'It's like a bruise on the soul': how covering the refugee crisis damaged journalists' health

by Jane Whyatt and Jessica Jacques

As a reporter, what should you do when, while covering the refugee crisis in Lesbos for example, you find yourself confronted with people in desperate need of everything? How deeply do you get involved? Do you give money? Do you help finding a new home? Actually, do you put down your camera or carry on filming, so that the pictures might provoke a political solution? Daily dilemmas such as this take a toll on journalists’ emotions. They can lead to feelings of guilt and helplessness, and an inability to carry on with normal life. The reporter’s moral compass is knocked out of kilter, so that he or she no longer knows what is right and what is wrong.

INSI screenshot Moral injury has been identified in reporters who covered the refugees. Photo: INSI website

Taken together, these symptoms amount to a new problem which has been identified by researchers. They call it ’moral injury’.

It is different from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) which is known to affect some war correspondents and others who are covering horrific stories such as the torture of political prisoners or the sexual abuse of children. Moral injury has been summed up as ’a bruise on the soul’. The International News Safety Institute carried out research with the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford University, UK. They questioned reporters and camera crews who covered the mass influx of refugees to Europe in 2015 and 2016. The findings may also affect media workers covering other humanitarian disasters such as earthquakes or famine.

ECPMF’s Jane Whyatt interviewed Hannah Storm of the International News Safety Institute to find out more about this new mental illness.

Hannah Storm Hannah Storm, director of INSI, about moral injuries

Are journalists reporting on the refugee crisis generally working alone on the ground? Or is there some sort of support network in the locations, for example with other journalists?

Because a lot of people who are covering the refugee crisis go back to the same locations – particularly places like Lesbos – there will be familiar faces and with that comes the possibility of informal support networks. There are other more formalised places where people can go too for support. Groups like the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma – as well as a number of others - do great work.

Although the symptoms of moral injury are not new to many journalists, this is the first time it’s been studied in relation to the media and so that means that there’s still work that needs to be done to understand its prevalence and really know how to support those who experience it or who may be at risk of it.

By whom? Is this a job for NGOs or for the editorial departments of news organisations?

One of the key things we found in talking to the industry about this and related issues over the past 18 months was the need for education around these issues. People need to understand that this is a new terrain for mental health in the media; they need to be supported to understand what impact traumatic stories might have one them. And that’s not just the journalists who are going out to report, that’s managers too and HR. It’s so much easier and more cost efficient too to mitigate the risks beforehand, to work preventively than to have to try to respond once someone is really suffering.

Education is key to this and so is being able to talk openly, like Will and Yannis who both spoke about their experiences in our study. Trust between news managers and journalists is crucial too – a strong relationship based on this will help people build resilience before they are exposed to such situations. It’s a kind of emotional flak jacket that they need, an understanding that journalists’ safety is no longer just about war zones, there is domestic terrorism and there are stories close to home that have traumatic content. Of course, NGOs play their part – groups like INSI can offer a lot of support based on its network of collective experience, but news organisations need to ensure they take mental health seriously too. Many are, but others aren’t quite there yet.

Did any of the journalists speak about how they personally dealt with the trauma?

For Will Vassilopoulos, writing a blog about his experiences was cathartic and he did this on a number of occasions for the AFP link to log on AFP site. During the research into this report, INSI organised a number of industry meetings and there was a real sense at these that people felt valued when they were able to share their experiences. Everyone responds differently to traumatic stories and so one individual’s solution to trauma won’t necessarily work for someone else. However, writing it down, talking it through with someone who you trust, feeling validated for your work, often help.

Sometimes, the validation can bring its own challenges too. Both Will and Yannis Behrakis won awards for their work – Will won the Rory Peck Award for News, Yannis won a Pulitzer Prize and the prestigious Public Prize at the Prix Bayeux-Calvados. It was particularly hard for them because they are both Greek and reporting on something happening in their own country. Both of them said there were times when they felt guilty for winning something on the back of the suffering of others, but they realised too how important it was to do their job and the responsibilities they had as journalists.

In the end it comes down to establishing parameters and boundaries – and knowing your role. Alice Petren, the Swedish radio journalist we spoke with, formed a friendship with an Afghan family she had interviewed, and gave them money. But eventually she said: “Look, I have to stop here“ and she did.

Fulle INSIReuters report The full 42 page report on moral injury by INSI and the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism

Journalists have all sorts of codes of conduct for different professional situations – perhaps a new code would help to prevent moral injury.

The danger of codes of conduct is that they could stifle press freedom, potentially. Some news organisations have realised that they can’t be so prescriptive. Not everyone needs decompression or time off after an assignment. The key thing is education rather than codes of conduct. They need to be more open to the fact that they need to do an emotional risk assessment, it’s not only about physical safety.

Does moral injury involve guilt?

It’s a bruise on the soul. Your whole moral compass gets knocked out of line. It’s a feeling of being appalled at other people’s bad behaviour and your own powerlessness to stop it.

Are there systems or clinics which can help reporters?

There are ways. You can deal with it proactively. For example, Yannis had previous experience of covering traumatic events. He knows how his own behaviour would change so he was prepared. But it is too early to say anything about general solutions. This is a preliminary survey which will lead to the problem becoming more widely recognised.

Did the researchers discover any differences in the way male and female journalists reacted to their experiences?

There is no real gender differential, as you see from our study. But journalists who have children of their own, are more likely to suffer moral injury and distress.

In the past, some journalists have been accused of getting involved in the story instead of doing their job – like ITN’s Michael Nicholson, who adopted a young orphan in Sarajevo. Others have been criticised for failing to show emotional involvement, like the BBC’s Kate Adie following the Dunblane school massacre of sixteen children and their teacher. Does the INSI research show a way to find a balance?

The best way to answer that, without going in to those particular cases, is to remember what the BBC’s Jonathan Paterson says in our report:

There is no one-size-fits-all approach.......People have their own individual ways of covering a story

Everybody brings something different to their work as a journalist. People have their own individual ways of covering a story and people have their own ways of dealing with the aftermath of story. What we want to focus on is the fact that they do this as safely as possible and that often means being clear about your ethics, the role your play as a journalist and your responsibilities to yourself, your story and your subject in advance.

Just as there is a physical type of body armour that increases your likelihood of staying safe in war zones, there is a sort of psychological body armour that may protect you against trauma. But, this may also be perceived by others as a shield that dehumanises you and separates you from the human suffering. I think we need to be very careful before we judge people without the right and relevant information. As long as there’s transparency and you follow the basic tenets of good journalism, there’s room for a multitude of voices and hopefully room for sensible decisions that keep people safe, physically and psychologically.


(Update: The first paragraph of this article was modified on August 24th) 

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