Study Sheds Light on Psychological Effects of Covering Trauma

In the aftermath of the 2011 Utoya shooting massacre in Norway, journalist and researcher Trond Idås teamed with researcher Klas Backholm on a study that found that journalists who felt that their reporting may have caused harm were at higher risk for PTSD.

Backholm and Idas, who serve as Dart Center advisers in Scandinavia, surveyed 457 journalists eight months after the incident to better understand how covering Norways's largest peacetime terror attack, and the work-related guilt that followed, contributed to the development of posttraumatic stress reactions. In results published in the most recent issue Journal of Traumatic Stress Studies, they found that ethical dilemmas — part of the practical reality for journalists on assignment — led to subsequent guilt and were related to more severe postraumatic stress reactions.

Due partly to the tragedy taking place during the summer, on July 22, a staggering 23 percent of the journalists on the scene were summer interns; 40 percent had less than five years of reporting experience.

During the shooting, which left 69 dead, some journalists had called the cellphones of students trapped inside the Norwegian political camp that the gunman, Anders Behring Breivik, had targeted, in order to find out what was happening inside. It was later determined that Breivik had used the cellphone rings to track victims who were hiding.

Journalists, Idås says, “are not there to help anyone,” which “runs against the ethical and moral dilemmas as a human being,” especially when others on the scene are likely first responders or police who are there to help.

Backholm and Idås concluded that having organizations set standards for emergency reporting ahead of a catastrophe can help reduce the intensity of stress responses.

Read more about Dart Center fellows discussing media coverage of the Utoya shootings here. And click here for a report from the Finnish-Swedish publisher's association seminar on covering tragedy following Utoya