Day in and day out, journalists report on complex and difficult topics — natural disasters, political violence and human suffering, for example — and often they do this work while also worrying about newsroom layoffs and the future of the industry. It takes a mental and physical toll. Below, we’ve summarized several studies that look at the effects of occupational stress on hard news reporters.
Covering trauma can generate another kind of trauma, Natalee Seely, an assistant professor of journalism at Ball State University, suggests. “Like therapists — who through the process of ‘transference’ can vicariously experience their patients’ emotional pain — reporters may also experience a type of indirect, secondary trauma through the victims they interview and the graphic scenes to which they must bear witness,” she writes in a 2019 study on the impact of covering trauma published in Newspaper Research Journal.
Seely’s research, and others’ featured below, examine the issue from a range of angles, from the U.S., to overseas, from covering natural disasters, to political violence and mass shootings, from working under a regime that is hostile to the press, to reviewing violent, user-submitted images in the newsroom.
Weathering the Storm: Occupational Stress in Journalists Who Covered Hurricane Harvey
Dworznik-Hoak, Gretchen. Journalism Studies, June 2019.
Dworznik-Hoak, a journalism professor at Kent State University, surveyed and interviewed 30 journalists who had covered Hurricane Harvey, a Category 4 storm that inundated Texas in August 2017. Respondents, who included reporters, editors, photographers, news anchors and meteorologists, worked at newspapers and television stations in the Texas cities hit hardest by Hurricane Harvey. During interviews, which occurred about two months after the hurricane, respondents were asked to reflect on their experience covering it. The interviews were analyzed for responses related to stressors and emotional responses. Participants also completed a survey that measured for symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression.
- According to the survey results, 1 in 5 respondents met the threshold for PTSD, and 90% experienced some level of PTSD symptoms related to Hurricane Harvey coverage.
- 2 in 5 respondents met the threshold for depression, and 93% experienced some symptoms of depression.
- Experiences of PTSD and depression were directly related to the hurricane, the author writes. Symptoms included disturbing memories and dreams and difficulty sleeping. Some respondents reported experiencing disruptions in their daily lives due to their psychological symptoms.
- Duration of coverage and type of stories assigned during the hurricane were the most frequently mentioned stressors. Specifically, the unpredictable schedule, and the long hours and numerous days worked without a break contributed to journalists’ stress.
- One reporter said duplicate assignments also contributed to stress levels. For example, the person’s newsroom ran repeated stories about victims cleaning out their houses: “I can see doing one of those stories a night, but there were nights where we did two or three of those,” the reporter noted. “And I feel like there were other things that maybe could have been reported.”
- Journalists also felt stress about the importance of their role during the disaster. As one reporter put it, “With most breaking news situations we’re talking about the people just being curious about what’s going on, but when you’re talking about something like a region-wide disaster, you’re talking about peoples’ actual lives. The news can potentially save someone’s life.”
- Another source of stress was a lack of experience covering hurricanes and lack of direction and preparation from newsroom managers. As one reporter described it, “It was just like, to some extent we had some guidance from editors as far as what we should be doing, but they kind of expected a lot of self-sufficiency and fending for ourselves, which I didn’t necessarily agree with.”
- Journalists also felt stress related to the emotional hardship of covering disaster victims. One photographer described an assignment at a bowling alley being used as a shelter for flood victims as “hard to see.”
- An added stress was that hometown reporters often had to navigate the disaster themselves, seeking shelter with friends because their own homes did not have power or water, for example. One reporter described the problem: “There’s no electricity. There’s no running water. And if you don’t have electricity, you can’t turn on your A/C [air conditioner], so you want to open your windows. But you can’t because there’s mosquitoes. It was just this crazy time. For us, we live in the community. So try to tell the story while going through that!”
- Journalists most commonly reported the following negative personal responses: crying and feeling overwhelmed, frustrated and guilty.
- For reporters who must cover natural disasters, the author suggests taking consistent breaks, diversifying the types of stories assigned and having a newsroom coverage plan with well-defined roles and expectations as strategies that might reduce distress.
Journalists and Mental Health: The Psychological Toll of Covering Everyday Trauma
Seely, Natalee. Newspaper Research Journal, May 2019.
This study, authored by Seely, looks at survey responses from 254 daily newspaper journalists in the U.S. plus information collected during in-depth interviews with 24 of those journalists. Journalists from 16 states — Arizona, California, Delaware, Indiana, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Missouri, New York, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Dakota, Washington, Wisconsin and West Virginia — were interviewed.
Respondents were asked about the frequency and intensity of their trauma coverage, as well as their job satisfaction and experience of personal trauma. Seely finds that as the frequency and intensity of journalists’ trauma coverage increased, so did the severity of their PTSD symptoms. Interviews revealed examples of the emotional drain, painful flashbacks, anxiety, depression, guilt and coping mechanisms employed, including crying and substance use, such as drinking alcohol. Seely suggests these findings indicate the importance of self-care, healthy coping strategies and newsroom-based strategies (such as offering trainings and professional development on crisis reporting and encouraging reporters to access mental health resources) to promote the well-being of journalists.
Witnessing Images of Extreme Violence: A Psychological Study of Journalists in the Newsroom Feinstein, Anthony; Audet, Blair; Waknine, Elizabeth. Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine Open, July 2014.
User generated content (UGC) — for instance, cell phone videos and photos obtained from members of the public — can offer a window into a breaking news event that a journalist might not be on the ground to witness themselves. News organizations are tasked with reviewing such material, which often isn’t censored, to determine its newsworthiness. That means frequent exposure to disturbing images. This study surveyed 116 journalists working with UGC in three international newsrooms. The researchers — led by Anthony Feinstein, professor of psychiatry at the University of Toronto — measured the frequency of UGC-based work and its impact on newsroom employees in terms of their mental health symptoms and alcohol consumption.
- Frequency of exposure to UGC independently predicted higher scores on mental health screenings for PTSD, depression and psychological distress.
- Duration of exposure to UGC — measured in hours per shift — was linked to higher scores for one component of the PTSD screening criteria.
- Nearly 1 in 5 respondents — 15.4% of male respondents and 17.4% of female respondents — drank to excess, meaning they drank more than 14 units of alcohol per week. Journalists’ alcohol consumption was associated with symptoms of PTSD and depression and frequency of exposure to UGC.
- The authors conclude that frequency of exposure to UGC, rather than duration of exposure, is linked to more symptoms of emotional distress. In other words, the number of shifts journalists spent looking at UGC mattered more than the length of a shift in terms of emotional impact. They suggest that news organizations might reduce the frequency of journalists’ exposure to UGC to minimize the risk of emotional harm.
The Psychological Effects of Reporting Extreme Violence: A Study of Kenyan Journalists
Feinstein, Anthony; Wanga, Justus; Owen, John. Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine Open, September 2015.
This study was co-authored by a neuropsychiatrist, a journalist and a journalism professor. It analyzes survey responses from 57 journalists at two national news organizations in Kenya. The journalists were asked about their exposure to occupational stressors such as being physically injured or offered bribes or facing pressure to drop a story. They also were asked whether they had covered either of two traumatic events in the nation’s recent past: the ethnic violence around the 2007 general election and a 2013 mass shooting at the Westgate Mall in Nairobi. The survey was administered seven years after the election violence. In addition to being interviewed, the journalists completed three questionnaires evaluating their general health andsymptoms of depression and PTSD.
The key findings:
- Two-thirds of journalists said they had been offered bribes; a similar portion had been told to drop a story.
- Nearly 20% of respondents were wounded on the job. More than half of those wounded sustained these injuries while covering election-related violence.
- The single most likely predictor of emotional distress was if a journalist had sustained wounds.
- Journalists who covered the election violence had more PTSD symptoms than their colleagues who had not covered it. However, journalists who covered the violence were no more likely than journalists who had not covered the election violence to receive psychological counseling.
- There were no significant differences in psychological symptoms between journalists who covered the Westgate Mall attack and those who did not.
- To explain the difference in psychological responses between journalists who covered the election violence and the Westgate Mall attack, the authors suggest that proximity to danger could be a key factor. Journalists who covered the Westgate attack generally were protected by barriers created by the army and police, the authors explain. The election violence, however, “was experienced firsthand as neighbor turned on neighbor, communities were destroyed and the media in some cases became the focus of mob rage.” The authors add that the fact that journalists continued to experience symptoms of PTSD and anxiety seven years after the election underscores that traumatic nature of this type of exposure to violence.
The Psychological Wellbeing of Iranian Journalists: A Descriptive Study
Feinstein, Anthony; et al. Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine Open, December 2016.
How do journalists fare in a country that is hostile to their livelihood? This study delves into the question through an analysis of survey responses from 114 journalists working in Iran and Iranian journalists working abroad. Iran places 170th out of 180 countries in the World Press Freedom Index — a ranking of the freedoms afforded to journalists throughout the world, as measured by their responses to a qualitative survey and quantitative data on abuses and violence against the press. (The U.S. ranks 48th, between Romania and Senegal.) Journalists in Iran can face state interference, imprisonment, harassment and even death for their work.
Journalists responding to this survey provided information about their experiences with various occupational stressors, such as arrest, torture and intimidation. They completed screening questionnaires for PTSD and depression.
- Half of respondents reported that they had experienced intimidation, which, for the purposes of this study, was defined as a threat in the absence of torture, assault or arrest. Of those, 78.1% stopped working on a story because of intimidation.
- Nearly half — 43.1% — received threats against their families.
- 2 out of 5 (41.2%) were arrested. Nearly 1 in 5 were tortured. And 1 in 10 were assaulted.
- Arrest, torture and intimidation were linked to PTSD symptoms, and assault and intimidation were linked to depressive symptoms.
- Around one-third of journalists surveyed had moderate to severe depression.
- Nearly half of journalists surveyed — 46.5% — were not receiving therapy. For those who had sought treatment, 60% said they did so because of their experiences as journalists.
- Nearly a third of respondents seemed to self-medicate in response to the stresses they experienced — 30.6% said they regularly used barbiturates, a sedative typically used to treat insomnia and seizures that also has anti-anxiety effects. Barbiturate use was correlated with a number of PTSD and depressive symptoms.
Job Demands, Coping, and Impacts of Occupational Stress among Journalists: A Systematic Review
Monteiro, Susana; Pinto, Alexandra Marques; Roberto, Magda Sofia. European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology, September 2016.
The day-to-day newsroom grind can be stressful even for those not covering a tragedy. This review summarizes the findings of 28 research articles published from 2002 to 2015 on the impacts of occupational stressors on journalists’ health and well-being.
The authors find the following were the most common sources of stress:
- Job-role demands, such as ambiguous expectations or uncertainties about a particular role, or over-burdensome expectations.
- Interpersonal demands, such as problems among colleagues, competition and ethical issues in reporting.
- Physical demands, like the stresses posed by working in a busy newsroom without natural light.
- Working conditions, such as low pay, long hours and late-night deadlines.
- Task-related stressors, such as interviewing distraught sources, time pressures, violence and intimidation, and exposure to traumatic events.
The following were common impacts on physical and mental health:
- Osteomuscular disorders, orbone or muscle pain from work demands.
- Health risks associated with receiving irregular income, working long hours and neglecting symptoms of illness.
- Burnout, depression, anxiety, PTSD, alcohol and substance use, and job turnover.
- There was a small-to-moderate effect size linking exposure to traumatic events during work and symptoms of PTSD, according to the authors’ meta-analysis of 13 studies.