Working with violence: Female journalists offer advice about preparation, coping afterward
Photo by Lars Schmidt / International Media Support
Editor’s note: This article is the eleventh in a 12-part series based on interviews with 35 female journalists who cover violence around the globe.
For journalists who cover violence, there are two goals: Tell the story and stay safe.
The 35 women interviewed for this series advised journalists to take precautions before they enter violent environments and to take care of themselves after they return.
Before you go: Study
Journalists who are covering conflict and trauma need to prepare. They need training in how to work in violent environments, and they also need to learn about the country or region where they will be traveling.
Journalists “must be also smart” and study before they begin asking questions.
“Before you cover the event, you must be familiar with the place, the people, the culture. Be objective. Don’t lie. Talk only about what you know,” advised Denisa, a journalist who worked in her home country of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Julia, a Belgian journalist who worked covering conflict in Africa, said journalists should prepare and “read, read, read all the documentation they can on the subject.”
She also suggested talking with professionals who care for sick or injured people before going into conflict. That way, journalists can learn how to talk with victims of illness or trauma.
Emine, a Turkish journalist who has covered violence in her home country, agreed journalists should learn the history and culture of a region before they arrive. She encouraged journalists to attend training on how to work in conflict zones and to work with news organizations to find mentors who can give them advice.
Sofia, a journalist in Russia, advised journalists to “talk to a person you trust . . . and just talk . . . get prepared psychologically, practically, technically. You should know how to behave.”
Preparation should include first-aid training, even getting “familiar with the sound of weapons,” said Julia, and “learn what a state of shock is and learn how to recognize it and how to get better.”
Getting ready to report or photograph means thinking practically—keeping phone batteries charged, having food and water close by, and not going on an assignment alone. And it means thinking strategically—keeping people—both work colleagues and family—outside the conflict zone informed of the journalist’s whereabouts and time schedules.
In the field: Stay safe
Audra, who covered the Lord’s Resistance Army in her home country of Uganda, has spoken as an expert about her experiences covering conflict. She’s talked to students at schools and universities in Africa and the Middle East about journalism as a tool for peace-building.
To cover violence, reporters must go where the violence is taking place, she said, and that means journalists must work hard, not only to report the story, but to keep themselves safe.
“Continuous field based reporting about violence/war in a locality will enabled you to reveal real violence/war and its effects in your community because you will be giving a firsthand report on the violence/war,” said Audra.
“In order to do this, you must be very courageous in executing your work. Get to know that this is a risky field, but you must report on the violence conflict by giving all parties a voice without compromising the principles of good journalism,” she said.
Among the advice she gives to help women journalists stay safe:
Don’t wear bright clothing, including white. If there is an ambush, you will be a target.
Wear civilian clothing over bullet-proof jackets so you won’t be seen as a military official.
Always carry a waterproof bag, and be sure to have a flashlight or torch, pens, notebooks, pain reliever, a sweater or jacket, and cash.
Wear flat shoes in case you have to run.
Wear trousers so that you can easily climb in and out of vehicles.
Carry a head scarf in Muslim countries.
Give sources nicknames in notes to protect their identity.
Have back-up batteries for phones and recording devices and bring a portable solar battery charge.
Plan routes in and out of the places you travel for interviews.
Travel with one or two colleagues.
Always have local contacts, including church or community workers, to help out.
After the work is done: talk
Journalists can be deeply affected by the events they’ve witnessed and the people they’ve met. Therefore, it’s important to talk with family and friends, who can listen and offer comfort.
“It’s about that time spend with family and friends, sharing war stories over a bottle of wine,” said Ella, a Zimbabwean journalist who has covered civil unrest and violence much of her career. “That, more than anything else, can help people heal from traumatic experiences. Just having people listen to them, to the anger, the frustration, the grief.”
Mary, a journalist who covers economic violence in her home country of the Philippines, said she, too, finds talking with family, friends and colleagues can help after a difficult assignment. It’s important to “be able to share what you have witnessed, be able to share your conversations” with the interviewees. She talks to her mother and friends from graduate school. “At least they are familiar with these issues at a very superficial level,” she said.
Alima, an Afghani journalist, said she often talks with friends and listens to their advice.
“Fortunately, my friends could understand, and even sometimes they helped me when I was in a bad situation,” Alima said.
She added: “Don’t be afraid to share your experience, which will most likely include fears. Fear support is one of the best ways to cope . . . after a coverage, especially in a country where mental health is rarely recognized.”
Leah, a U.S. journalist, recognized “my friends did not and could not fully understand what I did.” However, she said, “My relationships are very solid, and I did not expect them to understand.”
Some journalists suggested the act of writing could be cathartic.
“The burden is lessened because you are telling their stories,” said Anna, a U.S. journalist. “You are telling the story of a woman who lost her son or this (military) unit who lost nine guys in one week. . . . You’re letting the world know.”
Talk to colleagues
Journalism colleagues can be helpful, too.
Leah said other journalists who had worked in conflict zones “were a source of understanding.”
“There a really strong comradery that comes from conflict and war and all the shit that goes with it,” said Madeline, a U.S. journalist. Charlotte, a U.S. journalist who covered a mass shooting, agreed.
“The relationships you build during the time are incredibly intense and very important,” said Ella.
Women, typically a minority in conflict reporting, can help each other, Madeline said.
“There’s not a ton of women reporters. . . . A lot are really supportive of each other, and that’s good to see. Having a support group is invaluable,” said Madeline.
Emine said: “I have always climbed the stairs by the help of women. I really believe we do take good care of each other.”
One U.S. journalist said she talked with military troops when she was embedded in Iraq and that helped her. Their perspective was “this happens every night, we don’t care attitude. It kind of eased any tension,” said Natalie.
Talk to a health professional
Some journalists sought professional help from therapists—psychologists, psychiatrists or other health professionals.
Martina, who worked in Mexico, said she didn’t start going to therapy because of her job. She went because she was ending a relationship and because her grandmother died.
“I was sitting there (in the therapist’s office), and I couldn’t stop crying. My therapist asked me, ‘What did you do today?’ People were on a freight train, fell off, bodies cut in two. There was a silence, and I didn’t connect it.”
Martina said she realized, in retrospect, she was suffering from post-traumatic stress. She sought help from a psychiatrist who treats journalists.
Madeline also sought therapy, and it helped her. “I was really angry, and I didn’t understand why,” she said.
Natalie said: “If things affect you, that’s ok. If you need help, then get help.”
And Madeline added: “You can’t do your job if you are not healthy.”
However, Sofia noted that not everyone can afford treatment for mental health issues and some cultures frown up people seeking help.
Journalists had seen their colleagues self-medicate through alcohol and drugs. Some had done this themselves. Ava, a U.S. journalist, said she and her colleagues “drank tons” after two co-workers died while reporting in Sierra Leone.
Take a break from working
Even though journalists take their jobs seriously, it doesn’t mean they have to devote every minute to their careers.
“I love journalism, but I don’t want it to be 24/7. You can chose to have a healthy lifestyle,” Martina said.
“I don’t want to talk about work the whole time,” said Adilah, a British-based journalist who has covered the Middle East. “ You have to download when you’ve been through something, but after I’ve downloaded, I’ve gone through it, and I don’t want to sit around talking shop and the injustices of the world.”
“Take care of (your) soul first,” Julia advised.
Martina urged journalists to try to carve out “joy time.”
“Hang out with journalists who have a sense of self-preservation, not this mythological journalist who always dodging the bullet,” she said. “If you do that you’ll get burned out. I’ve seen it, l lived it.”
Know when to walk away
Sometimes staying physically safe and mentally healthy meant walking away from a story—or walking away from conflict reporting. At least two journalists in this series left conflict reporting at the time of the interviews; two others left their jobs as crime reporters after interviews were complete.
“I covered a lot of terrorism,” said Emine. “Now, it is a decision—I’m not covering it. I had enough. It’s too much to see how people hurt one another, how inhumane.” She now works reporting on public affairs.
“I figure the big problem is when you’re not afraid, to not recognize the situation is dangerous because your judgment is off,” said Asya, a journalist who has worked in the Middle East.
“You don’t have to do this. You should never do something that makes you feel uncomfortable. You can do other things equally important or more important,” said Asya.
“Always remember that your safety and security must come first before the story you are pursuing,” advised Audra.
“Make yourself as safe as possible,” said Natalie.
“If you want to continue to work, you should have this self-care. . . . If you care about yourself, you’ll care about everyone,” said Falak, an Armenian photodocumentarian, who admits she doesn’t always take her own advice.
“Try to be as self-aware as you can. Be checking in and making sure that your demeanor isn’t changing, that you aren’t depressed. Know you limits about when you need to stop, whether it’s the day of the week or the career,” said Caroline, a. U.S. journalist who has worked in Africa and Europe.
“Know what you’re able to do,” she said.
For more information:
Numerous organizations help journalists prepare for conflict reporting and deal with the aftermath. Here are a few:
RISC provides freelance journalists with training to treat life-threatening injuries on the battlefield, as well as personal security, including checkpoint procedures and digital surveillance detection.
CJS provides training for journalists and others working in hostile work environments. Courses include first aid, sexual assault prevention, emotional self-care, and digital safety.
The Dart Center, part of the Columbia School of Journalism in New York, provides a variety of programs and resources for journalists covering violence. Dart offers information on post-traumatic stress, as well as information on self-care.
The BBC Academy offers information about journalists’ mental health and physical safety.
The Committee to Protect Journalists has resources for journalists preparing for conflict and returning from conflict.
Reporters Without Borders provides safety information, as well as bullet-proof vests and helmets, plus insurance.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSEC’s) website includes background information on safety of female journalists, including online harassment.
Please add more by contacting Barbara Barnett.
Next: How to report better.
Next: How to report better in violent situations.