Covering Trauma: Impact on Journalists

An overview of current research on the occupational hazards for journalists covering traumatic events, the risk factors that aggravate those effects, and some suggestions for mitigating those factors. Originally published; January, 2009. Updated; May, 2016.

Journalists frequently bear witness to human suffering whether covering mass disasters or individual atrocities; however, little is known regarding the impact of such exposure on the well-being of journalists. Researchers in the field of traumatic stress are only beginning to examine the toll this line of work may have on the health of journalists. This fact sheet reviews extant research regarding:

  1. The types of events journalists are exposed to
  2. The impact of covering these events
  3. The factors that may place journalists at risk for psychological distress



What Journalists Witness

The majority of journalists witness traumatic events in their line of work:

  • Research suggests that between 80-100% of journalists have been exposed to a work-related traumatic event (e.g., Dworznik, 2011; Newman et al., 2003; Pyevich et al., 2003; Smith, 2008; Teegen & Gotwinkel, 2001)
  • Common events may include (cited above):
    • Automobile accidents
    • Fire
    • Murder
    • Mass casualties
    • War
    • Disaster
  • Work-related traumatic content may also be consumed via violent graphics and/or video footage (including user generated content), thus many journalists may be exposed to frequent, repetitive, and prolonged, uncensored traumatic content without ever leaving the newsroom (Feinstein et al., 2014; Weidmann & Papsdorf, 2010). 



HOW JOURNALISTS ARE AFFECTED

Most journalists exhibit resilience despite repeated exposure to work-related traumatic events. This is evidenced by relatively low rates of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other psychiatric disorders.

A significant minority, however, are at risk for long-term psychological problems, including PTSD, depression, and substance abuse. 

  • Events involving death, violence, and human suffering can be particularly disturbing for journalists, particularly when these events involve children (Newman et al., 2003; Pyevich et al., 2003; Smith, 2008).
  • PTSD: rates of possible PTSD range between 4-59% (detailed rates below)
  • Depression: rates range from less than 1-21% (Feinstein et al., 2003; Feinstein et al., 2014; Weidmann et al., 2008)
  • Substance abuse: examined among war correspondents and was found to be 14% (Feinstein et al., 2002); examined among journalists working with User Generated Content material – excess alcohol intake 15.4% (male) and 17.4% (female) (Feinstein et al., 2014)



RATES OF PTSD (ORDERED FROM HIGHEST TO LOWEST) 

 

RISK FACTORS

  • Exposure to a greater number of traumatic assignments/frequency of exposure (Feinstein, et al., 2014; Marais & Stuart, 2005; McMahon, 2001; Newman et al., 2003; Pyevich et al., 2003)
  • Exposure to higher intensity assignments/type of assignment (Backholm & Bjӧrkqvist, 2010; Dworznik, 2011; Feinstein et al., 2002; Pyevich et al., 2003; Smith, 2008)
    • Exposure to drug-related conflict (Feinstein, 2013; Morales et al., 2012, 2014)
    • Exposure to war (Dworznik, 2011; Feinstein et al., 2002; Simpson & Boggs, 1999)
      • Journalists embedded with troops do not appear to be at greater risk than unilateral journalists covering the war (Feinstein & Nicholson, 2005; Greenberg et al., 2007).
    • Working a field job (as opposed to nonfield job; Hatanaka et al., 2010)
  • Personally experienced work-related stressors
    • Aggression (Occupational Intimidation + Sexual Harassment) (Drevo, 2016)
    • Intimidation (Feinstein, 2012)
    • Moral injury (Drevo, 2016)
  • Time in the field
    • Younger journalists with less experience (Teegen & Wrotwinkel, 2001)
    • Veteran journalists with more exposure (Simpson & Boggs, 1999)
  • Organizational Factors
    • High perceived organizational stress (Smith, 2008)
  • Personal History and Characteristics
    • Exposure to traumatic events in one’s personal life (Backholm & Bjӧrkqvist, 2010; Newman et al., 2003; Teegen & Wrotwinkel, 2001)
    • Prior psychological history (e.g., depression; Backholm & Bjӧrkqvist, 2012)
    • Empathy (Nelson, 2011)
    • Temperament (e.g., negative emotionality such as neuroticism and hostility; Marais & Stuart, 2005)
    • Difficulty with emotional expression (Teegen & Grotwinkel, 2001)
    • Avoidant styles of coping (Smith, 2008)
    • Peritraumatic response (Hatanaka et al., 2010; McMahon, 2001)
  • Social Support
    • Low perceived social support (Newman et al., 2003)
    • Low perceived social acknowledgement by supervisors and colleagues (Weidmann et al., 2008)
  • Cognitive Factors
    • Negative beliefs about self, others, & the world following trauma  (Pyevich et al., 2003)
    • Guilt cognitions (Browne et al., 2012)



RESILIENCY FACTORS

  • Emotion regulation (Nelson, 2011)
  • Personal hardiness (Smith, 2008)
  • Manageability (i.e., see demands as challenges and have accessible resources to meet demands; Marias & Stuart, 2005)
  • Professional identity (i.e., meaning and purpose related to professional role) and training that facilitated social networks and meaningful coping mechanisms (Novak & Davidson, 2013)
  • Management support (Beam & Spratt, 2009)
  • Perceived organizational support (Drevo, 2016)



OCCUPATIONAL IMPACT

  • The impact that trauma exposure and symptoms of PTSD have on a journalist’s ability to perform their job is only starting to be examined.  These results suggest that symptoms of PTSD may result in impaired occupational functioning, making it difficult for journalists to perform optimally on the job.
    • PTSD symptom severity predicted greater perceived occupational dysfunction (e.g., late to work, missed deadlines, difficulty concentrating at work, etc.) (Drevo, 2016; Nelson, 2011)
  • Other predictors of occupational-related outcomes among journalists:
    • Age = younger journalists were more likely to report occupational dysfunction (Drevo, 2016)
    • Moral injury predicted occupational dysfunction (Drevo, 2016)
    • Occupational intimidation and sexual harassment were related to decreases in job performance (Parker, 2015) 
    • Sexual harassment was related to decreased perceived organizational support and increased counterproductive behaviors (Parker, 2015)


CONCLUSIONS

Taken together, these studies suggest that journalists are at risk for exposure to work-related traumatic events.  Further, some journalists exposed to these events appear vulnerable to the development of PTSD and other psychiatric symptoms.  This is particularly true of Mexican journalists covering drug-related conflict and war correspondents. The identification of risk factors in the current line of research indicates several ways in which news organizations can be involved in reducing the occupational risk of PTSD and other problematic reactions to traumatic/stressful encounters. Efforts to increase organizational support for journalists are warranted.  This may include educating journalists about the psychological risks involved in their line of work, decreasing the frequency and intensity of exposure to traumatic news assignments, and providing appropriate resources for coping with the emotional toll of these assignments.  Aiding connectedness to social networks within and outside of the organization may also be of benefit. As the news room culture shifts towards increasing organizational support and decreasing organizational stressors the likely result is reduced risk of harm.  An emerging literature examining occupational outcomes among journalists would suggest that not only would more organizational support likely result in a reduction of mental health harm, but a reduction in occupational dysfunction and an increase in job performance (and likely work satisfaction).   

Further, considering that most journalists will cover a trauma-related event at some point in their careers, and many will experience personal attacks involving intimidation and harassment, it is vital that journalists receive proper trauma and safety training during their journalism education before entering the workforce.  This should occur with all journalists but may be especially meaningful for freelance journalists who may not benefit from the support and ongoing education provided by a specific organization. Trauma training that incorporates education on reporting and working in hazardous environments, how to interact with vulnerable or traumatized victims and witnesses in the aftermath of catastrophic events/ethical decision making and best practices, personal safety, and healthy coping/self-care repertoires is warranted.



REFERENCES

Backholm, K., & Björkqvist, K. (2010). The effects of exposure to crisis on well-being of journalists. A study on crisis-related factors predicting psychological health in a sample of Finnish journalists. Media, War & Conflict, 3, 138-151.

Backholm, K., & Björkqvist, K. (2012).  The mediating effect of depression between exposure to potentially traumatic events and PTSD in news journalists. European Journal of Psychotraumatology, 3, 183-88.

Beam, R. A., & Spratt, M. (2009). Managing vulnerability: job satisfaction, morale and journalists’ reactions to violence and trauma. Journalism Practice, 3, 421-438.

Brown, T., Evangeli, M., & Greenberg, N. (2012). Trauma-related guilt and posttraumatic stress among journalists. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 25, 207-210.

Drevo, S. (2016). The war on journalists: Pathways to posttraumatic stress and occupational dysfunction among journalists. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Tulsa, Oklahoma.

Dworznik, G. (2011). Factors contributing to PTSD and compassion fatigue in television news workers. International Journal of Business, Humanities, and Technology, 1(1), 22-32.  

Feinstein, A. (2013). Mexican journalists and journalists covering war: a comparison of psychological wellbeing. Journal of Aggression, Conflict, and Peace Research, 5, 77-85. 

Feinstein, A. (2012). Mexican journalists: An investigation of their emotional health. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 25, 480-483. 

Feinstein, A., Audet, B., & Waknine, E. (2014). Witnessing images of extreme violence: a psychological study of journalists in the newsroom. Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine Open, 5, 1-7.

Feinstein, A. & Nicholson, D. (2005). Embedded journalists in the Iraq war: Are they at greater psychological risk? Journal of Traumatic Stress, 18, 129-132.

Feinstein, A. & Owen, J. (2002). Journalists, war and posttraumatic stress disorder. In Y. Danieli (Ed.), Sharing the front line and the back hills: International protectors and providers: Peacekeepers, humanitarian aid workers and the media in the midst of crisis (pp. 305-315). Amityville, NY: Baywood Publishing Co, Inc.

Feinstein, A., Owen, J., & Blair, N. (2002). A hazardous profession: War, journalism, and psychopathology. American Journal of Psychiatry, 159, 1570-1576.

Greenberg, N., Thomas, S., Murphy, D., & Dandeker, C. (2007). Occupational stress and job satisfaction in media personnel assigned to the Iraq War: A qualitative study. Journalism Practice, 1(3), 356-371.

Hatanaka, M., Matsui, Y., Ando, K., Inoue, K., Fukuoka, Y., Koshiro, E., & Itamura, H. (2010). Traumatic stress in Japanese broadcast journalists. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 23, 173-177.

Marais, A. & Stuart, A. (2005). The role of temperament in the development of post- traumatic stress disorder amongst journalists. South African Journal of Psychology, 35, 89-105.

McMahon, C. (2001). Covering disaster: A pilot study into secondary trauma for print media journalists reporting on disaster. Australian Journal of Emergency Management, 16, 52-56.

Morales, R. F., Perez, V. R., & Martinez, L. (2014). The psychological impact of the war against drug-trafficking on Mexican journalists. Revista Colombiana de Psicología, 23, 177-193.

Morales, R. F., Perez, V. R., & Martinez, L. (2012). Posttraumatic stress symptoms in Mexican journalists covering the drug war. Suma Psicológica, 19, 7-17.

Nelson, S. (2011). Emotional intelligence as a predictor of occupational functioning and probable posttraumatic stress disorder in American journalists.  Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Tulsa, Oklahoma.

Newman, E., Simpson, R. & Handschuh, D. (2003) Trauma exposure and post-traumatic stress disorder among photojournalists. Visual Communication Quarterly, 10, 4-13.

Novak, R. J., & Davidson, S. (2013). Journalists reporting on hazardous events: Constructing protective factors within the professional role. Traumatology, 1, 1-10. 

Parker, K. (2015). Aggression against journalists: Understanding occupational intimidation of journalists using comparisons with sexual harassment.  Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Tulsa, Oklahoma.

Pyevich, C., Newman, E., & Daleiden, E. (2003). The relationship among cognitive schemas, job-related traumatic exposure, and posttraumatic stress disorder in journalists. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 16, 325-328.

Simpson, R. & Boggs, J. (1999). An exploratory study of traumatic stress among newspaper journalists. Journalism and Communication Monographs, 1,  1-24.

Smith, R. (2008). Trauma and journalism: Exploring a model of risk and resilience. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Tulsa, Oklahoma.

Teegen, F. & Grotwinkel, M. (2001). Traumatic exposure and post-traumatic stress disorder of journalists: An internet-based study. Psychotherapeut, 46, 169-175.

Weidmann, A., Fehm, L., & Fydrich, T. (2008). Covering the tsunami disaster: Subsuquent post-traumatic and depressive symptoms and associated social factors. Stress and Health, 24, 129-135.

Weidmann, A., & Papsdorf, J. (2010). Witnessing trauma in the newsroom: Posttraumatic symptoms in television journalists exposed to violent news clips. The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, 198, 264-271. 

 

Originally published; July, 2009. Updated by Susan Drevo; May 2016