Study Looks at Toll on Journalists Covering Refugee Crisis

Food distribution to refugees on the Serbia-Hungary border Food distribution to refugees on the Serbia-Hungary border © EPA

September 2017
The first study looking at the psychological effect on journalists covering a humanitarian crisis found moral injury to be biggest mental challenge

The report by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, and funded by the International News Safety Institute states that it is the first time such a study has looked into the mental effect on journalists who have covered the european refugee crisis.

The authors found that rather than PTSD or depression, moral injury amongst staff from nine European and American news organisations was the biggest psychological challenge for journalists covering the refugee situation, which reached its peak in 2015 when over 3,700 refugees died trying to reach Europe.

This moral injury resulted in cases of journalists becoming actively involved in aiding refugees, and the report notes the ethical and professional implications of this for journalists and journalism.

“It was clear that not all in the media were affected the same way, but among the most common reactions that emerged during a series of conversations with journalists and news managers were feelings of guilt at not having done enough personally to help the refugees, and shame at the observed behaviour of others. Emotions such as these were the unforeseen byproduct of journalists feeling compelled to step outside their traditional role as neutral observer, by helping refugees in ways that ranged from rescuing them from the water to giving them food, clothing, and money.”

Acknowledging that the physical and mental stresses endured by the refugees -- many who had fled conflict in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan -- was often far greater than that suffered by the journalists covering the situation, the report recognises that few people involved in the crisis were unaffected by it.

The authors found that people working alone, without conflict reporting experience, and being parents all contributed to feelings of guilt over the situation being witnesses, which led to desire to become involved and overwork.

“The results revealed that journalists reported few symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression and were not drinking to excess. However, many reported difficulties related to moral injury, defined as the injury done to a person’s conscience or moral compass by perpetrating, witnessing, or failing to prevent acts that transgress personal moral and ethical values or codes of conduct.”

As such it called for more support from newsrooms, employers and veteran journalists to aid staff and colleagues in such situations. While the issues of covering armed conflict is well known within the journalism industry, the report stresses the need for better preparation when covering non-conflict events as well.  

“Given that moral injury is strongly associated with journalists becoming actively involved in helping refugees, the industry needs to reach consensus on defining appropriate expectations in situations such as these.”



For more information, please visit:
http://reutersinstitute.politics.ox.ac.uk/publication/emotional-toll-journalists-covering-refugee-crisis

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