The trauma of war reporting
Two months after British photojournalist Tim Hetherington was killed on assignment in Libya last spring, fellow war journalist and friend Sebastian Junger announced he was quitting war reporting.
Hetherington’s death — just months after he walked Hollywood’s red carpet as co-director of the Oscar-nominated documentary Restrepo — was a chilling reminder of the enormous risk taken by war journalists. For Junger, it was enough to retreat from the front lines.
“Tim’s death made war reporting feel like a selfish endeavour,” he told the Los Angeles Times. “I don’t want to put my wife through what I went through with Tim.”
More than 880 journalists have been killed since 1992, about 300 of them while covering war, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. For correspondents who make it home alive, the trauma associated with conflict reporting — kidnapping, torture and severe injury among them — can take a lasting psychological toll.
It’s the subject of Under Fire: Journalists in Combat, a new Oscar-shortlisted documentary produced by Canadian director Martyn Burke. The film, which interviews Star reporter Paul Watson and has Star national security reporter Michelle Shephard as associate producer, explores the impact of war coverage on reporters and photographers.
It features the work of University of Toronto psychiatrist Dr. Anthony Feinstein, a leading authority on post-traumatic stress disorder in journalists. Feinstein stumbled on the issue a decade ago when a woman walked into his office with a perplexing case. Weeks earlier, she went to hospital with intermittent stroke-like symptoms. After a string of tests came back normal, doctors referred her to Feinstein.
He soon discovered the source of the symptoms: the woman had spent a decade reporting on traumatic events around the world. Her cameraman had recently been killed while they were on assignment together.
“It was the first eye-opener for me. . . . I didn’t know how extraordinarily dangerous their work was,” Feinstein said.
At the time, little research existed on the psychological effects of conflict coverage on journalists. The machismo attitude within the field often meant psychological problems went ignored and undetected, Feinstein said.
“There was a view on the part of news bosses that ‘If you can’t manage this work, we will find someone else.’”
In the last decade, Feinstein has interviewed hundreds of front-line journalists and found that conflict reporters have higher rates of PTSD, anxiety and depression than the general population.
“It’s absolutely ridiculous to say you do this and aren’t affected. It does have an effect on you mentally,” said Christina Lamb, an award-winning Sunday Times foreign correspondent featured in Under Fire.
Lamb, abducted twice by Pakistan’s spy agency and witness to atrocities in Zimbabwe under President Robert Mugabe, said she never sought professional help after traumatic assignments.
Instead, she developed self-coping strategies, such as keeping contact with a mentor who understands the hazards of war reporting. The birth of son Lourenco 12 years ago helped her readjust to home life. “When I come back, I switch to become a mom, taking him to soccer . . . it makes a huge difference.”
“I don’t like making a big deal out of what I’m suffering,” said Star war correspondent Paul Watson, who shot the Pulitzer Prize-winning photo of a dead American soldier being dragged by a Somali mob in 1993 and has suffered emotionally as a result of his work.
“I’m more concerned about the innocent people, those who didn’t choose to be in conflicts, and who now suffer mentally and physically because of the nightmare imposed on them.”
From his Sunnybrook Health Sciences office, Feinstein helps war reporters work through “distorted thinking” — for example, using cognitive behavioural techniques to help photojournalists understand why they feel guilty about taking photos in conflict zones.
His treatment includes prescriptions to those who are depressed, partner therapy for those going through relationship problems and psycho-education — encouraging lifestyle changes, such as reducing alcohol consumption and increasing exercise to reduce stress.
To reach out to journalists living and working abroad, Feinstein launched a self-testing websitein 2007 that provides journalists with a questionnaire to assess their emotional health — and seek treatment if needed. Journalists in more than 50 countries have completed the test, including many from the Middle East during the Arab Spring.
“The feedback has been wonderful,” he said.
Though individual journalists’ reasons for returning to war zones are complex, Feinstein said many carry genetic traits that predispose them to the dangerous lifestyle.
“There’s a real biological underpinning to this profession. Biochemistry allows them to do this, to go back and function in such a dangerous place.”
A number of years ago, Feinstein and a group of University of Toronto researchers studied a pair of 49-year-old identical female twins — one was a war correspondent and the other an office manager in a law firm.
After a series of tests, researchers found that the women, though genetically identical, had biological differences that made one prone to a more risks than the other. The “war twin” was less likely to develop anxiety, which could explain why she chose a riskier profession.
But for Watson, the motivations behind his return trips to war zones are less clear-cut.
“In my early years of covering conflicts, I wanted to be there. Now I only feel a need to be there, both for complex psychological reasons and to do what little good I think a journalist can achieve in a world where, for millions of people, war has become another form of entertainment, even a means of feeling morally superior in the case of so-called humanitarian intervention.”
Many major media organizations fund specialized “hostile-environment” training courses for journalists before they travel to war zones. The courses, mostly offered by private firms, teach journalists how to listen for the trajectory of bullets, emergency first aid skills and best practices in riot coverage, for example.
But the stigma attached to psychological issues within the field has not disappeared.
“There’s a reluctance to just talk honestly about conflict reporting, the mental hardships, or why some journalists get addicted to it,” said the Star’s Shephard.
“Just because you develop these symptoms doesn’t make you a lesser journalist,” Feinstein said.
In 2008, one of Lamb’s colleagues hanged himself while on assignment in Zimbabwe. His death marked a turning point at the Times. “I made an issue of it and we did have a meeting with the foreign correspondents,” Lamb recalled.
“It’s not that people should stop doing this kind of work. It’s that you need to know better how to protect yourself. It’s like inoculating yourself against diseases before you travel.