Living With Trauma: The Invisible Horrors Of War Reporting

Posted by Malvika Agarwal in Mental Health, Society, Staff Picks
June 18, 2017

Journalism can be a dangerous profession. There have been studies, by organisations such as Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), which show the number of journalists that have died since the year 1992, the majority of them reporting war or conflict of some description. In the process of finding out the truth behind a story and getting it published many journalists lose their lives.

But it’s not just the death threat that they face, there is something more that most of the organisations fail to record, something that often goes unnoticed by the world. They are exposed to human suffering, mass destruction and horrifying atrocities while working. All these elements affect the mental state and the psychological well-being of the journalists, immensely. War correspondents face the risk of psychological trauma which in the long run can affect their personal and professional lives. They might show resilience but incidents involving children, brutality, violence etc., might make them susceptible to stress, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), substance abuse and depression.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

Watching your cameraman die or a civilian or maybe your fellow journalists, while covering the war or a conflict usually trigger long-term psychological impact on a war reporter. Much has been written about PTSD in this relation. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, PTSD is a psychological reaction occurring after experiencing or witnessing a highly stressful event (as wartime combat, physical violence or a natural disaster) that is usually characterised by depression, flashbacks, recurrent nightmares, and avoidance of reminders of the event. PTSD consists of three symptom clusters—re-experiencing, avoidance and arousal.

Re-experiencing: This refers to unwanted, intrusive recollections of the traumatic event that may occur during waking hours as flashbacks or recurrent thoughts, and during sleep as nightmares.

Avoidance: Its symptoms reflect a reluctance to return to the scene of the trauma, but may also encompass a numbing of emotions or a damping down of emotional responsiveness to people and events.

Arousal: This refers to the heightened responses of the body’s nervous system that may manifest as a startle response, an expectation of further violence even in situations deemed safe, trouble falling asleep, irritability and poor concentration.

PTSD was first used in the year 1980 by the American Psychiatric Association.  A comparative study was done by Anthony Feinstein, Ph.D., M.D., John Owen, M.A., and Nancy Blair, M.A. on 140 war journalists who spent approximately 15 years in the zones of conflict and 107 non-war journalists. One out of five journalists were interviewed and the study revealed that all 28 of them were shot numerous times in these 15 years, three had close colleagues who were killed while working on an assignment, two had been subject to mock executions, one had survived a plane crash, etc. All these elements resulted in high lifetime prevalence of PTSD i.e., 28.6%. While out of 19 non-war journalists who were interviewed none of them had PTSD. The war journalists with PTSD also talked about how it affected their everyday lives. They reported social difficulties such as adjusting back to their normal lives in a civil society, reluctance to mix with old friends, troubled relationships, and embarrassing, startled responses that led to social avoidance.  In the book, “The War Correspondent”, former ITN cameraman, Jon Steele tells how he developed post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

There was this little girl in a pool of blood, lying on her back. And I didn’t go rushing up to her. I didn’t try to help. I ran to the truck and got my camera. And I started filming the situation. Some men picked her up and put her in the back of a car and they were actually blocking my shot. And I grabbed one of the men on the back of the shoulder, yanked him back and I went in with the camera. I was looking at her through the eyepiece. I don’t know if she was conscious, but she just sort of looked into the lens and then her eyes just sort of lost focus and then the car took off (to the hospital).

Later that day when he was cleaning the lens of his camera he realized what he had done.

I was looking into the glass of the lens and the more I looked at the lens, the more something hit me. I was seeing myself in the lens and I was looking at my eyes in the lens and then I realised that that girl had seen herself in the lens as she was dying and bleeding. And it just hit me that the last thing she saw in her life was her own self, dying. I did that to her.

After that he was wrecked with guilt, he felt so infuriated at keeping his job before the life of someone that he went to film the civilians under fire in Sarajevo without wearing a protective body armour. He describes his next few days as a blur and that he ended up having a nervous breakdown at the Heathrow Airport.


Another undetected emotional problem in this profession is Depression. War is a dangerous place and it can break the journalist. The war does not discriminate when it attaches its emotional burden on to people who live through it. According to the Oxford dictionary, depression is a mental condition characterised by severe despondency and dejection, typically also with feelings of inadequacy and guilt, often accompanied by a lack of energy and disturbance of appetite and sleep. The study done by Anthony Feinstein used the Beck Inventory -II, which contains 21 mood-related questions to assess depression among the war journalists and the non-war journalists. The war journalists had a higher score on the Beck Inventory Test than the non-war journalists. The book, “Journalists Under Fire: The Psychological Hazards of Covering War” revealed that out of these 21 symptoms the most that were reported were sadness, loss of pleasure, feelings of guilt, change in sleep patterns, irritability, loss of interest, crying, suicidal thoughts or wishes, perception of past failures, self-criticism, indecisiveness, loss of interest in sexual intercourse, loss of appetite agitation and pessimism.  Among the 28 war journalists, the lifetime prevalence rate of major depression was found to be 21.4%. While the comparative group had only 5.3%.

Jon Steele says that the nature of his job as a news cameraman leaves him or her more vulnerable to psychological trauma or depression as it is important for them to keep looking. And he goes on to add:

A correspondent, a reporter, a scribbler, a soundman, even a stills cameraman, can turn away. The nature of television is that you have to let the action happen within the frame, which means you have to concentrate, which means you have to count, which means you have to stare. And you keep looking for pictures, looking for pictures, which means you have to look at this stuff. You have to look at the blood, you have to look at the carnage, you have to look at the faces screaming at you in pain. And you take that in. You are the camera. It goes through the lens, into the eyepiece, into your eyes, into your brain, into your heart and into your soul. And it never leaves. It stays there forever.

Substance Abuse

Another condition that usually accompanies PTSD and depression among war correspondents is substance abuse. According to the Oxford dictionary, substance abuse is the overindulgence in or dependence on an addictive substance, especially alcohol or drugs. To cope psychologically with the hazards and rigours of war many journalists start consuming alcohol and drugs. For some people, alcohol becomes a way of self-medicating feelings of distress and anxiety. They use it as a painkiller to relieve them of the pain of recollection of the brutalities of war. In the study by Anthony Feinstein, they defined a unit of alcohol as a regular size of a beer bottle, a glass of wine or a shot of spirits. 14 units of alcohol every week for men and 9 units of alcohol every week for women was considered the upper limits of acceptable weekly intakes. The mean weekly alcohol consumption levels were 14.7 for men and 10.8 for women. It was 2 and 3 times more than that of the non-war group, respectively. There were 45 male war journalists as opposed to 13 non-war one’s who were drinking excessively and in women 15 as opposed to 2. Though this study showed no difference between groups in the use of cannabis or hard drugs.

Though Anthony Lloyd of “The Times” magazine, in his book, “Another Bloody Love Letter” admits to his drug addiction but denies the possibility of it being related to war. He says “War had not produced my drug addiction, nor was I totally convinced by the platitudes of those suggesting it was an addiction in itself. I felt fairly grounded in my relationship with war. It was certainly an environment full of compulsion and attraction, and one that fired my imagination, but my inability to find tranquillity in peace was more the question at stake. It would have been too simple to regard heroin as some sort of self-medication to the horrors I had seen. Instead, I felt victim to nothing but self-execution.”

War journalists just like soldiers have a prolonged exposure to violence, brutality, mass destruction, and loss of human life. All this makes them emotionally maimed and crushed from the inside. But still, people fail to give recognition to these health conditions. What one must understand and realise is that these people who put their lives in danger every day just to seek the truth, are humans too and have a right to a dignified life. Therefore, the government, third-party organisations and especially the news editors have a responsibility towards their employees. They should do everything in their power to keep their reporters as safe as possible, not just from the physical injuries but also the psychological wounds that leave them disturbed for their entire lives.