Mon, Sep 11, 2017 - Page 7 News List

The mental and physical hazards of being behind the headlines

By Hannah Storm

Not too long ago, the only journalists working in conflict areas who might be afforded protection were those working for wealthy, predominantly Western news organizations.

These journalists would attend expensive courses run by former special forces personnel, who trained them to navigate hostile environments. They would be furnished with flak jackets and helmets, and given first aid kits.

However, journalists elsewhere have rarely benefited from this culture of safety. From Mexico and Brazil to Pakistan and Somalia, journalists are often murdered with impunity.

More often than not, when the messenger is silenced, so is the message.

For the past 15 years, the International News Safety Institute has been collating a list of journalists who have died on the job.

What we have found is shocking: For every 10 reporters killed, nine died while on assignment in their home country. Countless others have had to abandon their homes, jobs and countries. Those who do stay often live in constant fear for their safety.

In places where corrupt regimes or militant groups want to control the flow of information, journalists have long had to risk being kidnapped or killed, but in recent years, this threat has become so great that some countries are effectively no-go zones for international media organizations.

Western correspondents are aware of these risks when they travel abroad to cover active war zones, but now they confront similar dangers at home.

Wherever journalists work — whether online or offline — they need to be mindful of more physical, psychological and digital risks than ever before.

Terrorist attacks have affected news organizations, particularly in Europe, in unexpected ways.

Many of those who arrived first at the scene of the Manchester Arena bombing or the massacre at the Bataclan concert hall in Paris had not received the physical training for such eventualities, nor were they emotionally prepared to cover stories where they would be exposed to that degree of trauma.

In response to these events, some newsrooms have started preparing for what they will do if a domestic terrorist attack directly affects their operations.

Organizations — including the BBC, the Dutch public service broadcaster NOS and others across Europe — have plans in place for journalists responding to incidents in their home cities or those directly targeting their newsrooms.

Beyond bullets and bombs, journalists also face increasing psychological threats at home.

In July, a report I coauthored for the International News Safety Institute put a name to one such threat, a phenomenon known as “moral injury.”

The report, published by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford, examined the effects of covering the refugee crisis in Europe on members of the media.

Reporting on a traumatic story, we found, can have a profound effect on a journalist’s mental health.

Our research found that feelings of guilt and helplessness can be overwhelming when events “transgress personal moral and ethical values or codes of conduct.”

To guard against the risks of moral injury, we highlighted the importance of education, saying: “Journalists need to understand that this is the ‘new’ terrain, part of the mental landscape of the profession.”

Our report also said that organizations should look to provide support to those who need it, bearing in mind that people respond to and recover from trauma in different ways.

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