Journalists who have
Smyth is a freelance journalist who has covered conflicts in Africa
and Latin America. Smyth's work has been published in The
Christian Science Monitor, The
Washington Post, and The
New York Times. Smyth was covering Kurdish rebels in Iraq in 1991
when they were overtaken by Iraqi troops. The photographer and translator
he was traveling with were shot point-blank. Smyth, who was captured shortly
afterwards, was accused by the Iraqi military of being a CIA spy and was held
for 18 days. After his ordeal, Smyth developed PTSD, and remains keenly aware
of the risks involved with war reporting and interviewing trauma victims.
He believes that reporters should approach victims with empathy and consideration.
"[Survivors] have a right not to speak and they may need time to collect themselves,"
he said. "Most people, however, will talk, as survivors often want people
to know their story."
Smyth flatly rejects the notion that showing empathy to
victims will somehow compromise a reporter's detached objectivity. Rather,
he believes it will allow the journalist to better communicate the victim's
pain to the reader. "Empathy is the way most journalists compel anyone
to open up and talk, and having empathy for survivors of trauma is not
only appropriate, it is the only fair way, in my mind, to approach them,"
he said. "Empathy with their pain, however, should not translate into
you assuming their cause, if they have one."
Reporters' psychological reaction to witnessing violence,
suffering, and bloodshed has only recently begun to be discussed in
the profession. Research has been done on the psychological effects
of trauma on war veterans, police officers, survivors of motor vehicle
accidents, and rape victims, but until recently, no studies have examined
the effects of trauma on war reporters.
Dr. Anthony Feinstein, an associate professor of psychiatry
at the University of Toronto, has completed a study
of the prevalence of PTSD in war correspondents, commissioned by The
Freedom Forum. A group of 140 war reporters participated in the
study. Seventy percent of the reporters in the study had worked in Bosnia.
Other conflicts covered included Rwanda, Chechnya, Sierra Leone, Indonesia,
Ethiopia and Somalia. Feinstein found that war reporters were more likely
to have symptoms of PTSD and depression than journalists in the non-war
reporter control group. The prevalence rate for PTSD in war journalists
was 28 percent. To put the results in perspective, the study notes that
the rates of PTSD in traumatized police officers is 7-13 percent, and
veterans have a rate of approximately 30 percent, depending on their
exposure to combat. War reporters were also more likely to have substance
abuse problems than their other colleagues.
Simpson, the director of the Dart
Center, attributes the reluctance to talk about PTSD in the journalism
profession to what he calls the "culture of journalism": a combination
of reporters' desire to be objective and uninvolved emotionally, some
machismo, and the fear of editors' reprisal if a reporter admits to
having a problem. Simpson reports that after the 1995 bombing of the
federal office building in Oklahoma City and the spate of high school
shootings in the United States, some reporters began to discuss their
difficulties in covering those stories.
"It's really brought a lot of reporters out of the closet,
in a way, in terms of being willing to acknowledge that they had emotional
reactions to the events," he said. In 2000 a new organization, Newscoverage
Unlimited, was formed to assist journalists in dealing with post-traumatic
stress disorder. Its website contains useful information for journalists
regarding the identification of the syndrome, and seeks to help newsrooms
devise humane and practical responses.
Some news organizations have taken the initiative to acknowledge
and alleviate the stress associated with trauma. The BBC
and The New York Times
have counseling programs available to reporters to "debrief" them upon
returning from a conflict. In 1995 the Daily Oklahoman brought a team
of counselors to their newsroom to help reporters deal with the aftermath.
But Simpson warns that if counseling is not made mandatory by a reporter's
news organization, than he or she might skip it, even though it's available,
for fear of showing weakness. Still, Simpson is hopeful that attitudes
about reporters needing help are changing for the better. "I think there's
some recognition that it isn't extraordinary to be affected," he said.
"It's not necessarily a condition that means a reporter can't do that
kind of work. It just means that there may need to be some other kinds
of support for him or her."
Reporters like Smyth, who has gone on the record about
his suffering from PTSD, have helped to de-stigmatize the topic in the
profession. Smyth, who now works as the Washington, D.C., representative
for Committee to Protect
Journalists, says it is important for reporters to understand the
effects of trauma not only on the people they cover, but also on themselves.
"Journalists need to give themselves the opportunity to process the
impact of other people's suffering on them," he said. "They need to
give themselves the chance to cry."
For more information:
and the Media Program: Michigan State University School of Journalism
Society for Traumatic Stress Studies
Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) Alliance