Paris attacks: journalists 'may suffer trauma'

Reporters and camera crews who covered the terrorist attacks in Paris may suffer Post Traumatic Shock Disorder (PTSD). The warning comes from the Dart Center Europe’s Gavin Rees.

Jane Whyatt

One hundred and thirty-two people have now died as result of the suicide bombings and shootings at the Saint Denis stadium, Bataclan concert hall and nearby restaurants. These latest outrages come less than a year after the Charlie Hebdo massacre, when Parisian cartoonists and their colleagues at the satiricial magazine were shot by Muslim extremists. Seventeen people died then, in January 2015.

Paris Picture by Jane Whyatt

On November 13th 2015 Le Monde reporter Daniel Psenny, who lives near the Bataclan, heard shots and went to help. He dragged a wounded American man into his apartment block as the shots were ringing out, and was himself hit on the left arm by a bullet.


Talking about his reactions one week later on Newsnight on BBC television, Psenny said he had a "professional reflex action" to film the shootings on his smartphone. "I’m a film critic, not a war reporter. I’m not used to seeing death" he said. "I said to myself, I will film but without taking any risks." With his arm bandaged and in a sling, Psenny explains how he went downstairs to open the door, to help people fleeing from the concert hall to get indoors to safety.


Journalists are not immune

Journalists may feel conflicted if they do not act like Psenny to help the injured and dying, but concentrate instead on documenting the tragedy and getting the news out. For many, covering a big, breaking story involving multiple killings can be an important career opportunity. It can lead to promotion or a better job. That, too, can cause mixed feelings of guilt and elation.


All these issues have been explored in depth by the Dart Center, which is based at Columbia School of Journalism in New York, USA. Interviewed by ECPMF, the Center’s Europe spokesperson Gavin Rees explained that PTSD can affect journalists at any stage of their careers. “Being a journalist certainly doesn’t bestow a magic immunity” he said. He observed that it was more likely in young cub reporters, and older colleagues who are near the end of their careers and feel that they have seen too much.


Sufferers may have flashbacks and nightmares about the traumatic events they witnessed, as well as irritability and lack of concentration. PTSD is recognised as a clinical psychological condition if these symptoms persist for one month or more after the tragedy. During the first month it is classified as Acute Stress Disorder ASD. The treatment is psychotherapy.


Journalists may also treat themselves - or avoid the onset of PTSD - by taking time off, doing sport or enjoying nature and talking to newsroom colleagues about the traumatic events  - including those details that were too gruesome to include in their published articles or TV reports. The Dart Center’s free booklet describes how this can help. It is based on real cases such as the attack on New York’s Twin Towers on September 11th  2001.


Dilemmas about whether to provide first aid or the first story are rare, says Rees. "If a journalist has the requisite skills to apply combat-relevant first aid and he or she was the only one there who could have prevented a person from bleeding to death, then it would seem perverse to insist that they should not help" He points out that there have been many cases where reporters have done both – saved lives and got the story. Le Monde’s David Psenny is just one example.


A duty to report on tragedies?

Terrorism, murder and natural disasters will always top the news agenda so it is not possible for most reporters to avoid them – even if they find it hard to cope. Gavin Rees insists that they have the right - and should be encouraged - to refuse assignments that might trigger symptoms.


"There are compelling reasons why we should report on such important human tragedies. We need to cover them. It is just that individuals need to have the right to decline an assignment if it is really not the right time for them. To give an example, a journalist who has recently been struggling to come to terms with the recent death of a murdered relative or colleague might not be in the best place to report on a similar death.


A responsible editor might think twice before insisting that particular colleague should be the first on the scene, and at least have a conversation with the reporter about it. There’ll be other ways that they can contribute to coverage."


It’s estimated that worldwide, 12 percent of all journalists are affected by a Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. In war reporters who have covered five or more conflicts, the figure jumps to 29 percent – almost one third. (Statistics from Professor Antony Feinstein – see fact box below).


Psychiatrist Frank M. Ochberg, co-founder of the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, warns that exposure to trauma may heighten a journalist’s feelings, making him or her depressed, cautious or fearful.


But the opposite is more likely to occur: in his manual for reporters ‘PTSD 101’ he writes: "Remember, PTSD is more than a repetitive traumatic memory. It also is a form of emotional anesthesia, or numbing. {It} may protect a person from overwhelming distress between memories, but it also robs a person of joy and love and hope."


It is this numbness and inability to feel love that masks the extent of the psychological injury and makes living with PTSD especially difficult. Researchers in the USA have found that the Syndrome is likely to drive journalists to drink.

Factbox: War reporters more likely to suffer from depressions

Feinstein, Owen and Blair (2002), writing in the American Journal of Psychiatry found that, compared to other journalists, war journalists reported higher weekly alcohol consumption and higher scores on measures of depression and PTSD.

The lifetime prevalence rate of PTSD in war journalists was 28.6%, and the lifetime prevalence rate of depression was 21.4%. The authors noted that these rates exceeded the rates of these disorders in the general population.

However, the war journalists were no more likely to seek mental health treatment than their peers who had reported on events that did not occur in a war zone. The study included 140 war correspondents and 107 journalists who had not been to war.

Even if reporters are unaffected by the tragedies they encounter at work, they need to prepare for the trauma of others, says Ochberg. His manual sets out appropriate interview techniques and guidelines for photography that respect the grief and dignity of those who have been bereaved.

Jane Whyatt is the Project Manager of ECPMF, responsible for creating and curating web content, organising conferences and co-ordinating the monthly reporting process for the EU.

Read more

Read the full interview by Michelle Trimborn with Gavin Rees here.

France: new anti-terror measures legalised just days before Paris attacks


Gavin Rees klein

"Whether to report or not is a personal choice"

Gavin Rees, director of Dart Centre Europe.

Read the full Interview here