Post-Traumatic Stress in Journalists and Reporters

Journalists are exposed to multiple situations that can trigger post-traumatic stress. The way in which they manage it on a personal level and in their work and family environments is crucial to minimize its impact.
Post-Traumatic Stress in Journalists and Reporters

Written by Elena Sanz

Last update: 07 November, 2022

When we think about the impact of a war, a natural disaster, or an attack, we tend to focus on the victims and those directly involved. We forget about the men and women who witness traumatic situations, experience really hostile environments, and put their lives at risk with the sole objective of reporting the events. However, the effect of these scenarios on their mental health can be intense. In fact, post-traumatic stress in journalists and reporters is a common reality.

Research suggests that the prevalence of post-traumatic stress disorder in war reporters is 28.6 percent. These rates are similar to those suffered by war veterans themselves.

The journalists who covered the fight against drug trafficking in Mexico present symptoms in 35 percent of cases. The photographers were even more affected than the reporters. Despite this fact, the consequences are often not recognized. Indeed, the lack of media and resources journalists have at their disposal during their coverage, and the absence of subsequent psychological care further aggravate the situation. Therefore, it’s important to focus on the complex emotional realities that these professionals face.

woman with anxiety
Journalists and war reporters who suffer from PTSD experience anxiety, insomnia, and stress.

Post-traumatic stress in journalists and reporters

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is classified as a trauma- and stress-related disorder. It’s characterized by a set of reactions that are triggered after experiencing a traumatic event. In other words, a situation that has a negative emotional impact on an individual because it threatens their physical or psychological integrity.

It’s worth mentioning that it’s the subjective interpretation that determines whether PTSD will be triggered. In other words, it depends on the degree to which the individual feels threatened. This means that the same event won’t necessarily trigger the disorder in everyone. However, there are certain situations that can be considered extremely threatening for the majority.

Trauma occurs in the face of an experience that puts an individual at risk. For example, in the case of journalists and reporters, it might be a situation of war or armed conflict. The disorder can also occur indirectly, by observing harm in others or by listening to and learning about other people’s traumatic experiences.

Journalists and reporters witness attacks, accidents, and all kinds of unnatural deaths. They interview victims and collect their testimonies and also live in highly risky personal situations. Unsurprisingly, this leaves a mark on their psyche and can have a strong impact on their mental health.

Main symptoms

The symptomatology that these professionals present when developing PTSD is the same as its diagnostic criteria:

  • They experience intrusive, distressing, and recurring memories of the trauma they experienced. These can appear in the form of flashbacks or really vivid nightmares.
  • Dissociative reactions may appear in which they feel and act as if they’re reliving the traumatic event. They may even lose awareness of their surroundings.
  • They experience intense psychological discomfort when exposed to stimuli that are reminiscent of or associated with the situation experienced. This can trigger important physiological reactions.
  • They avoid any thoughts, people, places, objects, or activities related to the experience.
  • Their emotional state is altered. Feelings of fear, guilt, shame, irritability, anger, or apathy might occur. Furthermore, they may lose interest in activities that they used to enjoy and isolate themselves from others. They might also feel detached or alienated from their environment.
  • They display hypervigilance and exaggerated startle responses.

In addition to all of the above, post-traumatic stress in journalists is often accompanied by symptoms of depression, insomnia, suicidal thoughts, and serious difficulties in returning to normal life. It’s also been reported that 15 percent of war correspondents abuse alcohol and other substances.

Man at the psychologist
PTSD affects emotional well-being as well as job performance and relationships.

Mental health prevention and care

Post-traumatic stress disorder in journalists and reporters can be really disabling, affecting not only their emotional well-being, but also their health, job performance, and personal relationships. For this reason, it’s important to raise awareness, and prevent and offer resources to minimize its impact. Some of the most significant measures include:

  • Breaking down the mental health taboo in order to facilitate access to professional help. Sadly, it’s often considered that only weak reporters are affected by what they’ve experienced and that toughness and objectivity are qualities of a good professional. However, in reality, post-traumatic reactions are common and only to be expected.
  • Education concerning the disorder and its symptoms so that identification is easier. As symptoms can take time to appear, it’s not always understood what specific event triggered the trauma or the fact that there are effective treatments available.
  • Minimizing exposure to trauma is important as a form of self-care. If it’s detected that the job itself is beginning to affect their mental health, they should set specific boundaries. For instance, not exposing themselves excessively to certain details, testimonials, or events and stopping when necessary.
  • The promotion of emotional expression and support from the environment. Given that they’re in positions of great vulnerability, it’s important that journalists and reporters have regular contact with people close to them. They can provide support and encourage them to express how they feel about their experiences.

Professional help

If exposures to these traumatic situations begin to affect journalists’ emotional health or private lives, it’s of paramount importance that they seek professional help. Obviously, having support from their work and family environment can be a protective factor. However, psychological intervention is always essential in cases where the disorder is already apparent.

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  • American Psychiatric Association – APA. (2014). Manual diagnóstico y estadístico de los trastornos mentales DSM-5 (5a. ed. –.). Madrid: Editorial Médica Panamericana.
  • Feinstein, A., Owen, J., & Blair, N. (2002). A hazardous profession: war, journalists, and psychopathology. American journal of psychiatry159(9), 1570-1575.
  • Flores Morales, R., Reyes Pérez, V., & Reidl Martínez, L. M. (2012). Síntomas de estrés postraumático (EPT) en periodistas mexicanos que cubren la guerra contra el narcotráfico. Suma Psicológica19(1), 7-17.