Journalists are akin to first responders as they are routinely called to visit gruesome crime scenes and war zones
John Head recalled the first time he was assigned to cover a murder scene. When he arrived, the cops seemed to think it was funny that an intern who “didn’t know anything about anything” was covering a murder.
He saw the body when he first entered the home of the victim.
“I see this guy laying on the floor with a knife sticking out of his chest,” Head said. “And you can see his hands on the knife as if he tried to pull the knife out of his chest before he died.”
At the time, he accepted the experience as preparation for his career. It turned out that instance was tame compared to other grisly scenes he was called to cover throughout his more than 15-year career as a journalist working for USA Today, The Detroit Free Press and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Like many local beat reporters, Head has covered tragedies ranging from natural disasters to a gas explosion that hit a public school, which lead to a cafeteria worker being crushed by a wall.
“At the time, I didn’t go back and talk about how it all affected me,” Head recalled. “I just sort of internalized these things. This was part of the job. This was a part of what I had to do.”
Journalists, akin to first responders, are routinely called upon gruesome crime scenes and war zones and tasked with conveying the suffering they witness to the general public. And for minority journalists — who already grapple with the isolation of working in high-pressure newsrooms with few people of color — the trauma of news coverage can be even more damaging.
Research conducted by members of the DART Center for Journalism has found that American journalists are naturally resistant to developing PTSD. Overall, an estimated 12 percent of all journalists have PTSD, but the number jumps among correspondents who have reported in multiple war zones, according to Anthony Feinstein, a psychiatrist and researcher for DART.
Numerous studies examining the mental health of journalists who covered tragedies like the September 11 terrorist attacks, Hurricane Katrina and the war in the Middle East have portrayed troubling trends. And experts say the problem may be worse than it seems because journalists often resist sharing their struggles.
“The previous generations of journalists tended to surround mental health issues with a lot of stigma,” said Bruce Shapiro, director of DART. “Also there was the tradition of the kind of lone warrior, the hard-drinking journalist … all those kind of clichés. Some were true. Some weren’t. None of which served the individual journalist who may have been struggling with mental health issues very well.”
One mental health issue journalists often confront includes depression, which may afflict as many as 21 percent of all journalists, according to DART. The condition can be especially detrimental to a reporter, whose job requires constant interaction with people.