How they felt: Covering violence can take an emotional toll
Photo by U.S. Army Spec. Christopher Brecht
Editor’s note: This article is the fourth in a 12-part series of stories, based on interviews with 35 women journalists who cover violence around the globe. Because the women were promised anonymity, pseudonyms are used in this article.
“How do you carry it with you? I really don’t have an answer for that. There’s truth that you carry them (memories) in your heart and your soul. You can’t make sense of it. If you can make sense out of war, call me.” – Anna, U.S. journalist
Some were tormented by bad memories. Some suffered nightmares. Some were angry and afraid and not sure why. Some found peace.
Women journalists who covered violence felt the emotional effects of what they witnessed, long after stories were filed. Two of the 35 women interviewed said they had post-traumatic stress (PTS), while one said she might have it. Others described feelings of irritability and hyper-vigilance, as well as nightmares and insomnia—all symptoms consistent with PTS.
Journalists’ reactions to violence are starting to gain attention from researchers, who have found that, like combat veterans or sexual assault survivors, journalists can experience strong physical and emotional reactions to violence and trauma. PTS rates among journalists vary from 4 to 29 percent, Canadian researchers Patrice Keats and Marla Buchanan have reported in the journal Traumatology, although Dr. River Smith and colleagues at the Veterans Administration Center in Oklahoma report that post-traumatic stress rates for journalists be as high as 60 percent, with those covering war and drug trafficking having the highest rates.
Researchers at the University of Toronto found that journalists who cover violence are more likely to suffer PTS symptoms than journalists who do not cover violent events; have PTS rates similar to those of combat veterans; and have higher rates of depression than the general population. “A journalist may only begin to experience these reactions after the conflict is over or they leave the area, when the need to do the job is gone and they are overwhelmed by their hidden feelings,” says A Survival Guide for Journalists, published by the International Federation of Journalists.
And women are more likely than their male colleagues to experience reactions to violence. A 2018 University of Toronto study found that although male reporters are exposed to more violent events, female reporters have a greater incidence of PTS.
Memories that don’t fade
Many journalists found it hard to forget the events they had witnessed or people they interviewed. It “sits in your soul,” said Sarah, a Canadian journalist who worked in Africa.
And, journalists said, violence changes you.
Adira, a Pakistani journalist, said she can’t get the bombings, gang wars, and terrorist attacks out of her mind.
“Once the story is filed . . . my mind plays those events, and at times, this does not stop. The pain, the terror and powerless takes hold of me for days,” said Adira.
“In all these events, there were many casualties. I saw injured people waiting long hours for someone to tend them. I stayed by dead bodies for someone to come and recognize them as their family or friends. I saw how morgues became short of space, when hundreds of people were dead after bomb blasts and target killings. The coverage of these events left me a different person,” she said.
“As I witnessed many events from up close, my mind keeps playing those events. It leads to fatigue and depression,” Adira said. “ It is good to shrug off and move ahead into the next day, but unfortunately, most of us cannot do this, and we carry the burden of past events for a long time.
“I thought about the victims, their families and perpetrators many times during all these years. . . . Sometimes I grew tired of those thoughts and wanted them to stop, but unconsciously my mind kept playing them. Even though my exterior, particularly at work, looked unshattered, but mentally, it makes me sick. Sometimes for a short time, and sometimes for a long time,” said Adira.
Audra, a Ugandan journalist, also relives violent events.
“Memories of traumatic scenes have remained fresh in my mind,” she said. She spent nearly two decades covering the Lord’s Resistance Army, which killed more than 2,400 people, abducted 3,400, and caused the displacement of 380,000 individuals.
Mary, a journalist in the Philippines, remembers the aftermath of a typhoon in Laguna, south of Manila. She arrived five days after the storm hit, and food, electricity, and transportation were is short supply.
“We had to walk endlessly to get from one place to another,” Mary said. “It was difficult to get food. After that, when we returned (home), you still remember the scenes you have witnessed. . . .”
Sofia, a Russian journalist, said painful memories, though troubling, are indicators of journalists’ humanity. “Of course, you remember the voices, you remember the stories,” she said. “I don’t know any serious journalist, male or female who just finishes a story and forgets about those people. We are human beings. It’s part of our world.”
Shock, sadness, depression
Some journalists were unprepared for the violence they saw, and it left them stunned, physically ill, or emotionally ravaged.
“When there is a bomb blast, you inhale the stench of burning flesh,” said Esin, a Pakistani journalist. “We were nauseous, and we threw up. The long-term effect: I felt guilty I was walking in someone’s blood. I threw my shoes away.”
Other journalists also experienced corporeal reactions. Leah, a U.S. photographer on assignment in Haiti, saw a man being burned alive and felt “physically queasy.”
Adira suffered headaches and insomnia. She took sleeping pills and smoked to ease the tension. She has stopped taking pills but continues to smoke.
Julia, a Belgian journalist working in Cameroon, said she was “in a state of shock for two days” after she saw a man starve to death in the marketplace.
“My grandfather, a retired soldier who called me every day, immediately understood because of my incoherent speech. He sent me friends of his who still lived in Cameroon. They helped me a lot,” she said.
She also reported on HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis in Africa. She stayed two months and was distressed by the widespread indifference to health needs of people living far from cities.
“When I came back to Belgium, I staying completely blank for weeks. I needed time to find back taste for social activities.”
Julia sometimes now has headaches and bouts of extreme fatigue, but she can’t say for sure that this is related to her work. She does relive some of the events she covered, but tries to control her reactions through psychological counseling and breathing exercises.
For others, including Sarah, a Canadian journalist who worked in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the reactions were more emotional.
“I have no recollection of anything being instantly traumatic that I can associate with that,” Sarah said. “But I do know in my 30s there’s a sadness, and I can cry very easily . . . thinking about people died and feeling built over those things.”
Not all journalists witnessed violence. Some interviewed survivors or relatives, and that, they said, was incredibly difficult.
Stella, a U.S. journalist, reported on the death of three girls in a house fire at Christmas 2011 and interviewed their father, Matthew Badger. She was so distraught, her mother and a friend came to check on her. “For three days . . . I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I was depressed. I couldn’t get that story out of my head. . . . I was exhausted mentally and physically.”
Stella also covered the Sept. 11 attacks in New York City. One of her assignments was to interview the father of a flight attendant who died when the planes crashed into the World Trade Centers. Talking with him was an emotional struggle.
“He was fine, but I lost it. I kept thinking of all those people (aboard) getting all those phone calls (from worried relatives) and not picking up the phones,” Stella said.
Anna had a similar emotional reaction to an interview.
“There’s one woman who still haunts me,” she said. The woman was the mother of one of three U.S. soldiers who were captured on patrol in Iraq; eventually, all were found dead. The mother asked Anna, “’What did you see? What do you know?’ I told her what I could. . . . I just went home and drank a bottle of bourbon and cried. . . . At least she has peace. They found him. . . . That poor mom. . . . That will stay with me forever.”
Yet, journalists did not have to witness violence or conduct interviews to feel shock or despair. Arina, a journalist whose job was to edit photos and videos of the genocide in Rwanda, said she had looked through so many violent images, she “just felt kind of numb.”
Sarah edited audio of survivors in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, who told stories of rape, assault, kidnapping, threats.
“Those kind of things I heard time and time again weighed on me,” she said.
Olivia spent hours listening to 911 emergency calls from victims of the Pulse nightclub shooting in Florida, in which 49 people died. “Listening to the last minutes of people’s lives—it was really upsetting.”
Madeline, a U.S. journalist, observed: “You are not immune to mental health issues just because you didn’t experience violence firsthand.”
For some journalists, feelings of depression were compounded by feelings of frustration when they remembered that the violence they covered continued.
Isabelle, a U.S. journalist who worked in Iraq, said: “When you see that over and over again, and compounded by human misery and the fact these people have nothing to go home to, it’s really depressing,” she said.
Elizabeth, also a U.S. journalist who worked in Iraq, questioned what, if anything has changed. “After more than a decade of war in Iraq, it starts to feel quite depressing that so many people are still suffering so much.”
Some female journalists said their work experiences made them fearful of things they hadn’t been afraid of before.
“It’s definitely with me all the time, especially when I came home from Afghanistan. I couldn’t handle large crowed. I couldn’t do noises,” said Madeline.
Nora, also a U.S. journalist who worked in the Middle East, said she still “can’t go to fireworks without ducking.” Ava, another U.S. journalist, had a similar experience. One New Year’s Eve she met her boyfriend in France. When she heard the popping of bottle rockets, she backed against a wall and froze. “I’m still shocked by the way I responded,” Ava said.
Leah, who photographed the aftermath of the September 11, 2001, attacks in New York City, said she started to avoid large crowds and tried to avoid riding the subway. She said she still feels somewhat uncomfortable in large crowds. Loud noises used to make her “jumpy,” but that no longer happens.
For some journalists, the sights they had seen kept them awake at nights. For others who found sleep, they were haunted by nightmares.
“I still dream at least once a week I am back there. Something is blowing up, there’s an earthquake, there’s a car accident. There were a lot of ways to die there,” said Madeline of her time in Afghanistan.
Audra, who covered the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda, said she still has nightmares about some of the dead rebels she photographed.
Martina had “incredibly violent nightmares related to my work” in Mexico.
Sofia, a Russian journalist, said she had occasional problems sleeping, some nightmares and depression, but characterized her reactions as mild.
Hannah, who covered domestic violence in her home country of Uganda, experienced sleep disturbances. “I could just fear any movements at night of something, and it could easily make me awake and not to sleep anymore.”
Ella, a Zimbabwean journalist, remembers a colleague telling her he couldn’t sleep at night because of all the corpses in bed with him. “They are definitely with me as well,” she said.
Women who reported on violence and death became intensely concerned about their own well-being.
“When I was under threats . . . mentally I was not good (though) I want to show myself strong,” said Alima, an Afghani journalist. “But when I was on my way (to an assignment) or in the bed, I thought, ‘Now they will enter my bedroom or attack my car.’ Even sometimes if anybody on the bicycle or motorcycle passes from my side, I think, ‘I am just finished, and they will kill me or throw acid.’”
Adilah, a British journalist covering the Middle East, said she sometimes felt tense and worried when reporting, but the feelings usually subsided after her story was done. “I’ve had moments of paranoia, where I thought, “I’m gonna get killed.’ It doesn’t happen too often. . . . Usually the paranoia is on the job.”
For others, the fear came after the job was done. The uncertain feeling of “what next?” didn’t leave once the assignment was complete. “(I) always live in fear, thinking things happen and can happen to you and your relative,” said Hannah.
When she returned from Iraq to her home in New York City, Anna she was afraid to go outside. And she found herself checking roads, making sure there was nothing unusual or out of place. “You really take that back with you, that heightened sense of awareness,” she said.
Emma, who covered dozens of mass shootings in the United States as well as other crimes, said she feels “alert a lot. If I go to the mall, I’m actually looking for the person who’s wearing the big overcoat that doesn’t seem appropriate for the weather. At the airport, I’m (mentally) profiling people. It has made me far more vigilant about society and being in social settings.”
Olivia said she was not able to go into a nightclub until a year after she reported on the shootings at the Pulse nightclub in Florida. When she did, she began hyperventilating and had to leave. “It affected me in ways I was surprised to find out,” she said.
Rose, a U.S. journalist who covered crime, said her work also has affected her personal life. “I will say covering sexual violence has made me think differently about dating. I’m single, and this has definitely made me more cautious.”
Many of the journalists, including Leah, a U.S. photographer who covered violence in the Middle East, Kosovo and Haiti, were angry at the violence they’d seen.
“My great big cup of compassion is empty now. I’m very angry at the moment, at the injustice of it all, the terrible things I’ve witnessed over the past 25 years,” Ella said.
For some, the sharp contrast between the violence they’d witnessed and the safe environment they returned to bred impatience and frustration.
Anna said when she returned to the United States from covering combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, “I got really angry, really pissed off at people at Starbuck’s (arguing) when their order wasn’t right. . . . I’d think, ‘You have a bed. You have a roof.’”
“I have very little patience for people who complain about the same problem over and over again and don’t try to fix it. The person who was the maid of honor at my wedding was in a small town, in a little bubble, always complaining. . . . I don’t want to hear it. I really don’t find your problems, problems. We don’t really talk anymore.”
Adilah, a journalist based in Britain, said her coverage of the Middle East and Latin America made her “less patient when friends moan about bullshit, when friends moan about petty things, but I think friends stop themselves moaning about bullshit things because they’re thinking, ‘She’s just been with somebody who’s been raped.’”
Esin said that her coverage of violence in her home country of Pakistan made her “more angry, more edgy. Small things would make me angry.” However, she said she feels more at ease now.
Martina, an Argentine journalist who worked in Mexico, said, after she returned from an assignment, she realized she would pick fights with her boyfriend “to get that adrenalin rush” she got from reporting on trauma.
For some, their work led to feelings of guilt.
Julia said she felt guilt on numerous levels—guilty she didn’t help people she wrote about, guilty for her own first-world privileges and comfort, and guilty that her work might not have enough impact.
“I feel guilty for people’s indifference because it means I didn’t find the good words to report what I saw,” Julia said.
Madeline, a U.S. blogger who helped train journalists in Afghanistan, also had feelings of guilt.
“I worked with an all Afghan staff, and they’re all stuck there.” She tried to help some come to the United States, but “they’re stuck in this fucking shithole.” She is frustrated that the U.S. government “went there promising to stabilize the country, and we didn’t. I think about that every day. Anytime I’m complaining or frustrated about my life, I feel really guilty because my problems are problems people in Afghanistan couldn’t even think about.”
And Natalie feels guilty that violence continues around the globe, but “I’m going to stay in my nice comfortable office.”
Researchers agree that individuals who have experienced violence will have some type of emotional or physical reaction, but the distress usually disappears in a few months.
That was the case for some journalists, who said they were disturbed by what they saw, but their reactions were short-lived.
Asya, who worked in Beirut, said she realized that her responses to violence were normal reactions to an abnormal situation. “Whenever I see some of the violent events . . . as a human being, I’m seeing something distressful. If you don’t think it distressful, get out of there. You react as a human being, but I don’t dwell on it.”
Adilah, too, said her reactions have been temporary.
“In Iran, I had some violent dreams—men with guns. . . . It might one day hit me in the face, it might spill over in a few months, but right now, I’m ok. . . .”
Rose, a U.S. journalist who covered crime, said “I can turn it off. I’ll think about it for a couple of days, but I don’t really dwell on it.”
Mary, a Filipina journalist, said she vividly remembers her coverage of trauma, but “not enough to paralyze me from working.” She said that talking to friends and family and expressing her feelings helps her cope, as does her sense of humor. “Otherwise, I don’t think anyone would survive this world and this career,” Mary said.
Ella said she reminds herself that witnessing—and feeling—distress is inherent in her work.
“This job. It’s a choice, and you know there is going to be hurt and pain and trauma. The kind of scars I carry, I don’t resent. I don’t need to be coddled. It is something I am perfectly prepared to carry. Sometimes, it’s very hard, but most of the time, I’m ok with it.”
In spite of the traumas they had experienced, many journalists did not feel “entitled” to claim post-traumatic stress.
Olivia was disturbed by the videos she saw and the audios she heard as she wrote follow-up stories about the Pulse nightclub shootings in the United States, but she wasn’t sure she was “worthy to feel those things.”
Anna had a similar concern. She was angry after she returned home from covering combat, and although her mother encouraged her to see psychological help, she was reluctant.
“I didn’t lose my legs. I didn’t’ lose my buddy. I didn’t lose my platoon,” Anna said. Eventually, she did get help.
Yet, a journalistic culture that values emotional detachment can discourage journalists from confronting and dealing with their post-violence feelings. Researchers Keats and Buchanan found that journalists often feel they can’t openly express emotions—that it’s unprofessional—and that to refuse a dangerous assignment means job loss. The International Federation of Journalists observes that: “Too often, a macho culture encourages journalists to believe that they can cope with any disaster and that personal feelings should not get in the way of the job.”
Sarah experienced that self-imposed bravado after she spent a week reporting the story of a boy who went missing from his backyard. One of her colleagues suggested she rotate off the story. “And I thought, ‘What you don’t think I’m strong enough? You don’t think I’m good enough?’”
Anna got angry with her boss when she returned from Afghanistan and he assigned her to cover a story about a chef in Chelsea, a trendy neighborhood in New York City. She also got angry when he asked how she was doing.
“And I would say, ‘I’m fine. I’m the biggest, baddest person here. I’ve been through war. Give me a story, and I’ll go.’”
“It’s like football players,” said Ava, a U.S. journalist. “We’re not going to say anything if we’re hurt.”
But admitting you are hurt is important is coping and being able to continue to do your job effectively, Madeline said.
And journalists need to realize “if things affect you, that’s ok. Journalists can get PTSD, too,” said Natalie.
Newsroom managers should learn about post-traumatic stress and reach out to journalists, just as the military reaches out to troops returning from deployments, Emma said.
“It would be very helpful to journalists to have access to some sort of decompression or counseling, just via the phone, to help work through the guilt, horror, etc., or even for someone to tell us, ‘Yeah, that’s a normal reaction. You’re fine.’” Emma said.
For more information:
The DART Center provides this summary of studies on journalists and trauma.
For journalists who are first responders to tragedies, this DART Center article offers advice.
Next in the series: Female journalists talk about how covering violence affected their careers.