It has long been understood that the atrocities of war don’t always remain on the battlefield when soldiers come home, but a Sunnybrook psychiatrist is proving journalists suffer much the same damage as those behind the gun.
“If you’re a journalist going off to war, you can experience horrible things that will lead you to be vulnerable to post-traumatic stress disorder [PTSD]” explains Dr. Anthony Feinstein, producer of Under Fire: Journalists in Combat, a documentary about the mental health risks these journalists face. “This is an issue that is clearly not going to go away. The world is in a big mess, and there’s enough conflict in the world to make sure a lot of journalists are going to get hurt.”
The documentary, short-listed for a 2012 Oscar nomination, examines the horrors of war through the stories of journalists sent to cover it – and these stories are indeed horrific. Viewers meet Jon Steele, for example, author of War Junkie and a cameraman for Independent Television Network, who describes a little girl injured in Sarajevo while waiting for him to bring her candy. He tries to visit her in hospital, but is brought to her dead body stretched out on the floor instead.
There is Ian Stewart, who was head of the Associated Press’ West Africa bureau in 1999 when a young rebel – a boy, really – fired his AK-47 into Stewart’s vehicle, killing another journalist and lodging a bullet in Stewart’s brain. Partially paralyzed, he says he still pictures the screaming and agonized faces of war when he closes his eyes.
And there is the Toronto Star’s Paul Watson, author of Where War Lives, who is probably best known for his 1994 Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph of a dead American soldier being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu, Somalia. Interviewed in Under Fire, he says he is still haunted by his decision to take that photograph, feels like a participant in the desecration of a body and longs for forgiveness.
“Every front-line journalist deals with these issues,” says Dr. Feinstein. “I’ve spoken with many war photographers who tell me they have trays and trays of photographs that will never see the light of day. No newspaper will ever show them because they are unspeakably horrible, but they’ve seen them. They’re part of their memories.”
As these front-line journalists attempt to combat the fallout from their experiences, the results can be devastating: substance abuse, depression, thoughts of suicide or a sense they no longer fit within society. Relationships crumble and sleep suffers.
“When I started out covering conflicts almost 25 years ago, few journalists spoke openly about the psychological risks,” Paul Watson, Toronto Star journalist
“We self-medicated with drugs and alcohol," Paul says. "Talking about something like post-traumatic stress disorder would have been seen as a weakness. That has changed. And Dr. Feinstein’s work must have helped make that change happen.”
To be sure, the idea that journalists could suffer from PTSD (once called shell shock, battle fatigue and other names) was unheard of until a patient was referred to Dr. Feinstein in 2000. She presented with recurring neurological symptoms such as incoherence, agitation, sweating, occasionally lapsing in and out of consciousness, but her chart showed no physical abnormalities. Her personal history was typical of those he would hear from other journalists in the coming years: a decade-plus of cumulative stress, near-death experiences and conflict coverage, followed by self-medication with drugs and alcohol. It was an issue that no one – not journalists, their employers or trauma researchers – was addressing.
“Not only had most of the news organizations neglected to provide for the psychological welfare of their war reporters, but trauma researchers had ignored them too,” Dr. Feinstein writes in his 2006 book Journalists Under Fire: The Psychological Hazards of Covering War. “Trawling through the literature, I could not find a single reference to the subject – no articles, chapters or abstracts. I had stumbled on a virgin topic, lying unrecognized within a larger literature devoted to the emotional consequences of traumatic events.”
And so, backed by financial support from the Freedom Forum, a Washington-based organization focused on protecting freedom of speech, Dr. Feinstein interviewed 140 war correspondents by the end of 2001 and published his first book on the subject, Dangerous Lives, in 2003. He later received funding from CNN, the BBC and the Dart Foundation to further his work. “Journalists who develop symptoms of PTSD can suffer greatly,” explains Dr. Feinstein. “It’s an occupational hazard, and the ones who are good know that and accept it. If they can’t accept that, they simply can’t do this work.”