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.
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 the extant research regarding the types of events journalists are exposed to, the impact of covering these events, and 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 86%-100% of journalists have witnessed a work-related traumatic event while covering the news (e.g., Smith, R., 2008; Teegen & Grotwinkel, 2001).
These events typically include:
How Journalists are Affected
Most journalists exhibit resilience despite repeated exposure to work-related traumatic events. This is evidenced by 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, R. 2008).
Research suggests that rates of possible PTSD range between 4.3%-28%.
Rates of depression range from less than 1%-21% (Weidmann, Fehm & Fydrich, 2008; Feinstein, Owen, & Blair, 2003).
The rate of substance abuse has only been examined among war correspondents and was found to be 14% (Feinstein et al., 2003).
Rates of PTSD Among Journalists
Feinstein et al., 2003
160 war correspondents
Teegen & Grotwinkel, 2001
61 U.S. & European journalists
Weidmann et al., 2008
61 European TV, radio, print journalists covering the 2004 Tsunami
Smith, R. 2008
167 U.S. print & TV journalists
Newman et al., 2003
875 U.S. photojournalists
Exposure to war (Feinstein et al., 2003; Simpson & Boggs, 1999)
Journalists embedded with troops do not appear to be at greater risk than unilateral journalists covering the war (Feinstein & Nicholson, 2005).
Exposure to a greater number of traumatic assignments (Newman et al., 2003; Pyevich et al., 2003, McMahon, 2001)
Exposure to higher intensity assignments (Smith, R., 2008)
Time in the field
Younger journalists with less experience (Teegen & Wrotwinkel, 2001)
Veteran journalists with more exposure (Simpson & Boggs, 1999)
Exposure to traumatic events in one's personal life (Newman et al., 2003; Pyevich et al., 2003; Teegen & Wrotwinkel, 2001)
Low perceived social support (Newman et al., 2003)
Negative beliefs about self, others, & the world following trauma (Pyevich et al., 2003)
Difficulty with emotional expression (Teegen & Grotwinkel, 2001)
High perceived organizational stress (Smith, R., 2008)
Avoidant styles of coping (Smith, R., 2008)
Low perceived social acknowledgment by supervisors and colleagues (Weidmann et al., 2008)
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 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 occupational risk. Efforts to increase organizational support for those who cover traumatic events appears warranted. This may include educating journalists about the psychological risks involved in their 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. As the news room culture shifts towards increasing organizational support and decreasing organizational stressors, the likely result is reduced risk of harm, as well as greater work satisfaction and productivity among journalists.
Feinstein, A. & Nicholson, D. (2005). Embedded journalists in the Iraq war: Are they at greater psychological risk? Journal of Traumatic Stress, 18(2) 129-132.
Feinstein, A., Owen, J., & Blair, N. (2002). A hazardous profession: War, journalism, and psychopathology. American Journal of Psychiatry, 159, 1570-1576.
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.
Newman, E., Simpson, R. & Handschuh, D. (2003) Trauma exposure and post-traumatic Stress Disorder among Photojournalists. Visual Communication Quarterly. 10, 4-13.
Pyevich, C., Newman, E., & Daleiden, E. (2003). The relationship among cognitive schemas, job-related traumatic exposure, and post traumatic 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, Spring, 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.
River Smith is a postdoctoral fellow in clinical psychology for the Department of Veterans Affairs. She is a recent graduate from the University of Tulsa. Her research interests include the impact of exposure to traumatic events on individuals exposed in their line of duty, including military personnel and journalists. She currently works in primary care psychology, where a large part of her clinical activities involve the identification of veterans in need of treatment for PTSD.
Elana Newman, McFarlin Professor of Psychology at the University of Tulsa, has conducted research on a variety of topics regarding the psychological and physical response to traumatic life events, assessment of PTSD in children and adults, journalism and trauma, and understanding the impact of participating in trauma-related research from the trauma survivor's perspective.