Distressing Dispatches: Some journalists feel stress wounds of war

War reporters and photographers risk their lives in horrifying situations to relay news of violent conflicts. Most remain emotionally balanced while covering one bloody struggle after another, but a substantial and largely unnoticed minority develops symptoms of a severe stress reaction as a result of the job, a new study finds.

About one-quarter of war journalists experience this condition, known as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), estimates psychiatrist Anthony Feinstein of the University of Toronto. In most cases, symptoms of the ailment, including unwanted memories of violent events, startle reactions to sudden noises, and troubled relationships, first appear after a person launches a career in war coverage, Feinstein and his colleagues report in the September American Journal of Psychiatry. War journalists also suffer more than their share of major depression.

“If our results are replicated, they should alert news organizations that significant psychological distress may occur in many war journalists and often goes untreated,” Feinstein says.

In their study, Feinstein and his coworkers administered questionnaires to 140 war journalists working for any of six major news organizations, including CNN, the BBC, and the Associated Press. The sample included 30 women and 30 freelancers. Participants had spent an average of 15 years reporting on conflicts throughout the world.

The researchers then selected 28 war journalists at random for in-depth psychiatric interviews. The reporters’ experiences included being shot at, suffering gunshot wounds, working on assignments during which a close colleague was killed, and being subjected to mock executions.

Another 107 journalists who had never covered a war but who sometimes reported on violent events, also completed questionnaires. In this group 19 were randomly chosen for interviews.

War correspondents reported substantially more past and current symptoms of PTSD and depression than the comparison group did. Eight of the 28 journalists who were interviewed had suffered from PTSD and six, from major depression at some time. Only one of the journalists with each of these diagnoses had experienced symptoms prior to covering wars.

No one in the comparison group had ever suffered from PTSD. One had experienced major depression.

Male war journalists reported drinking twice as much alcohol as the males in the comparison group did. For females, war correspondents imbibed three times as much as their comparison-group peers. In both sexes, heavy alcohol use typically fell short of alcoholism. This behavior partly reflects an attempt to numb PTSD symptoms, Feinstein suggests.

Although war journalists with PTSD encountered pervasive social problems and an inability to adjust to life outside war zones, few have received psychological treatment of any kind. However, Feinstein notes, many news organizations have instituted confidential counseling services in the past few years.

The new findings illustrate that war correspondents are poorly served by the traditional assumption in journalism that “you take care of yourself, no one else can,” comments Roger Simpson, director of the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma at the University of Washington, Seattle.


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Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.