Predictors of psychological distress in frontline journalists
Dr Anthony Feinstein, Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Toronto, recently published an academic article about the predictors of psychological distress in frontline journalists. The article, authored by Dr Feinstein and his colleague Jonas Osmann, analyses 1,103 frontline journalists who've covered several conflicts from 2000 to 2022.
The authors conclude that news organisations have a moral obligation to care for journalists sent into harm's way. "The identification of risk factors for symptoms of PTSD and depression common to journalists irrespective of the nature of the conflict covered, degree of exposure to conflict, and differences in language and culture is an important step in promoting this duty of care," they write.
In this seminar Dr. Feinstein will unpack the details of this piece of research and Colombian journalist Laura Dulce Romero, an alumna from our Journalist Fellowship Programme and the author of this project on solutions journalism, will discuss whether new journalistic formats can offer a practical solution for those who are most at risk.
Laura is an editor and multimedia journalist from Bogotá who has covered armed conflict, transitional justice, human rights and reconciliation in Colombia. Most of her work has been published in El Espectador, the second largest daily national newspaper.
Why psychological distress in journalists matters:
- The COVID-19 pandemic has brought to light the mental health challenges journalists are facing. A 2020 study led by Dr. Anthony Feinstein and our former Director of the Journalist Fellowship Programme Meera Selva found that a significant number of journalists who were at the time reporting on COVID-19 showed signs of anxiety and depression.
- Mental health continues to be one of the biggest challenges for journalists. In 2022, over 60% of media professionals in various countries, including Canada, Spain, and Ecuador, reported experiencing elevated levels of anxiety.
- According to Professor Feinstein’s research, journalists covering war and conflict had significantly more symptoms of PTSD, depression and anxiety.
Four lessons from the talk and discussion:
1. Take into account risk factors. Before journalists start covering a traumatic event or topic, they should be aware of the risk and protective factors. If you are a woman or have a history of mental illness, for example, you are more likely to experience symptoms of PTSD. By being aware of risks, newsrooms and journalists can take precautions to minimise the impact of these symptoms. However, Dr. Feinstein pointed out that the biggest protective factor is having good relationships. “Relationships help our mental health, they are buffers to mental distress,” he said. “If you’ve got a good relationship that you come home to at the end of a long day at the office or a difficult day reporting on trauma, this is protective for your mental wellbeing.”
2. Newsrooms must support their journalists. While conversations on journalism and mental health are becoming more prominent, particularly after the COVID-19 pandemic, journalists are still reticent in asking for help. “In journalism, it's very normal to endure long hours, hear very painful stories, and be ready for everything,” said Romero. “I didn't say very loudly that I needed help and I think it's because inside me there was a fear of being singled out as a weak or bad reporter.”
While journalists should ask for help, newsrooms have to foster an environment that encourages journalists to ask for support while also investing in wellbeing for their employees. “We did a study during the pandemic and it showed very clearly that if you put therapy in place, the journalists who get therapy do better than the journalists who don't,” said Dr. Feinstein.
3. Embrace solutions journalism. Romero encourages journalists to look into embracing solutions journalism as a practical approach to reduce moral injury. “I saw [solutions journalism] as an exit for me to stop the intoxication that I had even as a journalist: we get sick and very overwhelmed about the mountain before us.” She defines solutions journalism as a mode of reporting where journalists investigate and explore solutions that people or communities or organisations have developed and implemented to solve their problems rather than simply reporting on them.
4. Check on your colleagues. Journalists should provide support to their colleagues who are assigned to report on difficult subjects or in dangerous conflicts. “There can be a great esprit de corps of those frontline journalists that they can support one another and provide moral and emotional support to one another which is very important,” says Dr Feinstein.
He also highlights that beyond collegial camaraderie, newsrooms also have to constantly check on those journalists not only for their wellbeing but also because of their reporting. “If you've got a journalist on the front line who is not doing well, you're going to end up with journalism that has been compromised because people develop mental health symptoms, and they have to make important judgement calls,” he said.
The bottom line
News organisations have a moral obligation to care for journalists, particularly those that are assigned to report on distressing subjects or sent to cover conflict areas. Certain journalists, like women and those with a history of mental health issues, are more vulnerable to PTSD symptoms and understanding those risk factors can lead to implementing effective protective measures. Finally, newsrooms should be acutely aware that for good journalism to be produced, they need healthy journalists