The Traumatised Journalist

"I had nightmares, flashbacks. I dissociated... Changes in self-perception and hallucinations-those are some of my other symptoms. You are poison, I chanted silently to myself. And your poison is contagious."

In her new book, Irritable Hearts:  A PTSD Love Story, journalist Mac McClelland describes how reporting on the devastating 2010 earthquake in Haiti left her emotionally damaged and suffering from posttraumatic stress disorder.   A former human rights reporter for Mother Jones magazine, McClelland has covered a wide range of domestic and international news stories including the Deepwater Horizon oil spill disaster,  vigilante violence on a Native American reservation in Oklahoma (where she was personally threatened with rape), along with assignments in Thailand, Haiti, Australia, Burma, Uganda, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Bhutan.   But it was her experiences in Haiti, including interviewing victims of sexual violence that left her unable to cope with what was happening to her after returning home to California.  As she movingly describes in her book, her attempt to come to terms with the flashbacks, nightmares, and other symptoms  led her to explore how veterans and other survivors deal with trauma  as well as covering some of the latest research looking at PTSD diagnosis and treatment.  She also discovered that PTSD symptoms in journalists and other front-line workers encountering second-hand exposure to traumatic violence are hardly uncommon.  While journalists are often viewed as impartial observers, McClelland's book makes a bold statement about the trauma that is often associated with covering horrific events around the world.

Even thoug the secondary effects of trauma have been well-documented in health care workers dealing with trauma survivors, virtually anyone coming into contact with survivors and hearing their stories of survival are vulnerable.   Along with journalists and front-line workers,  anyone exposed to people who have been through traumatic ordeals can experience many of the emotional and cognitive problems associated with posttraumatic stress.   This includes clergy, justice system professionals, and even family members providing support for loved ones.   Though usually not as severe as what people can experience first-hand,  symptoms of secondary trauma can include social withdrawal, mood swings, irritability, aggression, sleep problems, problems managing boundaries with clients, trust issues, problems with intimacy, and intrusive flashbacks. 

Secondary trauma is often associated with compassion fatigue which can lead to support workers losing their ability to feel empathy for the people they are meant to help.   This often causes increased cynicism or even burnout as exposed workers experience increasing hopelessness and a generally negative attitude.  All of which  leaves them more vulnerable to later traumas as well as later problems such as substance abuse or even suicide without the proper support.    While aid agencies often provide emotional support and special training to help aid workers cope more effectively, many front-line workers, including journalists, are frequently left to fend for themselves or rely on informal support from fellow workers to deal with what they are going through.

Women journalists such as Mac McClelland face an additional obstacle since admitting to emotional difficulties can undermine their credibility and make it harder to be taken seriously by their male counterparts.   According to journalist Lauren Wolfe, who covers sexual violence in conflict zones for Women Under Siege and spent five years on the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), the issue of how  journalists, male or female, can be affected by dealing with trauma on a regular basis is something that is rarely discussed.   Wolfe herself was diagnosed with posttraumatic stress disorder due to her work but she is often defensive when discussing her symptoms with journalists.  "Why should I be ashamed by being affected by terrible things?" she said in an interview with The New Republic." It’s natural, and by recognizing it, you can deal with it and move on."

She also says that the problem affects male journalists as well.  "I’ve talked to plenty of men who cover war and are having the exact same problems I am, they just won’t say it beyond a dinner conversation with me."    The macho expectations associated with the male-dominated field of high-risk journalism encourages most journalists to stay silent about what they are experiencing.  Guardian reporter Oliver Laughland told The New Republic about his own experiences covering the treatment of asylum seekers in U.N. refugee camps and how he continues to be haunted by images of what he has seen.  "You're not human if you don't have a response," he said.

Still, for journalists dealing with horrifying experiences while covering events worldwide, the lingering effects of posttraumatic stress can be a heavy burden.  As journalist Jordan Kisner asked  in that same New Republic article, "How do people deal with that healthily? Therapy? Meditation? Just being naturally resilient? I'd like to know."




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