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Moral Injury

Moral Courage as the Antidote to Moral Injury

What motivates investigative journalists to take extraordinary risks?

Key points

  • Some journalists risk severe consequences to expose crime and corruption in countries with intolerant regimes.
  • One powerful factor shaping such motivation seems to be the need to avoid the moral injury of staying silent.
  • Such extraordinary moral courage is rare, but these individuals play crucial roles in defending civil society.

The humiliation and mortal danger posed by the pictures of her that were sent to her brother and the threat of having videos of her posted online should have had the desired effect of silencing Khadija Ismayilova’s investigative journalism. The pictures and videos were of Ismayilova being intimate with her boyfriend, filmed by cameras secretly placed in her apartment. In the very traditional society of Azerbaijan, where it is taboo for women to have sex outside of marriage, tradition demanded of her brother that he either kill her, her boyfriend, or the person who made the video.

But instead of being silenced by the threat, after finding out about the video from her brother just as she was about to go on air, she went ahead with the program. Then, she wrote a Facebook post about being blackmailed and how the tactics would not stop her work. The following day, she wrote another post listing her continuing investigations into corruption surrounding President Ilhan Aliyev, his family, and the ruling elite.

The government’s blackmail attempt backfired. The scandal increased Ismayilova’s profile, making her work more widely known. Family, friends, and even Azerbaijan’s Islamic Party rallied to her defense. But behind Ismayilova’s outward appearance of determination, the personal cost was high. Her relationship was over, and she continued to face other forms of persecution by the government, including being arrested and jailed for 18 months on a bogus charge of tax evasion.

Similarly, cartoonist Ahmed Kabir Kishore has fearlessly used his satirical cartoons to criticize corruption and incompetence in Bangladesh. However, embarrassing and offending the government has cost him dearly. In May 2020, after his cartoons lampooned the government’s bungled response to the COVID-19 pandemic, a group of plainclothes security agents broke down the front door of his apartment in Dhaka, confiscated his computer hard drives containing years of research, arrested him, and assaulted him for two days, causing loss of hearing in one ear and a septic wound. They held him with his friend, the dissident writer Mushtaq Ahmed, who had been tortured. They only released Kishore after Ahmed died in custody in February 2021.

Describing the personal cost of his work, Kishore explained, “I don’t belong to this country. I don’t belong to my family.” He lives alone now. He and his wife divorced when he was in jail, and their six-year-old daughter lives with her. He no longer has contact with his five sisters and has minimal contact with his brother. He believes their telephone calls are monitored and is terribly afraid that his family will be targeted as a way of getting to him. He is in poor physical health as a result of his ordeals. Yet, despite confronting an uncertain and hazardous future after being released on bail, he remains steadfast in his moral compass and in his resolve to continue his mission.

Moral Courage

Ismayilova and Kishore are two of 19 journalists profiled in a book by Anthony Feinstein, my colleague and a professor of psychiatry at the University of Toronto. Feinstein is an international authority on the psychological effects of conflict on journalists. The book, called Moral Courage,1 features candid and personal interviews between Feinstein and journalists working in dangerous environments in countries with intolerant regimes. These journalists have exposed the egregious behavior of corrupt or genocidal politicians, human traffickers, and drug cartels. Each story highlights the work of the journalist, the motivations driving their dedication to such an audacious undertaking, and the personal costs their work involves.

Previous books by Feinstein2 focused on the heavy psychological toll on journalists working in high conflict zones around the world, their high rates of mental health problems such as PTSD and depression, the factors that inhibit them from seeking professional help, and the imperative for news organizations to be aware of these mental health risks and to put in place psychological supports for the journalists they dispatch to the conflict zones of the world.

Of interest to Feinstein in this latest book is what motivates these journalists to take such risks and to accept such personal costs. He highlights moral courage as a key attribute of these journalists’ dedication. He notes that their motivation certainly encompasses more than a single factor. However, when facing grave potential risks from their investigative journalism, such as severe harassment, death threats, beatings, torture, mock execution, prolonged imprisonment or death, it takes extraordinary moral courage to persevere and keep pursuing this line of work.

Keeping Moral Injury at Bay

Feinstein links moral courage to moral injury. He defines moral injury as:

“A condition that arises from witnessing, perpetrating, or failing to prevent acts that transgress a person’s code of ethics or moral compass… Moral injury may occur in response to something a person does, an act of commission, or fails to do, an act of omission. It is typically associated with feelings of shame, guilt, anger and disgust.”

Feinstein hypothesizes that “Moral courage is essential if moral injury is to be kept at bay. Moral courage and moral injury are therefore inextricably bound up with one another.” Moral courage and the actions it motivates can thus be seen as the “antidote” to the distressing emotions of moral injury.

Understood this way, the exceptional moral courage exemplified by Ismayilova and Kishore and the 17 other journalists profiled in Feinstein’s book may be fueled by a need to avoid terrible moral injury—as a psychological defense against that shame and guilt. For these journalists, doing nothing in response to the flagrant violations of corrupt politicians and criminals is worse than the repercussions that come from exposing such crimes. As Ismayilova articulated it:

“You get a gut feeling before publication that something bad might happen, but your first thought is to get it out there—because if you do not publish, you feel very bad about it. You feel like you gave up; you were scared. This is not a good feeling to live with. It’s actually easier to spit it out… I feel accomplished. Despite everything, I feel happy.”

Part of what motivated Ismayilova was a feeling of guilt about the 2005 murder of Azerbaijani freelance journalist Elmar Huseynov. She felt ashamed that so few members of the media in Azerbaijan were doing the kind of investigative journalism he was doing. “We were partly responsible for his assassination. He was killed because he was the only one investigating the president’s family and their businesses.”

Components of Moral Courage

Feinstein cites psychological literature that identifies four components of moral courage: bravery, industry, honesty and vitality. He notes that some of the other characterological traits identified by behavioral scientists include high self-esteem, confidence in one’s judgement and values, a strong sense of social responsibility, higher levels of independence, compassion, empathy, altruism, extroversion, nonconformity and proclivity for risk-taking.

Another theory of moral courage that Feinstein finds particularly compelling is one by Rushworth Kidder,3 emphasizing three necessary components:

  • Principles
  • Endurance (the will to act)
  • Danger

Having only two of these three components is insufficient:

“For example, principles without endurance in the presence of danger leads to timidity; the presence of danger and endurance without principles is indicative of physical courage only; and principles and endurance without a proper appreciation of danger can be seen as foolhardiness.”

Feinstein notes that everyone has a moral compass and individual threshold for determining what constitutes flagrantly bad behavior—behavior that triggers guilt and disgust in them. However:

“Not everyone… will speak out or do something when their threshold is infringed. Understandably, as the consequences of responding to morally egregious behavior become increasingly more hazardous, the number of people prepared to say something or take action becomes very small indeed. The journalists who are featured in this book all fit into this very small, select group. The niche they occupy is at the far end of the bell curve.”

The Rest of Us

Since most of us lack this kind of extraordinary courage, and the willingness to risk losing everything, we should be profoundly grateful to these few individuals. They are the last bastions of civil society. As Feinstein puts it, “It has fallen to them to keep alive the remnants of their failing civil societies. In doing so, they remind their fellow citizens, cowed by authoritarian governments or criminal gangs, that all may not be lost.” These extraordinary individuals leave the rest of us feeling humbled and indebted. We owe it to them at the very least to be aware of their work. Feinstein's book has raised our awareness, and at the same time has deepened our understanding of this exceptional form of motivation.


1. Anthony Feinstein, Moral Courage: 19 Profiles of Investigative Journalists (New York: G Editions, 2023).

2. Anthony Feinstein, Dangerous Lives: War and the Men and Women Who Report It (Markham: Thomas Allen Publishers, 2003).

Anthony Feinstein, Journalists under Fire: The Psychological Hazards of Covering War (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006).

Anthony Feinstein, Shooting War (New York: Glitterati Incorporated, 2018).

3. Rushworth M Kidder, Moral Courage (New York: William Morrow, 2005)

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