Anthony Feinstein is a Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Toronto. He is the co-author of this report on the emotional toll on journalists covering the European refugee crisis that we published in 2017. This piece is a lightly edited transcript of his opening remarks at a seminar chaired by Meera Selva on 27 May 2020. You can watch the whole event in this link.
I’ve devoted 20 years to looking at the emotional well-being of journalists. I first became interested in the topic around 1999 when a patient was referred to my clinic with a very unusual presentation. She was a frontline journalist who had been working in East Africa. She had covered a lot of conflict, and over the years she’d become progressively distressed emotionally until she had this major breakdown, had to come back to Canada and was referred to my clinic.
She did really well in therapy. She made a full recovery, and I remember saying to her at the time, “Why had you not reached out for help earlier? You know, you work for a large news organisation – you knew that you were getting into trouble. Why did you not ask for assistance?”. And she said to me: “You don’t understand my profession. If I had told my manager I was feeling this way, they would not have sent me out into the field again and my career as a frontline correspondent would have been over.”
I was intrigued by her response. I thought this was somewhat punitive, and so I asked my research team at the time to go and look at the literature and tell me what had been published on the topic of journalists and trauma and emotional well-being. And they came back and said, “We can’t find a single paper”. I didn’t believe them because in medicine there’s always someone who’s been there before you. And so we went to the big library at the University of Toronto and we asked the librarians to check and they came back and said, “No, there’s nothing there.”
On the basis of that, I wrote a grant application and sent it to the Freedom Forum in Washington DC. Based on that early grant, we were able to undertake a study looking at frontline journalists who were working for the BBC, for CNN, for Reuters, Associated Press. I was given a Rolodex of 170 names of leading frontline journalists who basically defined their careers covering war and disaster and revolution. And we had a control group of journalists who had never done that, who’d stayed at home in Canada covering domestic news, and we had a look at topics like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, anxiety and substance abuse.
More on journalists under pressure:
- Read this report Professor Feinstein and Hannah Storm published on the emotional toll on journalists covering the European refugee crisis.
- Read this piece by Meera Selva on how COVID-19 is threatening press freedom worldwide.