“If it bleeds, it leads” is a common expression among news reporters preparing evening-news programs across the country. These news stories usually emerge in response to critical incidents, such as natural disasters and various acts of human violence. These are the incidents to which first responders are called. These are also the critical events that may precipitate the onset of psychological trauma/PTSD in these same responders. Since news reporters are often covering the same events, are they at risk for developing psychological trauma/PTSD as well?
In earlier AMHF blogs, this was found to be true for other non-first responder-professional groups responding to these same critical incidents, such as coroners and trauma surgeons receiving the incident victims in their hospitals. Moreover, news reporters are not only witnessing and documenting various incident-facts but, at times, unlike the other groups, the reporters themselves may become victims of threats to self or family members, of assaults, of being sprayed with teargas or water cannon, being taken hostage, and of being shot. Does this added dimension further increase the risk of onset PTSD? The following is what the research literature to date has told us.
The Research Findings
This topic has been the focus of two reviews of this literature (1,2). The first review covers the years from 1980 to 2010 (1). This review includes the 19 studies that were conducted during this time period. They involved 4,209 mostly print news reporters. There were 2,135 male reporters (55%) and 1,894 female journalists (45%). Many of these journalists reported PTSD or PTSD symptoms. However, there were at least two serious research limitations in these early studies. The first was the basic problem of reporters making their own medical diagnoses of PTSD. There was no concurrent verification by a clinician in any study that these self-diagnoses were medically accurate. In addition, the types of reporters and their assignments were unclear. This is also important since reporters on various assignments may be exposed to differing numbers, frequency, and severity of critical incidents (e.g., local-news reporters versus war correspondents).
The second literature review of this topic covers the most recent decade, 2011-20 (2). There were 23 studies during this time period, which included 4,558 reporters. There were 2,633 male reporters (58%) and 1,925 female reporters (42%). These studies were worldwide in scope and included television-and-film photographers, as well as print journalists. (Social-media reporters are not yet represented in the research literature.) In this second review some studies reported the presence of likely PTSD that ranged from 6% to 12%. The national average is 7.9%. In the remaining studies, the majority of reporters endorsed having PTSD symptoms. In this study, news people reported being depressed and abusing alcohol and/or street drugs, two variables often known to be associated with psychological trauma (3). Female reporters accounted for 42% of the subjects studied. This may be an artifact of sampling, but it may also indicate that there are more women entering the field and developing it as a career.
With so many reporting PTSD or PTSD symptoms, it is reasonable to assume that some reporters actually do have clinical PTSD. It also suggests that covering a critical incident inherently places news journalists at risk for the onset of PTSD anywhere in the world, just as it does for first responders. Currently there is no data on which to assess whether journalists who experience direct threats are at increased risk of PTSD onset.
However, as in the first review (1), in the second major review of this literature these studies again relied on self-reports of PTSD. Whereas the reporters’ self-reports are forthcoming, there is no way to know whether they have self-defined PTSD accurately. Moreover, no study clinically has verified and confirmed these self-reports to be true. From a medical/scientific point of view, the field needs at least one study that clinically confirms reporters’ self-reports as clinically accurate before we can say with medical assurance that news reporting of clinical incidents may result in the onset of PTSD.
Treatments: In the meantime, reporters should be encouraged to seek assistance by means of medications, counseling, and crisis-intervention (4) procedures to reduce the known psychological distress that may accompany these conditions. It is important that this reporter/PTSD research continue as data has demonstrated possible alterations in cognition and memory in some journalists reporting PTSD in the course of their professional work (5).
1. Aoki Y, Malcolm E, Yamaguchi S, et al.”Mental Illness among Journalists: A Systematic Review.” International Review of Social Psychiatry, 2013, 59: 377-90.
2. Flannery, R. B. Jr. “News Reporters and Posttraumatic Stress Disorder: A Review of the Literature, 2011-2020.” Psychiatric Quarterly, 2022, 93:151-59.
3. Flannery, R. B. Jr. Posttraumatic Stress Disorder: The Victim’s Guide to Healing and Recovery. [Italic] Second Edition. [LINK] Riverdale, NY: American Mental Health Foundation, 2012.
4. Flannery, R. B., Jr. The Assaulted Staff Action Program (ASAP): Coping with the Psychological Aftermath of Violence. Riverdale, NY: American Mental Health Foundation, 2012.
5. Tornero-Aguilera, J. F., Robles-Perez, J. J., Clemente-Suarez, V. J. “Could Combat Stress Affect Journalists’ News Reporting? A Psychophysiological Response.” Applied Psychophysiological Biofeedback, June 11, 2020, 45, 231-33.
Dr. Raymond B. Flannery Jr., Ph.D. FACLP, is an internationally recognized scholar and lecturer on the topics of violence, victimization, and stress management. Dr. Flannery is available for lectures and workshops for all types of groups and may be reached at The American Mental Health Foundation: 212.737.9027 elomke[at]americanmentalhealthfoundation.org.
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