No matter their beat, journalists frequently work with people who are emotionally vulnerable or have experienced some degree of trauma.
Like police, firefighters, and medical services, journalists are also professional first responders to a disaster or a crisis. But they are often the last of those professionals to realise the psychological toll of the job.
According to the Dart Center website, 80% to 100% of journalists have been exposed to work-related traumatic events.
The Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma is a project established by the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.
It strives for informed and ethical news reporting of conflict, violence, and tragedy, and provides working journalists with resources to do so.
The events the Dart Center refers to include car accidents, plane crashes, wars, murders, executions, fires, tales of abuse and mass casualties.
The Center found that while most journalists show resilience, a significant minority is at risk of developing long-term psychological problems, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Dr Alex Wake, a journalist and a board member of the Dart Center, says it’s important for journalists to prepare long in advance for a story and ensure they are mentally ready to do the interview.
“There are guidelines [on the Dart Center website] for almost every traumatic event, from terrorism events to car accidents or bushfires.”
“In all reporting, I use the adage that we are there to provide no further harm,” she says.
“Journalists can do a lot of good in reporting traumatic events when done well, it’s important to remember that.”
Dr Wake also says the heads of newsrooms can do a lot to make sure their journalists don’t develop PTSD, or at least minimise their risk.
“It’s important for newsroom leaders to ensure that the staff they send to any traumatic event are mentally ready, as much as anyone can be, for the event, and are given support while in the field and on return.”
“Research shows that reporters who believe that their news organisations value their work are at lesser risk of developing PTSD,” she says.
Common symptoms of PTSD include recurring flashbacks or nightmares, irritability, trouble sleeping, trouble concentrating, and avoidance of people and places that are reminders of the event.
Physical symptoms also include stomach cramps or sweating, and an exaggerated startle response.
For ABC News journalist Ben Gubana, talking to close colleagues and friends helps him deal with traumatic events.
“Of course, you have to have a thick skin in this industry – it’s all part of the job.
“But I don’t think that means we have to neglect the fact that it might impact us from time to time,” he says.
“In my experience, journalists are notoriously bad at discussing their feelings, but I find taking a few minutes to debrief, and acknowledge that it’s okay to sometimes be affected by them, helps clear my mind.”
In terms of the actual reporting, Gubana says there’s not a big difference in how he reports traumatic events compared to general news.
“You still have to tell a story, but it’s just about learning to navigate the potentially difficult situations.
“Traumatic events are, in most cases, the most newsworthy, so there’s usually a bigger demand on the reporter for fast and accurate information.”
But he says that has to be balanced with being compassionate and empathetic to the trauma victim being interviewed.
Russell Bishop, a journalism lecturer at Curtin University, says journalists should not try to “tough it out and push through”.
“It’s really important they talk about anything that upsets them to their workmates, firstly, and then, if need be, to a counsellor employed by their employer,” he says.
Both Bishop and Dr Wake advise journalists to eat and sleep well, and to squeeze in as much exercise in their routine to keep themselves physically and mentally alert.
“Research shows that having a balanced lifestyle is important in avoiding burnout,” says Dr Wake.
She also advises incorporating some kind of ‘brain’ work into their daily routine. For some, this can be meditation, and for others, it could be prayer, she says.
As for young and aspiring journalists who are career-driven and focused on making a name for themselves in the industry, Gubana’s advice to them is to take time out for themselves.
“For the first year and a half while I was working in the regions, I probably didn’t take as much care of myself as I should have,” he says.
“Every young journo wants to put in the time and break great stories, but if you don’t take the time to relax, it will come back to bite you.”
“It’s really a false saving because you end up being less productive in the long run.”
“The biggest lesson I learnt was to not take my work home. We all have our emails on our phone now and the calls and texts don’t stop when you clock off, so if you can turn your phone off for an hour or so after work and do something you enjoy, do it,” says Gubana.
If you or someone you know needs help:
Lifeline: 13 11 14
MensLine Australia: 1300 78 99 78
Sucide Call Back Service: 1300 659 467
Beyond Blue: 1300 22 46 36
Headspace: 1800 650 890