Journalism and Trauma: The Link

Much like the police and military personnel, journalists are first responders to crisis, yet are among the last thought to have suffered the long-term psychological effects of reporting and witnessing trauma. The public’s interest in tragic situations and journalist’s need to provide a first-hand account of all the graphic details can lead to symptoms of trauma and PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). As a profession, journalism requires structure and rules to be followed regardless of mental state and sensitivity of subject.

Rules?

MEAA’s Journalist code of ethics has strict outlines of what boxes a journalist must tick and be respectful of when reporting. For a journalist reporting on a dark event or a touchy subject, these guidelines can be difficult on their mental health. Point numbers 1, 4 and 9 force the reporter to focus specifically on the gritty details and do not allow for emotions to play a role in the writing, leading to possible symptoms of mental stress.

1.     ‘Report and interpret honestly, striving for accuracy, fairness and disclosure of all essential facts. Do not suppress relevant available facts, or give distorting emphasis. Do your utmost to give a fair opportunity for reply.’
4.   ‘Do not allow personal interest, or any belief, commitment, payment, gift or benefit, to undermine your accuracy, fairness or independence.’
9. ‘Present pictures and sound which are true and accurate. Any manipulation likely to mislead should be disclosed.’

Wait, but what is trauma and mental stress?

The Oxford Dictionary’s definition of trauma is ‘a deeply distressing or disturbing experience’. Trauma affects everyone differently and can come in many shapes and forms, such as PTSD, a common outcome of trauma today. Traumatic experiences often feature a threat to safety and life, however any situation that leaves one feeling overwhelmed and isolated can be traumatising. Examples of trauma are:

  • Sexual Assault
  • Domestic Violence
  • War Related Trauma
  • Medical Trauma
  • Traumatic Loss
  • Natural Disasters

The Journalism of Trauma? What’s that?

Journalist’s are tasked with the job of reporting everything, even the bad and gruesome. Not only are some witnesses of the horrific events but those reading, editing and writing the stories from miles away in a newsroom are also forced to give the topic a large amount of thought. Viewing horrific UGC (user-generated content) that is riddled with unexpected distressing material all day every day is now a common task for those working within the newsroom. Journalists subjected to these images, whether in person or in writing, can experience emotions and personal responses on the traumatic event they’ve seen so vividly. The impact of vicarious trauma can lead directly to PTSD and ASD (acute stress disorder).

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders published in 2013 by the American Psychiatric Association claims that PTSD can be experienced due to viewing horrific images that are work-related. An example of second-hand viewing causing a mental health issue among journalists is Aidan Sullivan’s story. On his first day as the director of photography for the Sunday Times, April 5, 1989, he ‘remembers making two piles of pictures: one of [people] whole were dead or dying, and another of those who were distressed but more likely to survive’.

‘I can still vividly recall the images. That never goes away.’

Sullivan reflecting on the awful events of the Hillsborough disaster in Sheffield, England.

Surely Journalists witnessing events first hand have it the worst?

Of course, those at the scene are exposed to some grim events however those in the newsroom actually suffer more based on recent statistics. Anthony Feinstein’s Witnessing images of extreme violence: a psychological study of journalists in the newsroom shows the results of studies undergone on 100 journalists working in the newsroom that were often required to view graphic material. What Feinstein found was that those often viewing the graphic photographs but only for brief periods of time were more likely to foster symptoms of mental distress than those who viewed the material for a prolonged period. Those who witness constant horrific events in person are able to grow desensitised to the situation in a way those who only do so for a few hours a day do not.

‘individuals who are looking at the war in Iraq… all the time tend to block it out – you become a bit numb to it,’

Feinstein said when explaining the phenomenon.

What are some signs of Journalists dealing with these stresses?

Whether it is you or a fellow journalist, it can be easy to assume you are capable of moving on from trauma and discount the symptoms as only temporary. However, if you are regularly involved in work that has the potential to cause reoccurring trauma or evoke symptoms of PTSD or ASD, it is vital you check your responses and acknowledge the impact it has on your mental state and quality of work. Sam Dubberly and Michele Grant cover the signs over trauma in great detail in Journalism and Vicarious Trauma.

Psychological signs:

  • Intrusive thoughts and images coming to mind against your will and in dreams
  • Placing unrealistic expectations on oneself
  • Hopelessness & helplessness
  • Guilt about your own survival/pleasure
  • Disgust
  • Anger
  • Fear
  • Distracted
  • Easily startled
  • Unable to tolerate strong emotions
  • Increased sensitivity to violence

Relationships and behaviour:

  • Difficulty differentiating between work and social life
  • Feeling disconnected from people even when you’re communicating with them
  • Withdrawal from hobbies, socialising and pleasurable activities
  • Irritable, intolerant, agitated, needy
  • Addictions involving nicotine, alcohol, food, drugs, shopping.

Physical Signs:

  • Tired
  • Headaches
  • Change in diet and appetite
  • Gastrointestinal trouble

What can a journalist do to help their mental state or prevent it from getting disastrous?

While hard to find online, each news outlet has its own codes of conduct and reasonable reporting. The daily telegraph’s code of ethics outlines that all employees must ‘respect the confidences and sensitivities of your colleagues at all times’ (24.2). Though a small detail, it is clear that each outlet has its own way of dealing with their reporters’ mindsets on their work.

On top of this, it is encouraged that anyone feeling any type of mental stress or psychological trauma should approach help and find someone to talk to about their emotions. As research on journalists and trauma has progressed, so have treatment options. Matthew Friedman, a professor at Dartmouth College’s Geisel School of Medicine claims that the treatment for journalists experiencing PTSD is no different from that used to treat victims of sexual assault or war veterans. Options range from medication and therapy to self-assessment.

References;

Arana, G. (2015). A Mental-Health Epidemic In The Newsroom. [online] HuffPost Australia. Available at: https://www.huffingtonpost.com.au/2015/05/18/mental-health-journalism-trauma_n_7305460.html [Accessed 25 May 2019].

Dailytelegraph.com.au. (2017). Code of Conduct | Daily Telegraph. [online] Available at: https://www.dailytelegraph.com.au/help/code-of-conduct [Accessed 25 May 2019].

Dubberley, S. and Grant, M. (2017). Journalism and Vicarious Trauma A Guide for JournAlists, editors And news orGAnisAtions. [online] Available at: https://firstdraftnews.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/04/vicarioustrauma.pdf [Accessed 25 May 2019].

Ellingsen, S (2012). Explainer: the impact of trauma reporting upon journalists | upstart. [online] Available at: https://www.upstart.net.au/explainer-the-impact-of-trauma-reporting-upon-journalists/.

Feinstein, A., Audet, B. and Waknine, E. (2014). Witnessing images of extreme violence: a psychological study of journalists in the newsroom. JRSM Open, 5(8), p.205427041453332.

Maxson, J. (2000). Training Journalism Students to Deal with Trauma: Observing Reporters Behave like ‘Creeps.’ Journalism & Mass Communication Educator, 55(1), pp.79–86.

Taibi, C. (2015). It’s Not Just War Reporters: How Viewing Graphic Content Secondhand Can Lead To Mental Health Issues In Journalists. [online] HuffPost Australia. Available at: https://www.huffingtonpost.com.au/2015/05/19/secondhand-trauma-journalists_n_7305992.html?guccounter=1 [Accessed 25 May 2019].

Wake, A. and Ricketson, M. (2019). Media companies on notice over traumatised journalists after landmark court decision. [online] The Conversation. Available at: https://theconversation.com/media-companies-on-notice-over-traumatised-journalists-after-landmark-court-decision-112766 [Accessed 25 May 2019].

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