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Andrea Woo interviews a man named Sheldon Tarry in Vancouver about safe supply — pharmaceutical alternatives to street drugs. Photo: Chad Hipolito

Journalists face ‘invisible wounds’ reporting on traumatic stories

From covering deaths in remote communities, to international humanitarian disasters — journalists carry the weight of covering life’s worst events. 

By McKenna Hadley-Burke and Karan Saxena , in Culture Feature story Health Life , on April 28, 2021 Tags: , , , , ,

Andrea Woo spent several months last year interviewing the friends and family members of victims of the overdose crisis for a memorial project

“My work was waking up, brewing a pot of coffee and then having like, hour-long conversations with people who are crying about their dead kids, their dead brothers and sisters. And most of them would be sobbing at some point,” said Woo, a journalist for the Globe and Mail who has been covering the opioid crisis since 2013. 

“There were a few days where I hung up and just burst into tears, and then wiped away tears, like, ‘All right, next one.’ ”

Andrea Woo                                                                                                     Photo: Rich Lam

Woo is among a generation of journalists who are grappling with exposure to trauma on the job — and talking about it. A culture of silence towards mental-health in North American journalism is giving way to a new era of increased awareness. A wave of journalists and researchers are reconciling with harmful practices and more openly acknowledging the impacts of reporting on trauma. 

North American journalists have faced a multitude of new challenges over the last several years — putting many local journalists in similar danger to their foreign correspondent colleagues. 

Between politically driven distrust in the media leading to increased attacks on journalists, massive layoffs, and most recently, the pandemic turning community reporting into frontline reporting, it’s no surprise that journalists are struggling. 

Eighty to 100 per cent of journalists have been exposed to a work-related traumatic event, according to research from the Dart Center for Journalism.

Woo acknowledges that her work is heavy and that she has downplayed the effect it has had on her mental health.

She said, even before the pandemic, there were points where she had hit a wall and wanted to stop writing about overdoses. She kept going as the crisis worsened.

The impact of exposure to trauma on the job has been a topic of concern for over 20 years in the world of journalism. Up until that point, newsroom support remained limited or nonexistent. 

‘It wasn’t something anybody talked about’

The personal impact of reporting on international disasters is well known to Curt Petrovich, who worked as a CBC journalist for over three decades. 

Years of bearing witness to trauma and suffering took a toll on Petrovich’s mental health and memory. 

After a particularly “nightmarish” reporting trip to the Philippines in the wake of a natural disaster, Petrovich was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Curt Petrovich                                                   Photo: Curt Petrovich

“I did assignment after assignment. At no point did anybody, my bosses or anybody else, sort of reach out and say, ‘You’re doing work that has a direct relationship to potential mental injury,’ ” he said. 

“The idea that you could be perfectly fine physically and come back with sort of invisible wounds. It’s just, it wasn’t something anybody talked about.”

Petrovich said that asking for support while covering difficult stories carried a professional price — the threat of fewer assignments.

The birth of journalism and trauma research 

That punitive culture of the journalism industry interested neuropsychiatrist Anthony Feinstein, who ran the first studies on trauma and journalism. 

Feinstein, now a professor of psychiatry at the University of Toronto, learned that one of his patients, a frontline war correspondent, avoided therapy out of concern for her career.  

“She was worried that if she told her news managers, ‘This is how I’m feeling’, they would not send her back into the field,” he said. 

Feinstein went on to conduct the first studies on trauma, journalism, and emotional health. Two early findings stuck out to him.

Anthony Feinstein                         Photo: Doug Nicolson

“I was stunned by the level of danger. The journalists who we have researched had been exposed to an event that could have killed them on average, 21, 22 times,” he said. 

“The other thing that I became aware of very early on is that news organizations were doing nothing to help this group emotionally.” 

Feinstein continues to conduct research on journalism and trauma, particularly the effects on war correspondents. He says the North American journalism landscape is fundamentally different now, but there are still gaps in what’s being addressed. 

Feinstein said the mental-health concerns associated with exposure to trauma in the field aren’t exclusive to those on the frontlines.  

“Local domestic journalists can cover very difficult stories. And I’ve worked with some Canadian journalists covering, you know, the missing [and murdered] Indigenous women [and girls]. And it’s very traumatic work. It’s been, you know, very painful and very hard,” he said.

Indigenous journalists face additional challenges both in the newsroom and in the field.  

Reporting while Indigenous 

The challenges of reporting on stories about Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls is something that Willow Fiddler, an Oji-Cree reporter for the Globe and Mail, has experienced while covering stories in Thunder Bay.

In covering the death of 17-year old Tammy Keeash, an Indigenous girl who drowned while under the care of the child welfare systemFiddler said she felt a responsibility to shine light on violence against Indigenous people — despite the trauma she would be exposed to.

Willow Fiddler                                           Photo: Brandy Kenna

That’s an impact that the Canadian Commission for UNESCO and Journalists for Human Rights have noted.

“News stories can often trigger personal trauma for FIJs [Female Indigenous Journalists] because they have experienced colonialism in the same way as the people they cover,” according to a recent report published the commssion.

Fiddler described how this personal trauma has surfaced for her while covering Indigenous matters.

“I don’t know if it’s a compound of trauma that you’re experiencing while you’re reporting on other people’s traumas, because you know what it’s like,” said Fiddler.

“So [what] you’re having to navigate … it’s pretty personal.”

Not only did this personal connection help her ethically report on a heavy story, but it also helped her to heal with the community — outside of reporting on traumatic events like deaths. 

“For example, in First Nations communities, there’s a lot of gathering … a lot of support [and] ceremonies done. It was really important for me to make space for that.” 

The unique trauma that journalists like Fiddler experience as members of the community they report on is opening up a new field of inquiry for researchers like Matthew Pearson.

Connections to community and trauma 

Before specializing in research on trauma-informed journalism, Pearson reported on his own community for the Ottawa Citizen. 

Pearson, now an assistant professor at the Carleton University School of Journalism and Communication, said he thinks there is “less attention and thought given” to journalists covering traumatic stories every day. 

Matthew Pearson                                                                                             Photo: Kanina Holmes

“I was really interested in the court reporter, the crime reporter, the person who’s been reporting on poverty in Toronto for 25 years … folks who haven’t gone overseas, haven’t covered a war, but are covering things that are quite difficult and can be quite gruesome,” he said.

Pearson said he recognizes that journalism can “mine things from your own life.” It’s a reality of the job that he has experienced firsthand.

“Early in my career, I wrote about the suicide death of a young gay person. And that exposed me to this terrible story. It also surfaced for me some unresolved trauma,” said Pearson. 

He took a particular interest in how domestic journalists report on trauma and how, in turn, those events impact them. Pearson said supporting these journalists can start with a simple acknowledgement. 

“I think acknowledgement goes a long way — that this work is hard and that it can impact people.”

Pearson said he’s concerned about how journalists will cope after COVID-19 — one of the greatest threats facing journalists today.

Reporting on a global health crisis will have lasting impacts on journalists as they face burnout, personal loss, and concern for their own safety.

Newsroom support in the time of COVID-19

For Woo, covering two simultaneous health crises — a pandemic and an overdose crisis — has exacerbated the challenges she faces. 

“So just sitting at my kitchen table, doing these interviews, one after the other, not socializing. And, I mean, you could take some time off work, but it’s not like you’re going anywhere to recharge,” she said.

In a study on journalism in the time of COVID-19, co-led by Feinstein, over 80 per cent of the journalists reported experiencing “overall emotional and psychological distress.”

While many of the findings were discouraging, Feinstein found a silver lining. 

“Journalists who accepted the counselling … were far less anxious, far less depressed, and had fewer symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder,” he said. 

While therapy sounds like a promising solution, counselling for journalists is not universally accessible. 

Eighty-five per cent of survey respondents reported that their employers did not offer them psychological counselling, according to a global project on Journalism and the Pandemic .

Woo has been fortunate enough to find support in her newsroom. 

“I’m very lucky to have an editor who is actually really big on mental health,” she said.

If this culture of support had replaced the punitive one that Petrovich faced, he might not have left his days of reporting on trauma behind him — a fact he said he has now come to terms with.

Petrovich said he hopes that new journalists who cover traumatic stories will be better supported across the industry in the future.

“It still needs to be done, hopefully by people who are trained to deal with, and are supported to deal with, what I believe is almost inevitable for most people, and that is being affected personally by [trauma].”