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(Photo: KieferPix/Shutterstock)

Journalists Can Get PTSD Without Leaving Their Desks

• August 15, 2014 • 6:14 AM

(Photo: KieferPix/Shutterstock)

Dealing with violent content takes a heavy toll on some reporters.

Everyone who has been to journalism school knows this phrase: “If it bleeds, it leads.” It’s pretty self-explanatory, and it’s why front pages and TV screens are filled with violence and gore.

“The unremitting flow of this material coupled with the longevity of certain conflicts means that some journalists have frequent and prolonged exposure to deeply disturbing images.”

Granted, the concept is taught to budding reporters in sort of a derisive way. But once they hit real-world newsrooms and have bosses who are publishers or producers, it becomes clear (to some of them, at least) that the stories they need to push forth are the rubberneckers, the ones that get the eyeballs and the ratings—and that means lots of bloody drama.

There’s plenty of analysis and hand-wringing about what this means for society—that audiences demand violence and that the media supplies it—but no one has ever really looked at what it does to journalists. So psychiatrists at the University of Toronto decided to study whether reporters’ mental health suffers because of their exposure to graphic, uncensored videos and images.

If what makes it onto mainstream media channels seems vicious, then what reporters see is even more intense. User-generated content, especially—which the researchers define as photos and videos that members of the public send to news organizations—is often extremely violent. Journalists often watch this raw footage to figure out which parts of it are suitable to broadcast.

As the study (published last week in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine) says: “The unremitting flow of this material coupled with the longevity of certain conflicts means that some journalists have frequent and prolonged exposure to deeply disturbing images.”

Researchers worked with three international news organizations—they didn’t specify which ones—to gather a list of 116 journalists who deal with violent content. They sent those journalists an online survey that asked questions about their work and mental health; 80 percent responded. After analyzing the answers to their questionnaire, the researchers determined that the more frequently a journalist watches violent content, the more likely that journalist is to have anxiety, depression, PTSD, or alcoholism.

Related research, it’s worth noting, has implied that the more people—especially children—saw of the TV coverage of the 9/11 attacks, the more at risk they were for having trauma. Additionally, those who cover wars are nearly as vulnerable to PTSD as those who fight in them.

Anthony Feinstein, a neuropsychiatrist with a particular interest in combat correspondents, says that this new study was motivated by his “concerns that sitting all day in front of multiple TV monitors watching news, in real time, of horrendous violence, could prove emotionally upsetting for some.”

He wasn’t surprised by his study’s results but makes sure to emphasize that the majority of journalists are not distressed. “It is a very small number who develop depressive and PTSD symptoms from this kind of work,” he says. “The challenge for news organizations is to detect who the few journalists are and offer assistance.”


Rosie Spinks contributed reporting. 

Avital Andrews
Avital Andrews writes about thought leaders, environmental issues, food, and travel. She also reports for Sierra, the Los Angeles Times, and the Huffington Post. Follow her on Twitter at @avitalb.

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