Conducted in 2002, 140 war correspondents studied:
Post-traumatic stress is a normal reaction to abnormal events. Stress can affect not only war correspondents, but journalists covering any tragedy involving pain or loss of life. Death penalty executions, random shootings, terrorist bombings, sexual assault, sexual abuse of children, domestic violence, suicides, and bullying are among the stories that can cause extreme stress.
Post-traumatic stress can manifest itself in many ways. The individual experiencing stress may be able to articulate no more than simply having the feeling that something is just not right, or that something more should be done. For journalists whose job is to observe and report on events, not act on them, merely watching human tragedies unfold can extract an emotional toll. Journalists who interview trauma victims, in fact, may themselves be exposed to and experience what experts call vicarious or secondary trauma. Photo and video editors may be traumatized from handling one grisly image after another. News managers on every level may be traumatized from the stress of helping to manage the risks facing their reporters and photojournalists, especially in the wake of injury or fatal loss.
Signs of stress are often subtle. A journalist may seem more anxious, irritable, withdrawn, numb, depressed, sad, or angry, and the emotions may be either sustained or fluctuating. Physical symptoms can include sleep or eating disorders, a rapid heartbeat, sweating, panic attacks, headaches, nausea, and chest pain. Strained personal and work relationships are often common. So is alcohol or drug abuse. Other signs may include an abnormally intense focus on one’s work, as if one is trying, as with other compulsive behaviors, to avoid uncomfortable feelings.
How common is post-traumatic stress among journalists? More than one in eight journalists working in the United States and Europe sampled at large in a 2001 study by the German scholars Teegen and Grotwinkel showed the ongoing signs of extreme stress or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In a 2002 study led by Canadian psychiatrist Anthony Feinstein, more than one in four war correspondents showed ongoing signs of extreme stress. Studies have further shown that conflicts within the workplace, whether among journalists or between journalists and their supervisors, may compound individual reactions to trauma.
“Journalists are a resilient tribe,” noted Bruce Shapiro, executive director of the Dart Center for Journalism & Trauma, in a 2010 speech in Melbourne, Australia, “but we are also vulnerable to psychological injury, no less so than firefighters, police officers, paramedics, or soldiers—and we need training, psychological support, and leadership aware of these issues.”
Post-traumatic stress disorder is a diagnosis established in 1980 by clinicians working with U.S. veterans of the Vietnam War. The disorder involves a preponderance of symptoms lasting several months or longer. The disorder may also involve more intrusive symptoms, including emotional withdrawal or numbness, intense fear, anger or guilt, helplessness, hyper-vigilance to perceived threats, reduced awareness, and confusion.
PTSD can further change the way neural networks communicate with each other within the brain, and the changes “can elicit the re-enactment and reliving of past experiences,” notes Matthew Friedman, executive director of the U.S. Veterans Association's National Center for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. If left untreated, PTSD can also exacerbate a range of medical conditions like hypertension.
The good news is that clinicians have established the phenomenon of post-traumatic growth. “We’re talking about a positive change that comes about as a result of the struggle with something very difficult,” University of North Carolina at Charlotte psychologist Lawrence G. Calhoun told The Washington Post in 2005. Post-traumatic growth involves a better sense of self, relationships with others, abilities to cope, and appreciation of life after not only recovering, but emerging enhanced from having overcome a traumatizing experience. The growth occurs from “people who have faced major life crises develop[ing] a sense that new opportunities have emerged from the struggle, opening up possibilities that were not present before,” UNC Charlotte researchers wrote.
Recognizing that you are traumatized may be the hardest step. Many journalists and soldiers have something in common in that the dominant culture of both groups has tended to resist recognizing the impact of trauma. “I’m still not sure that our culture is ready to accept this,” Gen. George W. Casey Jr., the U.S. Army’s chief of staff, told The New York Times in 2009. Explaining the need to cope with emotional stress can be a hard sell to a young private who mainly “wants to hang out with his buddies and drink beer,” he said.
Journalists need to learn how to take care of themselves. Simply taking a break can be invaluable. So can finding the courage to tell an editor that you need a new beat. Even more important may be allowing yourself to grieve or otherwise experience your own emotions. Regular exercise helps to relieve stress, according to scientific experts. The National Institutes of Health National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine reports that mind-body exercises such as yoga, tai chi, qi gong, and meditation can be beneficial.
Articulating your emotions is another way to relieve stress. Journalists can only benefit from discussing their experiences with each other. The venue could be a place in the newsroom or a nearby coffee shop. Newsroom managers should help create opportunities and forums for such peer debriefing to take place. "What I really needed was time with fellow journalists, to talk through all the things that happened," said Penny Owen of The Oklahoman in an interview with the Dart Center after the 1995 bombing of an Oklahoma City federal building. “By the time we slowed down, everyone was so tired of the bombing that we never really got to have that big hashing-out session." Whatever the venue, the setting should be one where no one feels judged and journalists feel safe to open up in front of each other.
Speaking to a counselor is another option for journalists experiencing emotional stress. The Dart Center provides a guide for choosing a therapist. Many therapists have experience in treating post-traumatic stress, and a recommendation from a friend is often a good place to start in finding a good counselor. (Some health insurance plans will help cover costs. See Chapter 1, section on Insurance Coverage, and Appendix C Insurance Providers.) Some cultures are more resistant than others to recognize post-traumatic stress. Journalists living in nations where there is little awareness of the issue may be well advised to consult the website of the Dart Center.