Reporters in conflict: The psychological ill-effects and why they should be treated
Front-line war reporters have much in common with each other; few other jobs include risking your life to deliver the news. It is an experience that perhaps only war reporters understand. But some differ in how they deal with those experiences, if they even deal with it at all. These, among other issues, were discussed at Thursday night’s Canadian Journalism Federation forum called ‘The First Casulity’ in the Age of High-Tech Warfare.
The forum was prompted by the Academy Award-short-listed Canadian documentary Under Fire: Journalists in combat, which delves into the issues of post-traumatic stress disorder, substance abuse and depression among war correspondents. Speakers for the evening included CTV’s chief anchor and senior editor Lisa LaFlamme, Postmedia’s foreign affairs columnist Matthew Fisher and Parliamentary defence reporter and senior war correspondent for The Canadian Press, Murray Brewster. They were joined by Dr. Anthony Feinstein, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Toronto (who was featured in Under Fire) as well as Tony Burman, former head of Al Jazeera English and moderator for the evening, who said that he is in “awe of those who go and report war.”
Dr. Anthony Feinstein made it clear from the beginning that the majority of front-line journalists are psychologically okay. But there are some who aren’t. For over a decade, Dr. Feinstein has been conducting research on 350 front-line journalists on not only what makes them take the risk of war reporting, but what happens after they return home. That was a key part of the discussion: how journalists take — or don’t take — care of themselves after reporting from a conflict zone. Even each of the experienced panelists had their own way of coping when they returned home — but we’ll get to that later.
Dr. Feinstein’s research has found that journalists covering war experience around 25 life-threatening situations in their lifetime — which is significantly more than the average person. Issues like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, anxiety and substance abuse are common in the psychological aftermath of front-line reporters. This is why Dr. Feinstein thinks it is vital that these journalists get some type of professional treatment.
He says that the illnesses journalists suffer from can be treated and the earlier a doctor intervenes, the better the outcome. He notes that being psychologically unwell isn’t much different than being physically injured — both can be treated.
But, as mentioned earlier, it seems that every journalist handles it differently. LaFlamme, who has covered wars, revolutions and natural disasters in Iraq, Afghanistan, Egypt, New Orleans and Haiti (to name a few), has a different kind of rehabilitation. She admits to having blocked out “an enormous amount of things in the last 10 years.” But the image of having a gun pressed to her temple by “a fresh-faced Iraqi soldier who was just as scared as I was,” was not one of them. That, she said, definitely impacted her. She mentioned that some journalists don’t want to go to therapy, and she is one of them. Her personal way of coping? “Just get me to the next story; I’ll get over the last one.” (Of course, now, the “next story” isn’t so dangerous for Laflamme, who replaced Lloyd Robertson in the CTV anchor chair last fall.)
When Fisher was covering wars he said there were no training courses or help offered to him before or after his assignments in conflict zones. He says “the best experience is experience in terms of understanding [war reporting].”
But a lot has changed in the last 10-15 years. News organizations and their journalists are more aware of the dangers during and after being on the front lines. They also now know that help is available.
Not only do journalists need to take care of themselves when they return, they must also prepare themselves before they leave home. On that fact, all of the speakers agreed. It can be problematic for journalists to be ill-prepared and not undergo any training before covering war. Not only can it be psychologically damaging, but it can sacrifice good news coverage as well. LaFlamme mentioned some news desks might not allow an ill-prepared reporter who had been parachuted in to do anything more than a stand-up.
The panel also made note of the potential legal issues surrounding conflict zone reporting and that news organizations offer pre-trip training to cover their liability in case of a lawsuit later.
Brewster believes that war reporters can learn from the coverage in Afghanistan. Journalists went “woefully unprepared for what they were to face,” he said, noting that it was the first time in half a century that Canadian media was reporting on its own troops in a shooting war. More journalists decided to embed (attaching to military units during the war) rather than cover Afghanistan’s conflict and LaFlamme mentioned that many journalists were too scared to even leave the military base.
Brewster identifies himself as an advocate for proper hostile environment training and said that when he underwent training it got his “head in the game.” LaFlamme started a seven-day mandatory war training course, but didn’t finish as an urgent assignment for CTV came up. When Fisher started reporting he was never offered a training course at all.
Training and education is important beforehand — journalists must be aware of all possible circumstances or events they may face. This can minimize the negative after affects, but just preparing beforehand may not be enough.
Dr. Feinstein says that 10-12 years ago there was little talk of war reporters going to therapy, but now they respond to it quite well. However, he says that journalists suffering from PTSD or depression who don’t seek treatment could be negatively affecting their reporting. He explains that the idea of objectivity can change when journalists report through a filter of psychological distress, and that this could cause their outlook and interpretation of things to change.
“They want to get back to [reporting] but they must get better first,” Dr. Feinstein said.
The other three speakers agreed that education and training is important, and all said there are things they have blocked out or never talk about. None overtly mentioned suffering from any psychological illnesses, but that doesn’t mean that such illnesses will never arise. Fisher told the audience about a conversation he had with General Romeo Dallaire, who led the 1994 UN peacekeeping force in Rwanda. “He said he was happy I didn’t look messed up,” Fisher said.
But then Dallaire reminded him that illnesses like PTSD can strike at any time — even years later — and can be triggered by a new experience.
“I sleep well at night, which is what doctors always ask me first, but I wonder about the future,” said Fisher.