Day in and day out, journalists report on complex and difficult topics — natural disasters, political violenceand human suffering, for example — and often they do this work while also worrying about newsroom layoffs and the future of the industry. It takes a mental and physical toll. Below, we’ve summarized several studies that look at the effects of occupational stress on hard news reporters.
Covering trauma can generate another kind of trauma, Natalee Seely, an assistant professor of journalism at Ball State University, suggests. “Like therapists — who through the process of ‘transference’ can vicariously experience their patients’ emotional pain — reporters may also experience a type of indirect, secondary trauma through the victims they interview and the graphic scenes to which they must bear witness,” she writes in a 2019 study on the impact of covering trauma published in Newspaper Research Journal.
Seely’s research, and others’ featured below, examine the issue from a range of angles, from the U.S., to overseas, from covering natural disasters, to political violence and mass shootings, from working under a regime that is hostile to the press, to reviewing violent, user-submitted images in the newsroom.
Weathering the Storm: Occupational Stress in Journalists Who Covered Hurricane Harvey
Dworznik-Hoak, Gretchen. Journalism Studies, June 2019.
Dworznik-Hoak, a journalism professor at Kent State University, surveyed and interviewed 30 journalists who had covered Hurricane Harvey, a Category 4 storm that inundated Texas in August 2017. Respondents, who included reporters, editors, photographers, news anchors and meteorologists, worked at newspapers and television stations in the Texas cities hit hardest by Hurricane Harvey. During interviews, which occurred about two months after the hurricane, respondents were asked to reflect on their experience covering it. The interviews were analyzed for responses related to stressors and emotional responses. Participants also completed a survey that measured for symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression.
- According to the survey results, 1 in 5 respondents met the threshold for PTSD, and 90% experienced some level of PTSD symptoms related to Hurricane Harvey coverage.
- 2 in 5 respondents met the threshold for depression, and 93% experienced some symptoms of depression.
- Experiences of PTSD and depression were directly related to the hurricane, the author writes. Symptoms included disturbing memories and dreams and difficulty sleeping. Some respondents reported experiencing disruptions in their daily lives due to their psychological symptoms.
- Duration of coverage and type of stories assigned during the hurricane were the most frequently mentioned stressors. Specifically, the unpredictable schedule, and the long hours and numerous days worked without a break contributed to journalists’ stress.
- One reporter said duplicate assignments also contributed to stress levels. For example, the person’s newsroom ran repeated stories about victims cleaning out their houses: “I can see doing one of those stories a night, but there were nights where we did two or three of those,” the reporter noted. “And I feel like there were other things that maybe could have been reported.”
- Journalists also felt stress about the importance of their role during the disaster. As one reporter put it, “With most breaking news situations we’re talking about the people just being curious about what’s going on, but when you’re talking about something like a region-wide disaster, you’re talking about peoples’ actual lives. The news can potentially save someone’s life.”
- Another source of stress was a lack of experience covering hurricanes and lack of direction and preparation from newsroom managers. As one reporter described it, “It was just like, to some extent we had some guidance from editors as far as what we should be doing, but they kind of expected a lot of self-sufficiency and fending for ourselves, which I didn’t necessarily agree with.”
- Journalists also felt stress related to the emotional hardship of covering disaster victims. One photographer described an assignment at a bowling alley being used as a shelter for flood victims as “hard to see.”
- An added stress was that hometown reporters often had to navigate the disaster themselves, seeking shelter with friends because their own homes did not have power or water, for example. One reporter described the problem: “There’s no electricity. There’s no running water. And if you don’t have electricity, you can’t turn on your A/C [air conditioner], so you want to open your windows. But you can’t because there’s mosquitoes. It was just this crazy time. For us, we live in the community. So try to tell the story while going through that!”
- Journalists most commonly reported the following negative personal responses: crying and feeling overwhelmed, frustrated and guilty.
- For reporters who must cover natural disasters, the author suggests taking consistent breaks, diversifying the types of stories assigned and having a newsroom coverage plan with well-defined roles and expectations as strategies that might reduce distress.