.”

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