Journalists covering the Türkiye-Syria earthquake may face moral injury

When journalists capture images and share the stories of traumatised survivors of the Türkiye-Syria earthquake they face a moral dilemma: Should they put down their notebook or camera and offer to help? It seems like an obvious choice; what kind of person doesn’t want to help someone who is suffering? But journalists have a job to do, and it’s a different job to doctors and rescue workers. 

When journalists capture images and share the stories of traumatised survivors of the Türkiye-Syria earthquake they face a moral dilemma: Should they put down their notebook or camera and offer to help?

It seems like an obvious choice; what kind of person doesn’t want to help someone who is suffering? But journalists have a job to do, and it’s a different job to doctors and rescue workers. They are trained to bear witness and remain objective and impartial. They aren’t there to render first aid or move bodies.

But does that leave journalists feeling either helpless for not helping or, worse, cruel for watching while others are in pain?  What happens when the assignment is over? How do they process the trauma they have been exposed to?

We understand the relationship between post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and frontline reporting, but in the case of the Türkiye-Syria earthquake, we need to better understand the impact that a less well-understood condition – moral injury – might have.

Moral injury is poorly understood

Anthony Feinstein is a professor of psychiatry at the University of Toronto and a leading expert on the trauma faced by journalists. He tells us that awareness of emotional trauma is growing within newsrooms, but moral injury is overlooked and poorly understood.

“It has taken news organisations two decades to appreciate how a condition like PTSD can bring down a journalist. While awareness of emotional trauma in the newsroom is growing, the progress is uneven. One area that is poorly understood and therefore overlooked is moral injury. While this is not a mental illness, like PTSD for example, it is associated with feelings of shame, guilt and anger and can profoundly alter the way journalists view themselves and their profession. It can also become the conduit to clinically significant depression, PTSD, and substance abuse,” Feinstein tells us.

It's something that ABC Australia’s Lisa Millar understands all too well. Standing among the rubble of what was left of the small Italian village of Amatrice following the 2016 earthquake, she could see people on every corner of the historic town, some crying, most appearing to be utterly shocked and bereaved.

Days later, as she sat in a seat towards the back of a plane, she paused.

“I looked around, there were no cabin dividers so I could see all the passengers on board. It suddenly hit me; more people had died in that small village than were on the plane,” she tells us.

With ash still in her hair, she cried as the plane took off. “It was difficult to reconcile that I could leave, while the local villagers had no escape,” Millar says.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Nearly nine years after the Sewol ferry disaster took the lives of 304 people, including 250 South Korean students, Chong-ae Lee, an editor at the Seoul Broadcasting System (SBS), is still contemplating the lessons the tragedy caused.

Following coverage of the disaster, public criticism was levelled at the Korean media for reporting misinformation; on the morning of the ferry sinking, television networks shared information that all 325 high school students on board had been successfully rescued – this would prove to be devastatingly false.

Journalists also came under fire for intruding on the grieving families of victims, misidentifying themselves to get quotes, and taking pictures without permission. Pressured by senior staff to interview the bereaved, many young journalists were verbally and physically attacked by angry family members.

“We need to ask ourselves whether that kind of journalism and competition to interview the bereaved while surrounded by cameras was necessary at a time when grieving family members were in shock." Lee says.

Many of the younger journalists were traumatised by what they were asked to do that day. The guilt and shame they felt resulted in moral injury. “They felt responsible for exacerbating the pain and suffering of the survivors and the bereaved families,” Lee told us.

Local journalists uniquely at risk

Hannah Storm, founder of Headlines Network and former CEO of the International News Safety Institute, fears there’s a real risk of moral injury to journalists covering the Türkiye-Syria earthquake, particularly for local journalists who may not have the support of editors in spotlighting their work in a way that will bring further aid and assistance to the people.

They may genuinely expect more from their own countries, peers, and fellow citizens in the way they have responded to the humanitarian crisis. They may also be covering their own communities, which always brings an added layer of complexity.

“They have a desire and sense of responsibility to share the reality of what’s happening in their community with the wider world,” says Storm, “but there will come a time when the wider world moves on, when the story drops from the headlines even though people are still suffering terribly, and that can bring a great deal of frustration which can lead to moral injury,” she says.

Key to mitigating the risk of moral injury is having a clear sense of purpose, strong connection with our peers, and feeling supported by managers in the newsroom. Perceived lack of organisational support can be just as – if not more debilitating – than the initial trauma exposure.

“We know that speaking with peers helps, as does having an opportunity to take breaks both during – and after – the coverage of traumatic stories. We also know how hard it can be to take ourselves away from a story that has become so important to us, so it’s important for managers to ensure journalists know they are supported and valued and that taking time to rest and recover, and perhaps cover another type of story, is not a sign of weakness,” says Storm.

Group of people standing amongst rubble of destroyed buildings

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Dart Centre Asia Pacific project lead and experienced journalist Amantha Perera understands the unique impact of covering traumatic stories in his own community; he covered war in his own country of Sri Lanka for over a decade.

“It was my daily beat. I witnessed terrible suffering inflicted on other humans by their own. But I thought I was bullet-proof,” Perera told us.

When a close colleague of Perera’s was shot dead, he felt scared, anxious, and weak. “That’s when I realised my moral boundary had been breached. The journey back from that vulnerability to psychological safety was hard, it took me nearly ten years. Understanding moral injury can help us avoid this,” he said.

Assessing moral injury

The recent publication of a Moral Injury Scale for Journalists is ground-breaking progress, providing a new scientific assessment tool to detect and understand moral injury in journalists. Consisting of a peer-reviewed scale of nine items, the simple-to-use self-report scale will be made freely available to media organisations and journalists.

“It has the potential to help journalists with their emotional wellbeing, while also acting as a catalyst for promoting discussion of moral injury in journalism,” says Professor Feinstein, who collaborated on the development of the tool.

Two decades ago, when evidence began to emerge of the mental health toll associated with reporting from the frontline of war and disaster, media organisations were slow to appropriately support staff who had been exposed to trauma.

“With an eye on history, we should not miss today’s opportunity to help those affected by moral injury,” Professor Feinstein told us.