Journalists Under Fire:The Psychological Hazards of Covering War

Like most journalists I blow hot and cold on this question on the straightforward grounds that those who can’t stand the heat should not venture into the kitchen. I have taken part in more than one public discussion on how repeated and prolonged exposure to war affects the mental and emotional state of journalists and I always do so with a heavy heart.It feels self-indulgent, self-pitying, hopelessly introspective. 

That’s why Anthony Feinstein has done our business a favour. This book is the result of the first exercise of its kind. It is the first time the question has been subjected to scientific scrutiny. It is dispassionate, detached, cautious in the conclusions it draws – and all the more powerful for that. 

Feinstein took two groups of journalists. The first consisted of more than a hundred who make their living solely, or predominantly, in conflict zones. The second – a control group – consisted of journalists who never go to war.

He distributed lengthy and detailed questionnaires and was surprised to find that a high proportion of the first group were interested enough – and happy – to participate. The conclusions he draws are not anecdotal (though they are illustrated with powerful anecdotal testimony) but statistical.

Read the book and they stare you in the face: those of us who have spent our lives surrounded by people who are killing other people are significantly more likely to be alcohol or drug abusers, less likely to have a happy marriage or a stable family, more given to anxiety, depression, and nightmares, and, tellingly, extremely inclined to ignore all of the above. 

The good news is that there is nothing inevitable (or even likely) about the condition known as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), for Feinstein finds that a clear and indisputable majority of those in the first group never develop any symptoms. They cope.

The intriguing thing is you can’t tell who will be affected and who will not, or what will trigger the condition in any given individual. Feinstein believes that once the condition takes hold, it doesn’t go away unless treated. Here he is on less safe scientific territory.

There are others who have long ago accepted the existence of the condition but who believe that formal treatment is not always and automatically the best course of action.

PTSD, the pioneer in the field, Dr Gordon Turnbull, says, is not a mental illness in the conventional sense. Mental illness is an abnormal response to normal circumstances. PTSD is a normal response (in some people) to abnormal circumstances. Some psychiatrists take the view that the treatments that are now on offer simply pathologies a non-pathological condition. 

The child psychiatrist Lynne Jones has worked for years with traumatised children in emergency situations. I first encountered her in the Balkans; more recently she has been in Northern Uganda. She cites a recent study of Lebanese people traumatised by prolonged exposure (over years) to civil war.

Over a 10 year period, in the vast majority of cases, symptoms simply disappeared. Time really was the healer. Feinstein disputes that this would automatically apply to journalists whose lives are not comparable, in every sense, to people who witness (or take part in) the destruction of their own societies.

Like professional soldiers, journalists tend to fly into other peoples’ war zones and fly out again and then try to fit in to a normal family and social context among people with no experience of war. It’s different. And it merits study. Where do I stand now? I stand for taking this seriously.

There is much still to be done. Feinstein’s study is limited to journalists from the developed world – those of us who swan in and out of other people’s war zones. What about the people on whom we depend, the editors and reporters, the investigative journalists who devote their lives to uncovering corruption, crime, and the abuse of power in their own homelands? What is it like to go home to your Moscow apartment knowing that maybe – just maybe – you might, tonight, pay for your efforts to expose the truth with your life? This book will contribute to what is already a change in culture among journalists.

Five years ago, I doubt whether anyone was prepared to put their hand up and say, honestly, wait a minute, I think I’m having a rough time. Already some of the best in our business have drawn an explicit link between what they do for a living and their state of mind.

For my money Anthony Loyd is one of the best reporters of our day. We owe him a lot. And I hope he won’t mind me saying that one of the many things for which we owe him is his remarkable book “My War Gone By I Miss it So”.

If you’re still sceptical about Feinstein’s field of enquiry, go back and read Anthony Loyd. And then look again at this dispassionate, careful marshalling of scientifically gathered evidence. I say it again. Feinstein has done us a favour. We should treat this book with the respect it deserves.

Journalists Under Fire:The Psychological Hazards of Covering War
Members’ price £14 (plus p&p) By Anthony Feinstein