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Moral Injury: Repairing the Hidden Cost of Journalism

A man kneels before a cross at a make-shift memorial outside Columbine High School near Denver, CO after a mass shooting there in April of 1999
A man kneels before a cross at a make-shift memorial outside Columbine High School near Denver, CO after a mass shooting there in April of 1999. Twelve students and one teacher were killed in the attack. Photo: Dale Willman

It’s been 25 years since Timothy McVeigh bombed the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, but some of the images from that story remain with me today.

I arrived in Oklahoma City on April 20, 1995, one day after the explosion. Working for CBS at the time, I was there to coordinate coverage and report for the CBS-owned radio stations. Arriving downtown that night I was shocked at the amount of destruction. Hastily rigged construction lights illuminated the still smoldering wreckage as first responders worked through the mutilated concrete, desperately hoping for some sign of life.

What I remember most vividly, though, is the road that passed by the field where the journalists were set up. Down this road each day passed the emergency crews, and some would stop briefly to talk. They were working long shifts, and their job was grueling. Each day they walked toward the site full of strength and determination, and they would leave, sometimes 12 hours later, covered in dust and sadness. And the next day they would do it all again.

Their faces, their tears, and their stories of what they saw and felt, live with me still.

Journalists cover many different things, and some of the stories they report on are difficult, even dark. And many of those stories can stay with us. To witness suffering can be gut-wrenching. “I think the closer you get to trauma, essentially, the more you put yourself at risk,” said neuropsychiatrist Anthony Feinstein during a recent discussion hosted by the Resilience Media Project within the Earth Institute’s Initiative on Communication and Sustainability.

Feinstein is the author of the book, “Shooting War.” His work typically involves patients with multiple sclerosis, but he has also worked with journalists. The first time he counseled a journalist was in 1999. She was a reporter covering the famine in East Africa. “She had seen a lot of trauma, huge numbers of people dying. And she’d become progressively distressed by what she’d witnessed. But rather than speak to someone about her emotional distress, she kept it to herself.” That eventually led to a visit to the emergency room for the journalist.

A young boy dressed in military camoflauge proudly holds his gun across his chest for the photographer
A boy soldier, a member of the government’s SPLA Lion Division, displays his gun in a village in northern South Sudan. Photo: Dale Willman

As he helped the reporter to recover, he wondered how many other journalists were also experiencing trauma in a similar fashion. So, he began to investigate the effects of covering traumatic events on journalists, something that he says had at that point never been studied. Through that work, Feinstein has identified something that he now calls moral injury. “Moral injury refers to the damage done to one’s moral conscience or one’s moral compass by perpetrating or witnessing or failing to prevent acts that transgress your own moral set of beliefs.”

One doesn’t need to be a war reporter in order to suffer a moral injury. It’s how I felt after covering the Oklahoma City bombing — a sense of helplessness while reporting on an act of human destruction that proved well beyond the boundaries of my moral compass. It’s how many reporters felt following their coverage of the Columbine High School shootings in 1999. And it is likely how journalists feel today (along with health care workers and other first responders) while covering the grief and despair of those affected by the coronavirus, or the damage brought about by climate change.

Covering war, though, is where its effects are perhaps most obvious. Janine di Giovanni is an award-winning journalist, author, and senior fellow at Yale University’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs. “My last book, The Morning They Came for Us: Dispatches from Syria, was largely a book about torture and about what happened inside Bashar al-Assad’s torture chambers,” she says. “When you spend an awful lot of time with victims of torture who have undergone such horrific things, such darkness, it’s impossible that you do not take this on to your own persona. When you’re a war reporter and you’re deeply committed to protecting civilians, to witness their immense suffering is gut-wrenching. And I know it’s something that’s haunted me my entire career.”

A man at a Black Lives Matters rally wearing a gas mask and helmet
A protester at a Black Lives Matter rally in Buffalo, NY, in September 2020. Photo: Dale Willman

Many people affected with moral injury mistakenly believe they are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). But the two maladies are distinctly separate. “PTSD is a mental illness. Moral injury is not a mental illness,” says Feinstein. “Post-traumatic stress disorder is a condition that can arise when an individual confronts a very severe stress.” That stress, he says, can cause unwanted flashbacks or nightmares, a desire to avoid remembering the experiences, a lack of concentration and more.

Moral injury, meanwhile, is associated with emotions, such as shame and guilt. And those emotions often come from a lack of action when seeing something occur that the observer considers to be morally outrageous. “In other words, I didn’t speak out. I didn’t prevent something from happening,” says Feinstein. While it can occur together with PTSD, moral injury is not a mental illness.

In a recent article about moral injury published in Harper’s, di Giovanni offered an example of a dilemma that might have led to moral injury. She wrote about a photographer on a beach in Greece some years ago who was covering the refugee crisis there when a boat full of refugees collapses in the distance. The photographer can see that many of the passengers cannot swim. What do you do, she asks. “Do you take photographs? Do you stand on the beach and do your job, which is to document this awful thing? Do you jump in the sea and try to save them?”

For years, news organizations did little to help their journalists who might have been suffering from moral injury. And the “cowboy” culture of news organizations prevented many journalists from asking for help, because it might be perceived as showing weakness. When Feinstein asked that first journalist he worked with back in 1999 if she had spoken to anyone about her emotional state, she replied, “If I told my boss I was morally distressed, he’d never let me go back into the field.”

Today, that attitude has changed, at least for larger news organizations around the world. Many now offer resources, including counseling, for their journalists who cover difficult stories. But that’s still not enough. Telling someone there is help available if you ask for it is similar to telling your friend, who just lost their spouse, that they should call if they need something. Someone who is suffering grief or loss may not be able to reach out for help. So, news organizations should be more active in how they discuss trauma with their journalists. “A journalist comes back from a really difficult assignment and you have a discussion with them,” says Feinstein. “You know, you don’t have to be the obvious shrink, but you can ask them, how are you? We know that this is a difficult experience. If this has affected you in any way, we do have resources for you. And just stay in touch that way by gently reminding people that this is important, and we are here to support you. You can do that in a non-intrusive way, and journalists appreciate that.”

“It’s in news organizations’ best interests to have healthy journalists,” Feinstein continues. “That sounds almost comical to say, but absolutely. You know, you want your employees to be healthy. You want them to be physically safe and psychologically healthy.”

Be sure to watch the full discussion at the video link above.

One of the priorities of the Earth Institute’s new Initiative on Communication and Sustainability is improving the interface between journalists, scientific expertise and vulnerable communities. This is the latest webinar in a series I’m developing on covering factors that either boost or impede community and ecological resilience in the face of the landscape of hazards in this era of rapid change. More videos can be found on the Resilience Media Project page.


Our previous blog on journalists covering the coronavirus has many resources for journalists, particularly those covering coronavirus

The Veteran’s Administration resource for PTSD

On Moral Injury, from Harper’s Magazine

Dr. Anthony Feinstein’s book, Shooting War: 18 Profiles of Conflict Photographers, is a good resources, as is Conversations on Conflict Photography, by Lauren Walsh, a professor at the New School of New York University

Scholarly Article: Journalists covering the refugee and migration crisis are affected by moral injury not PTSD

Scholarly Article: The Emotional Toll on Journalists Covering the Refugee Crisis

Banner featuring a collage of extreme heat images.

Recent record-breaking heat waves have affected communities across the world. The Extreme Heat Workshop will bring together researchers and practitioners to advance the state of knowledge, identify community needs, and develop a framework for evaluating risks with a focus on climate justice. Register by June 15

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