Eight out of ten Korean journalists report work-related trauma
Eight years after the 2014 Sewol Ferry disaster that claimed the lives of 304 passengers, Korean journalists were asked about work-related trauma in a survey developed by the Journalists Association of Korea (JAK), the Korean Women Journalists Association, the Dart Centre for Journalism and Trauma Asia Pacific (DCAP), and the Google News Initiative. The survey was completed by 544 journalists (62% male and 38% female). Eight out of ten had experienced work-related trauma, while nearly 30% said they had experienced trauma at work regularly.
Eight years after the 2014 Sewol Ferry disaster that claimed the lives of 304 passengers, Korean journalists were asked about work-related trauma in a survey developed by the Journalists Association of Korea (JAK), the Korean Women Journalists Association, the Dart Centre for Journalism and Trauma Asia Pacific (DCAP), and the Google News Initiative.
The survey was completed by 544 journalists (62% male and 38% female). Eight out of ten had experienced work-related trauma, while nearly 30% said they had experienced trauma at work regularly.
Female journalists reported slightly higher number of trauma responses, however it was clear that all journalists surveyed had been affected by work-related trauma.(female 80% vs. male 77%)
Nearly half of the journalists surveyed were living with ongoing post-traumatic stress symptoms months after the initial traumatic event, revealing the long-term impact of being exposed to trauma at work. Experiencing ongoing post-traumatic stress symptoms can also lead to mental health injury including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
This finding is not a one-off. Previous research by the Sookmyung University School of Communication and Media in 2014 and 2015 identified that 46% of journalists who covered the Sewol Ferry disaster went on to experience PTSD; 25% still had PTSD six months after the event.
Direct exposure at the scene of the disaster, online harassment, and lack of appropriate organizational support influenced post-traumatic stress. Developing a strong rapport with survivors of the disaster was also a key factor.
Broadcast reporters were most likely to be traumatized, however, wire, newspaper, internet, and magazine reporters all reported high levels of work-related trauma exposure. Video journalists were exposed to trauma more frequently than pen and editing reporters.
The type of story matters
We also noticed some unique characteristics of Korean journalists. While reporters generally find interviewing victims’ families and survivors as the most difficult as is reporting on child abuse. Additionally, suicide, disasters similar to Sewol Ferry and sexual assault were particularly difficult for Korean journalists, highlighting the need for media organizations to be aware that journalists covering certain stories might be more affected, and we have to be more sensitive in allocating the rotation of journalists and appropriately support staff covering these types of events.
Mid-career journalists with 11-15 years of experience felt traumatized on the job the most. This differs from what existing international research tells us, and may be indicative of former exposure to the Sewol Ferry disaster among Korean journalists, as well as political infighting leading to serious harassment of journalists on both sides of issues.
Trauma education is important
The majority of the 544 journalists who completed the survey had never had any former training or education related to trauma. Given our advancing understanding of the traumatic impact of working as a journalist, and the importance of providing a psychologically safe workplace, this figure is very concerning.
When they had been traumatized, journalists involved in this research distanced themselves from work or turned to their colleagues for support. This confirms the importance of peer support and the sharing of lived experience in coping with trauma. While the idea of a peer support system is unfamiliar in Korea, these results indicate a shift in thinking and a growing acknowledgment of the important role it plays in supporting mental health.
Avoidance coping strategies such as drinking and drug-taking were reported by some 40% of respondents; this is particularly concerning when we consider the lack of support-seeking behavior demonstrated. Less than 10% had sought support outside of the work environment and even fewer (3%) had utilized support services provided by their organization. It is unclear what influenced this lack of engagement with formal support, however current evidence suggests that to be effective, support needs to be offered in a range of formats that both reach in proactively to staff as well as encourage them to reach out for help when in crisis.
An online threat
As online harassment of journalists becomes more frequent, the survey gauged how many respondents had experienced online abuse. Nearly 80% said they had been attacked or trolled online. The most prominent form of online abuse was the use of comments on publicly available stories. Three out of four journalists surveyed said they have been ridiculed and insulted and nearly 20% had experienced persistent harassment.
Most of the reported online harassment lasted for less than a month, however, 31 journalists had been trolled and abused for up to six months, 11 experienced harassments for twelve months and 14 reported long-term harassment of up to ten years.
Despite the growing threat of online harassment, nearly half of all journalists who experienced ongoing abuse or trolling had not reported this to their organization. Even when they did, the support provided was not always seen as adequate or appropriate, with 22% noting a lack of suitable assistance.
A need for change
Of the total of 544 respondents, the overwhelming majority were ready for systemic change related to trauma support. There was also a positive lack of reported stigma, with 92% of respondents willing to help a colleague who was struggling.
The results of this survey are very valuable. They provide the first official data on how Korean journalists experience work-related trauma. These findings provide the basis for organizational change when it comes to supporting staff following trauma exposure.
A task force has been established in response to these results to make recommendations and guidelines for supporting journalists and providing trauma-informed education. This will be an important step forward in mitigating the impact of trauma exposure on Korean journalists and the beginning of real and systemic change in newsroom culture.
After all, healthy journalists will produce healthy journalism. So these findings are not just an inconsequential survey, they lay the foundation for better trauma-informed journalism in Korean Society.