Mental health
Credit: CC BY-SA, flickr/truthout

I have been working in media safety and journalism ethics since 2010, and have seen many conflicts, crises and disasters in which colleagues were killed, hurt and attacked.

Since the start of the Israel and Hamas conflict earlier this month, there has been a significant toll on journalists. By 23 October, at least 23 of our colleagues were among the estimated 6,000 dead, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.

Under International Humanitarian Law journalists must be regarded as civilians in conflict. Working in difficult, dangerous and fast-changing situations, journalists have an important job to inform audiences, and they need to be recognised and respected by combatants. Sadly, I know from my work that this is not always the case.

Our journalistic roles come with responsibilities. At the Ethical Journalism Network, where I was CEO, we advocated for the journalistic principles of accuracy, independence, impartiality, humanity and accountability.

At times of heightened tensions, these principles become even more important. We are seeing this with the weaponising of social media. Since 7 October, there has been a significant increase in disinformation, polarised narratives, hate speech and violent commentary attached to images and social media content.

There has been a rise in journalists attacked online. This is a threat to press freedom. Research shows that when journalists are harassed online, there is a risk of self-censorship, with some leaving the industry. Since many of those attacked are from marginalised identities, this absence impacts media diversity.

The relentless exposure to distressing material is also impacting newsrooms around the world. As a consultant specialising in media safety and mental health, I have heard this more in the past two weeks than during any other equivalent period since the Arab uprisings.

Vicarious trauma is the harm caused by exposure to someone else’s trauma. Journalists can be impacted by listening to accounts of suffering and witnessing graphic visual material from user-generated content or other video and stills footage. They can also be affected by researching accounts, verifying information, or experiencing online harassment.

While it is normal for us to experience anger, frustration, sadness and other emotions when exposed to traumatic material, sometimes these reactions can impair our personal and professional lives, and we may need help for them. The symptoms of vicarious trauma can be the same as those of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Though they will differ for individuals, they can include difficulty sleeping, numbness, irritability, disassociating, and intrusive memories. At Headlines Network, the company I co-direct with John Crowley, we have developed – with the support of experts - practical resources for journalists to help them mitigate the risk of vicarious trauma and respond if journalists are impacted.

People’s reactions will depend on their past histories, exposure to trauma identities, and the emotional burden they carry. Individuals affected by intergenerational trauma might also be more vulnerable. In conversations with colleagues this month, I have been acutely aware of this.

In a conflict as challenging as this to report, where information is difficult to access and verify, where audiences are heavily polarised and with so much distressing material, moral injury is a risk. While not a mental health diagnosis, it is associated with shame, anger and guilt, can be really distressing and if left untreated, can be a pathway to PTSD.

Moral injury can result from witnessing, perpetrating or failing to prevent something which contradicts our ethical or moral principles. It is often exacerbated when people feel let down by those in leadership positions. And it can lead us to experience a loss of faith in the world.

I know many colleagues feel guilty, like they have no right to speak about their mental health when so many people are suffering elsewhere. Professor Anthony Feinstein, an expert on the impact of journalists’ work on their mental health, cautions against comparison, noting that one person’s experience of trauma does not and should not invalidate the experience of someone else.

Many in journalism are dealing with the cumulative burden of a challenging few years, coupled with pressure on resources across our industry and a seemingly limitless supply of intense breaking news.

Some newsroom leaders recognise the need to prioritise conversations around mental health, and are taking proactive steps to do so, ensuring their colleagues know what support and resources are available and how to access them. Empathetic leaders who communicate the importance of the work journalists do, and acknowledge it can take its toll, will help foster safer cultures where people feel supported.

Elsewhere, the focus is still predominantly on the physical safety side because of the urgency of the risk and because many newsrooms are in crisis mode still. I hope these organisations will recognise physical safety and mental health are interconnected, and exhausted, traumatised journalists will be less able to assess risk and stay safe.

As journalists, we are often conditioned to believe we are immune and to associate any admission of vulnerability with failure. This notion stems from the macho make-up of industry, which insists we keep on going regardless of the toll it takes on us and says we must not become the story.

There are times when it is beneficial for journalists to share their experiences publicly, explaining their processes and the challenges they face in tough environments, as well as how their work impacts them. It is a reminder that journalists are human beings too, something too often ignored as we rush to feed the insatiable news beast.

Because we are not superheroes. We need to acknowledge the toll of dealing with distressing news, especially when the past few years have left little room for rest. We must put on our own oxygen masks first. It can be hard to accept with a story so all-consuming where others are suffering, but we cannot help anyone else if we do not help ourselves. 

If we want to do justice to this complicated, painful situation, we must ensure we are well enough to practice ethical, empathetic journalism, and support those around us to do the same.

Hannah Storm is the founder of Headlines Network. A media expert, trainer and thought leader, with global connections, she brings vision, values and empathy, alongside an expertise in journalism safety, mental health, gender and media ethics. 

She is the former director of the International News Safety Institute and the Ethical Journalism Network, a sought-after speaker, facilitator, and award-winning author, who shares her recovery from trauma and how it has helped her support newsrooms around the world.

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