OPINION: Journalists are learning to deal with PTSD, trauma, managing mental health

by | Oct 8, 2021 | OP-ED, Opinion

Unlike other professionals, journalists and reporters have to remain neutral in covering traumatic events to report the truth.

However, becoming emotionally invested in the stories they’re reporting on isn’t an option for them, which is why they often end up suppressing the emotions that can later become a problem, leading to PTSD if not managed properly.

A 2002 study from The American Journal of Psychiatry found war journalists have a drastically higher chance of facing psychiatric difficulties than journalists who work on lighter beats.

Multiple studies from the NCBI (National Centre for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) between 2012 and 2018, found conflict journalists experience ongoing PTSD symptoms, where the severity of symptoms are mostly mild but can eventually become more severe.

Randy Boswell, an associate professor in the Department of Journalism and Communications at Carleton University and a former reporter with the Ottawa Citizen and Postmedia News, said repeated exposure to tragedy and violence is a part of the job, and journalists should be aware of the potential impact and need to take steps to take care of themselves.

“Conflict zone reporters are certainly experiencing a lot of those kinds of traumatic episodes regularly, and so it only stands to reason that there would be impacts on their lives,” Boswell said.

“Not everybody reacts the same way, but the reality is that anybody over time would start to accumulate a lot of baggage if that is part of your daily life,” he said.

Graeme Frisque, a reporter with The Mississauga News and The Brampton Guardian, agrees, noting there is a devastating mental impact of reporting violence and crime.

“Unless you’re a sociopath, when you see these sort of traumatic things, you can’t help, but you know you sort of feel and you have feelings about that,” Frisque said.

He said while journalists eventually get trained enough and begin to compartmentalize, when the story is done and published, they get the chance to reflect on it.

“That’s when it kind of hits you have to figure out coping mechanisms,” Frisque said. “Those are different for everyone. It’s not one size fits all solution.”

Joanna Lavoie, a breaking news reporter with Torstar Corporation Community Brands who has been a journalist for around 20 years, said she still remembers cases from years ago that have impacted her.

“I feel emotional to this day about people who have died or terrible things, like a child who died, or something bad that had happened,” she said. “It stays with you because you’re a part of that journey of pain that somebody went through.”

A 2015 study by Sunnybrook Health Centre’s Anthony Feinstein, Justus Wanga of the Nation in Kenya, and John Owen with the City University in London found many journalists end up consuming alcohol to deal with their psychological trauma.

Tamara Cherry, a former crime reporter, with CTV News Toronto, The Toronto Sun and The Toronto Star newspapers and founder of Pickup Communications, a trauma-informed public relations firm, believes the profession can take a drastic toll on journalists, leading to unhealthy coping mechanisms.

“I know from my personal experience of 15 years of crime reporting and have worked with a therapist,” Cherry said. “There’s a lot of stuff that I have to work through, and through conversations with colleagues over the years I know how they suffered.”

Cherry, whose research project was published in September 2021 by the Journal of Community Safety and Well-Being, spoke up about the effects of reporting on trauma on radio, TV, newspaper, and social media.

“Some of them suffered post-traumatic stress, some of them experienced burnout, and there were a lot of moral injuries involved where they were reaching out to trauma survivors,” Cherry said.

Boswell emphasizes journalists should be taking periodic breaks, go for counselling or therapy, and take active measures of self-care.

Lavoie said she manages her psychological health by taking a break and working on lighter-hearted stories after a distressing one. She also highlighted the need for more health benefits and support for journalists covering wars, destruction, and violence.

“I don’t have a counsellor because it’s pricey and not really available, and that would be something that I would appreciate,” she said.

According to Frisque, most news organizations provide certain resources to their reporters, especially in big stories that include violence and destruction.

“This is something that most companies are aware of, especially in this day and age and they do a fairly good job of making these resources available to reporters,” Frisque said.