Journalists who shine the light on the world’s trouble spots often keep their own troubles to themselves. And that’s a problem.

A camera catches the pepper spraying by police of a journalist covering protests in Hong Kong in 2014.

A camera catches the pepper spraying by police of a journalist covering protests in Hong Kong in 2014. Credit: Mongkok under a Creative Commons license.

As media outlets shrink their newsgathering resources, editors are increasingly turning to freelancers for some of the most dangerous assignments — from the war in Ukraine to violent protests on streets in the United States.

Some of this reporting can be both physically and emotionally demanding, with journalists forced to confront violence first-hand or speak to sources who have witnessed or lived through traumatizing experiences.

“It’s a very powerful position but it can be deeply troubling — very often the witnesses to atrocities fare worse psychologically than those who are direct victims,” said Anna Mortimer, a former journalist who co-founded The Mind Field, a nonprofit that provides remote therapeutic services to journalists and humanitarian workers who have worked in troublespots around the world.

“Journalists often feel that they should react less strongly, less emotionally than other people would, maintaining a kind of work personality that masks ordinary emotion,” Mortimer said.

After covering traumatic events, journalists’ emotions can swing from irritability and lethargy, to rage and sorrow. Sleeping and eating disorders are common. Others report heart palpitations, sweating, panic attacks, headaches, nausea and chest pain. All too often, they turn to alcohol and narcotics.

“The bad coping strategies are avoidance,” said Anthony Feinstein, professor of Psychiatry at the University of Toronto and an expert on the trauma faced by journalists. “If you avoid the problem, it doesn’t get better. And a classic example of avoidance is alcohol. Rather than having a drink for social purposes, they’re now having a drink because it helps them deal with their anxiety or makes them feel better in the moment.”

War reporters can find relationships combative.

Strained personal and work relationships are also common, according to a security guide published by the New York City based Committee to Protect Journalists. Some may also become obsessed with their work to avoid feelings that make them uncomfortable.

“It can become so all-consuming that you don’t have the energy or the time or the desire to work on your relationships or to put energy to something else,” said Feinstein. “And the downside is that then relationships fade. There are separations, there’s divorces. And that can have very negative consequences for a person’s emotional health.”

Freelancers have to deal with one extra worry, and it’s a serious one.

As gig workers, few have access to the counselling, healthcare and other benefits available to full-time employees. The Associated Press, BBC and Reuters, among others, offer some or all of these services, but some organizations do not typically provide them to freelance or contract workers.

“I think there is stigma even around the word ‘therapy’ and phrases like ‘getting help’ or ‘reaching out’,” said Mortimer. “I would love this to be standard: ‘Hello, here’s your salary, your parking space, your therapist’ kind of thing.”

After reporting on death journalists have difficulty coping with life.

The Mind Field is among those trying to lighten the load on freelancers. One of its services, Beat the Burnout, offers to provide a therapist to any employee or contract worker for a set period of time before, during or after they are deployed to a conflict zone.

Mortimer says mostly media outlets and humanitarian groups tend to favour a set number of workshops to address long-term mental health issues, but that these only scratch the surface and heighten the need for costly individual therapy later on.

“I am deeply suspicious of therapies that offer to heal you in a short time, and of everything that puts emphasis on the patient working alone, training themselves to be mindful or to think positively,” Mortimer said. “In general, this leaves ill people feeling that therapy doesn’t work on them, that they have failed at being happy at life. Problems deserve the respect of real conversations and real attempts at deep understanding. It can’t be done quickly, and it can’t be done alone.”

Trouble is that many self-employed reporters, photographers and videographers cannot afford such long-term treatment. Three-quarters of participants in a 2019 survey by the Frontline Freelance Register said that financial considerations had a direct effect on freelancers’ mental and physical safety.

“Media outlets are only just getting comfortable with managing the mental health needs of their staff journalists,” said Clothilde Redfern, director at the Rory Peck Trust, which supports freelance journalists worldwide. “For the most part, the mental health needs of freelance journalists are left to them to manage.”

The Rory Peck Trust has a fund that supports freelancers exposed to war or armed conflict, plus a “Resilience Program” to provide mental health support through the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, based in New York.

“It’s important to remember that witnessing any kind of trauma will change you and it will not just disappear into the back of your mind,” said Mortimer. “We know this from the armed forces and it isn’t different for journalists.”

She said that every media outlet should send one unsettling but also comforting message to all who work for it: “You will need to have psychotherapy in order to do this job long-term and we will pay for it.” 

Three questions to consider:

    1. How do war and other traumatic situations affect journalists?
    2. How are freelance journalists at a disadvantage to full-time employees?
    3. Should news organizations send freelancers to war zones and other conflict zones where they may be killed, wounded or traumatized?
Norma Hilton

Norma Hilton is an independent journalist covering everything from K-pop to murder-suicides. She has worked in Canada, the United States, Australia, Singapore and Bangladesh. 


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Health and WellnessReporting on trauma can be traumatic for those reporting on it