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Reporting Under Fire: Understanding Psychopathology of War Journalists

Reporting Under Fire: Understanding Psychopathology of War Journalists

Psychiatric Times April 2005
Issue 4

War journalism can be a hazardous profession. The current conflict in Iraq has seen over 40 journalists lose their lives, while others have gone missing (International News Safety Institute, 2004). There is nothing new in this. Phillip P. Knightley (1975), in his history of war correspondents, noted that danger is ubiquitous and that many of the profession's finest have died in zones of conflict. Reporters Without Borders (<www.rsf.org>), an organization that keeps an eye on journalism safety, has a monthly bulletin in which a list is published recording the number of journalists killed, wounded or under arrest.

Given these facts, it is surprising that until recently, no research was directed at exploring the psychological health of war journalists. This dearth of information contrasts with a plethora of studies investigating how combat veterans (e.g., Lee et al., 1995), police officers (e.g., Robinson et al., 1997), firefighters (e.g., Turner et al., 1995) or accident survivors (Epstein et al., 1998)--among many others--have dealt psychologically with trauma.

Evidence that journalists are indeed affected by work in war zones can be found in the rich genre of the war memoir. Tim Page, who made his mark as a photographer in Vietnam has written of his suicide attempt (Page, 1988); Anthony Loyd has documented in painful detail his battle with substance abuse (Loyd, 1999); Greg Marinovich has written of his considerable psychological distress in the early 1990s as he photographed township violence in the run-up to South Africa's first multiracial elections (Marinovich and Silva, 2000). These are but three examples illustrating how war and danger may adversely affect the emotional lives of those who record conflict in word and picture.

Nature of Distress

Over the past four years, we have undertaken a series of studies to address the deficiencies in this literature. Our first study was an attempt to elicit the prevalence and nature of psychological distress in journalists who define their career by work in war zones (Feinstein et al., 2002). A list of 170 journalists from organizations such as CNN, the British Broadcasting Corp., Reuters, the Associated Press and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation was obtained. Of this group, 140 (80%) agreed to participate. To control for the generic stressors of journalism, such as pressures attendant on timelines and obtaining the "scoop," a group of domestic journalists who had never been to war zones were also studied. Whereas the war group listed Bosnia, Rwanda, Chechnya, Iraq, Israel, Congo, Sierra Leone, Indonesia, Somalia, Ethiopia and Afghanistan as their work environments, the domestic journalists had confined themselves to local reporting in areas unscathed by war. Both groups of journalists had been in the profession for approximately 15 years.


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