Journalists who cover conflict are systematically faced with traumatic situations by witnessing war, destruction, or violent crime. Unlike some professions, journalists are expected to remain neutral and objective in order to report the truth. They are not permitted to become emotionally involved in a story. Journalists are forced to operate like fearless heroes, live reporting terrorist attacks without any protective gear. At the same time, they must zoom into suffering and bring out footage of wailing mothers and streets covered in blood. Anything that can help a media outlet do whatever it takes to compete with another outlet for exclusive content, sometimes going as far as to show the decapitated heads of suicide bombers on live television.
Consequences of covering conflict
The consequence of covering conflict ultimately has traumatic effects that can last a lifetime. That is why asking for help – during and after a difficult assignment – is essential. The emotional impact is sometimes difficult to express. It can take the form of panic attacks, nightmares etc. Despite this, there has never been so much as a conversation around mental health in the newsroom.
The taboo about mental health is increasingly acknowledged. Since the Wellbeing Center started in Karachi in 2018, over 90 journalists have used the services, according to the Centre for Excellence in Journalism. A Wellbeing Center has now also been established in conflict-ridden Quetta in partnership with the NGO Individual- land, while online counselling is offered across Pakistan, with journalists from Zhob in Balochistan to Khyber Agency accessing the services. These include 50-minute psychological counselling sessions, which are strictly confidential. While trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in journalism are becoming more well-known, more needs to be done to educate the journalism community. Moreover, COVID-19 has exacerbated mental health concerns for journalists globally (1).
Dealing with traumas
The survival of the affected person, in reality, starts with the acknowledgement of the seismic impact of trauma. For instance, healing from hyper-vigilance means working on re-establishing the rhythm of life through small steps. The best way to come to terms with a traumatic experience will vary from journalist to journalist. Some will talk to family and friends, and others only feel comfortable talking to people who have shared their experiences. However, support and external counselling should be made available to all staff by journalist organisations, to ensure that all journalists are offered an opportunity for confidential counselling after traumatic assignments.
- The Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, currently based at the University of Washington School of Communications in Seattle, USA, is a global network of journalists, journalism educators, and health professionals, dedicated to improving media coverage of trauma, conflict and tragedy. It looks at the impact of the reporting process on new professionals but also those who view news and read it.
- Media and Conflict Report “How close should we get?” from DW Akademie explains how to recognise trauma symptoms and how to deal with them (p86).
- FPU Resource Guide on Safety offers a section on Psycho-social safety and practical resources.