Women Reporters and Psychological Trauma

February 4, 2009

This Monday (1 February 2009) I took part in an interesting conference of female reporters, “Building Bridges Across Conflicts” in Moscow.

Here is an article I wrote for this conference.

When we talk about journalists and journalism – should we specify if a reporter is female or male? Probably in many aspects of professional activities this division would be unnecessary. Differences in writing style, in presenting material, in phrase usage, in placing accents – are rather individual than gender ones. And still, in such area as covering traumatic events, disasters and tragedies, we could contemplate the specifics of “women’s” journalism.

Those who choose the journalistic profession, sometimes have to overcome the basic instinct of self-protection. Quite often reporters become observers or even participants of extreme traumatic events. Besides surviving such an event, a journalist must to some extent distance herself from it and be able to deliver the information to her readers or viewers. At the disaster scene, a reporter interacts with the survivors or their relatives who might be in a state of shock or deep grief, be hysterical or numbed. So, besides a “primary” trauma, when a reporter survives a disaster directly, there is a risk to be traumatized in a “secondary” way, by intensive interactions with the suffering people and by putting all the grief upon herself.

Recently, there are more discussions on how psychological traumas affect professional life and the psychological well-being of reporters. Unfortunately, very few media professionals now have an opportunity to go through special training before facing traumas, and to receive proper psychological support after a tough assignment. Most of the time, they have to proceed by trial and error, and rely on their own intuition…

First steps in bringing journalists to an understanding of psychological trauma, were made in the U.S., where the Dart Center for journalism and trauma was founded in 1999 (which had been preceded by educational work since 1991). The Dart Center is an international network of journalists, mental health professionals and educators, and its work is dedicated to improving media coverage of violence, conflict and tragedy. The Center also addresses the consequences of such coverage for those working in journalism. Today, the Dart Center‘s network is actively growing and is represented not only in the U.S., but also in Australasia and many European countries. In Russia, we also develop information materials and support programs for journalists.

So far there are not a lot of gender studies in this area. However, we could outline several topics for a further discussion.

Psychologists that study trauma consequences, note that although there are not many gender differences in people’s reactions to trauma, one main effect attributed to gender is consistently found. Females tend to view the world as more benevolent, than do males; this difference is small but statistically significant. This effect is observed among survivors of traumatic events as well as among those who haven’t had traumatic experience.[1]

Also, in 2003, a team of scientists supported by the National Institute of Mental Health concluded that the “fight-or-flight” theory in describing the prototypic human response to stress has been disproportionally based on studies of males. Perhaps males were more stable and measurable subjects, while females’ greater cyclical variations in biological reactions presented a confusing and often uninterpretable pattern of results. The team suggested to view female responses to stress in terms of “tend-and-befriend”, rather than “fight-or-flight”. They believe that “female stress responses evolved to simultaneously maximize the survival of self and offspring. Thus, the “tend-and-befriend” pattern involves females’ nurturance of offspring under stressful circumstances, the exhibition of behaviors that protect them from harm (tending), and befriending – namely, creating and joining social groups for the exchange of resources and to provide protection”.[2]

To speak more specifically about women journalists we could examine a Canadian psychiatrist Anthony Feinstein, the author of several books about war reporters. Feinstein refers to a consistent medial finding that within the general population, women are twice as likely as men to report experiencing posttraumatic stress disorder, depression, and anxiety disorders. However his own comparison of 110 male war journalists to 30 female war journalists revealed no gender differences in psychopathology. “Female journalists were no more depressed, anxious, somatically preoccupied, socially dysfunctional, or suicidal than male journalists”.[3]

The demographic characteristics of the female responders matched those of males. The only difference found was the marital data: only 24% of the female journalists were married compared with 52% of their male counterparts. Those with children are even more rare: only three of the thirty women in the study were mothers, and each had only one child. One of them, Yvonne Ridley, told the researcher that at a certain point the main source of her distress was not what had occurred in Afghanistan, but rather the criticism she had to face when she returned home. She was accused of neglecting her responsibility as a mother (similar and quite aggressive accusations can also be seen in the documentary “Anna: Seven Years on the Frontline”, about Anna Politkovskaya, filmed by Masha Novikova).

Another participant in the Feinstein’s study, Meggie O’Kane confessed that she was inspired by the behavior of the Sunday Times reporter Marie Colvin who had refused to flee East Timor during a horrific conflict. Maggie was asking herself if she would have stayed if she’d been with Marie. “I think if I had been with Marie, I probably would have [stayed], because I would have taken my courage from her. And then I would have had this dilemma, you know. I’m a mother. What am I going to do? Maybe that thought would have made me want to leave. And then I would have looked around me and seen all the mothers with their children. The only thing that protected them was the press. I’m not being heroic about this, but I’d like somehow to be useful”.

Another area for discussing gender differences is the “uncomfortable” topic of sexual assault. Anthony Feinstein did ask the female participants of his study, how big the threat of it was for them. While they all agreed that it was a concern, only one had been directly threatened with rape. Many female war journalists reported the opposite, namely that male combatants would often try hard to protect women and sometimes even physically prevent them from going into a potentially hazardous situation. Also, at times, when a woman found herself in danger, the fear of possible death would far surpass any concerns about rape.

One female reporter survived a rape attempt, and at the moment of the interview, eight months after the incident, she would still report that can’t stand certain smells associated with that situation and can’t see people that remind her of her attackers.[4]

It has to be noted that sexual assault is a very sensitive issue even in the “civilized” world. Despite common beliefs, any person may become a victim of rape, regardless age, gender, or social position. This controversial problem has a long history of existence and only about 30 or 40 years of open discussions and scientific studies. In the public consciousness it’s surrounded by an enormous number of archaic myths and prejudices that haven’t been altered by sexual revolution or women’s emancipation.

Among those multiple myths there is one that prevails in different traumatic situations, not only in cases of sexual assault. People tend to believe that we live in a fair world where we control our future and are able to avoid negative events if we behave in the “right” way. Such assumptions underlie our basic feeling of safety. That’s why people that never faced traumatic experience sometimes place responsibility for the violence or other traumas on its survivors. They successfully “find” what the victim did “wrong” to be traumatized. Moreover, even survivors themselves often experience severe self-blame and find their own guilt in the incident. By taking responsibility for the event people in some way try to regain the sense of control on their lives.

It can be assumed that for female reporters this aspect may serve as an additional source of psychological distress. After surviving a “primary” trauma in a war zone she may encounter misapprehension and accusations of “breaking her gender roles”.

Most journalists, both men and women, successfully cope with their traumas, and Feinstein’s study showed that in this area women are as good as men. The very profession that imposes upon reporters a greater risk of psychological traumas also gives them tools to deal with them. By structuring chaotic reality into a comprehensive story, and providing the survivors with an opportunity to make their voices heard and maybe help others, – reporters may help regain the sense of control over the dreadful reality, at least to some extent. In overcoming psychological crisis women more often than men tend to talk it over with significant others, and this fact we can also consider while discussing gender differences in journalism.

With all their coping tools, it is unfortunate that in cases of psychological hardships after a dangerous assignment, reporters are often reluctant to admit it because they risk being stigmatized and accused of unprofessionalism. Quite often they have to conceal and suppress their traumatic experience instead of working it out. This may, sadly, lead to maladaptive coping methods like alcohol and nicotine abuse, cynicism, and emotional detachment, discontent with work and self. It’s important for reporters and their editors to understand that asking for psychological support after a grueling task is not shameful. But it’s even more important that they would have a place to find such support.

Perhaps that journalism of the future that the Dart Center is promoting – the one that pays attention not only to the instant reactions to traumatic events, pain and sufferings but also to the story of how people surmount the outcomes of disasters and conflicts; the one that focuses not on the description of horrors but on a search for resources and strengths in seeming hopeless situations; the one where reporters take their own emotions into account and are not afraid to discuss them, – is closer to “women’s” journalism?



[1] R. Janoff-Bulman, Shattered Assumptions: Towards the New Psychology of Trauma, 1992.

[2] National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH): Gender Differences in Behavioral Responses to Stress, 2003, http://www.medicalmoment.org/_content/healthupdates/dec03/187868.asp

[3] A. Feinstein, Journalists under Fire: The Psychological Hazards of Covering War, 2006.

[4] Id.