Ethical Explainer: PTSD in Journalism

Trauma and Wellbeing: PTSD in Journalism by Rachel Weisz

“Trauma can be defined as a psychological, emotional response to an event or an experience that is deeply distressing or disturbing.”

Traumatic occurrences are processed differently by everyone because of how individual our prior experiences are. These responses may lead to mental illnesses such as Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which is a psychiatric disorder. Journalists are faced with the dangerous probability of witnessing traumatic events due to covering issues with human suffering in their everyday work.

We must note that most parties that become bare to a traumatic event will not develop any recognised psychiatric disorder. In saying this, journalists who are repeatedly exposed to danger when covering stories are at a higher risk because they are not schooled in how to react to violence, as policemen and soldiers are, for example.

This explainer will focus on the risk of PTSD in journalism by exploring how, why and who can be affected.

What is PTSD

A psychiatric disorder refers to a clinically significant disturbance in an individual’s cognition, emotion regulation, or behaviour that reflects a dysfunction in the psychological, biological, or developmental processes underlying mental function.” One type of psychiatric disorder is PTSD, which can occur in individuals who have observed or even experienced an event which has been traumatic. This could include experiences such as natural disasters, war, a personal violent assault or a serious accident.

In journalism, many individuals will often encounter and report on human suffering, which can have a strong effect on their mental health and ability to practice ethically as a reporter. Young reporters specifically on their first reporting experiences must be aware of the MEAA Code of Ethics in order to practice ethically, however they must also understand that their own personal mental health can be at risk. Even meeting a survivor of whom have endured a distressing and traumatic even may precipitate PTSD.

Who is affected by PTSD

In World War II, “shell shock” was the name used to describe PTSD to describe the effects of war on the combat veterans who experienced “combat fatigue” and the traumatic events of the war.  However, PTSD can occur in all people, currently affecting 800,000 Australians.

It has been implied that people in journalism are tough enough to endure the experiences that may permanently impact ordinary layman. Journalists are constantly exposed when reporting on traumatic events so it should be basic knowledge to understand the mental vulnerabilities when covering issues of death and devastation. Until recently, media companies have acknowledged that reporting on these experiences may affect journalists long term. After the landmark court decision in 2019, media companies have started to recognise the effects of traumatic events in journalism as they come to face large compensation claims if they don’t.

How does it happen

News reporters and journalists report on events that are often distressing as a prerequisite of their profession. People with PTSD habitually experience intense emotions related to their traumatic experience. This may come in flashbacks or nightmares with intense emotions of fear, anger, sadness or a feeling of detachment. Individuals will also tend to avoid situations that could remind them of the events and also experience strong negative reactions towards something as little as a touch or a loud noise.

In 2009, a journalist entered the scene of a 4-year-old child being pulled out of Melbourne’s Yarra River. Darcey Freeman was thrown off a bridge by her father. The Age journalist happened to be one of the first at the scene. The journalist witnessed the girl being loaded into the back of an ambulance after the officers performed CPR. In 2013 she took a voluntary redundancy, however by this time her mental health had depreciated rapidly. In a legal first in the world, the newspaper company was found accountable by the court for the journalists PTSD as they failed to provide a safe workplace. The journalist was rewarded $180,000 in damages for PTSD.

What are the symptoms of PTSD

The three types of symptoms one can obtain through PTSD as a result of a traumatic event are;

  1. Re-experiencing (flashbacks)

  2. Avoidance

  3. Arousal

Re-experiencing refers to the reactivated recollections of traumatic events. These could come as memories, sensations or emotions that may occur either as recurrent thoughts or as nightmares during sleep. Flashbacks approach you unexpectedly, or they may be activated by something incidental in daily life.

Avoidance is a coping strategy for sufferers of PTSD, where they feel reluctant to return to the scene of the incident to avoid a situation that could trigger overwhelming stress. Another form of avoidance would be to mentally dissociate yourself from your body. This strategy allows sufferers to avoid living in the present where their stresses may lie.

The third coping mechanism is known as arousal, which refers to the intensified reactions of the body’s nervous system towards certain experiences. These may include the inability to fall asleep, irritability and lack of concertation. There may also be a feeling of constant alertness and being on edge.

PTSD frequently occurs with other conditions such as major depression and substance abuse. It is important to visit your doctor if you are feeling any of these symptoms, including feelings of sadness, inability to sleep, appetite disturbance, feelings of worthlessness and suicidal thoughts.

Code of Ethics

The MEAA Code of Ethics is the set of rules that journalists must follow to be ethical in their profession. Section 11 of the code states journalists must; respect private grief and personal privacy. Journalists have the right to resist compulsion to intrude. This point makes it clear that journalists should be aware of grief for other individual’s that they are reporting on. However, there is no code that explores the safe practices of journalists in the workplace to prevent the possibility of PTSD and other mental disorders.

Although journalists are not schooled on how to cope with traumatic experiences, they are still immune to the effects that can occur after an intense or disturbing job opportunity. The Dart Centre has compiled a 40-page guide to “help journalists, photojournalists and editors report on violence while protecting both victims and themselves.” If you believe you are suffering from PTSD or know someone who is, do not be afraid to ask for help.

Lifeline’s suicide hotline: text 0477 13 11 14


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s