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For journalists, covering war has its own psychological dangers

NATO soldiers run during a gun battle in Kabul, Afghanistan, Sunday, April 15, 2012.


Thursday night, The Canadian Journalism Foundation hosted a fascinating discussion on the psychological problems associated with war coverage. It was a stellar panel with CTV anchor Lisa LaFlamme, Canadian Press correspondent Murray Brewster, Postmedia correspondent Matthew Fisher and Tony Burman, a Toronto Star foreign affairs columnist and former English head of Al Jazeera.

The expert was Anthony Feinstein, who has both an amazing resume and a very gentle, optimistic manner. Dr. Feinstein is a University of Toronto professor of psychiatry and the director of neuropsychiatry at Toronto's Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre. On top of this he is the world expert on trauma for journalists. He has noted before that reporters and photographers (who are in the greatest physical and emotional danger because they must get close to danger), face trauma not just in war situations but also in angry and violent demonstrations and emotionally wrenching trials.

But last night the conversation was mainly about covering the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Dr. Feinstein is the author of a book, Journalists Under Fire, and also the co-producer of a documentary Under Fire: Journalists in Combat which was a short-listed for an Oscar nomination this year. For the book, Dr. Feinstein interviewed 350 journalists who had covered conflict.

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He said that his work has shown him what a resilient profession this is, even though there are higher than normal occurrences of post-traumatic stress, depression and substance abuse among war correspondents. That higher level of traumatic stress is not surprising given that the people he interviewed had an average of 25 life-threatening events in their careers.

The journalists on the panel talked about physical danger from angry mobs, bearing witness to dead and mutilated bodies and fearing gunfire. The surprising thing to Dr. Feinstein is that most of them are ok. And he said that for the correspondents who regularly return to danger zones, there is good evidence that they are biologically primed to better handle these situations.

Dr. Feinstein said there is recognition among major news organizations that their staff need both training before they go and so they can understand the risks, but also that they are offered psychiatrist help when they return.

Interestingly, there was some debate among the panelists about whether news organizations in fact do too much to protect their journalists and whether they should not in fact leave it to the journalists themselves to decide the level of risk they can accept.

There was also a discussion about how to screen journalists before they go to war zones to see if they are able to handle the work. Dr. Feinistein said it is difficult to predict who will do well in traumatic situations, although past history is the best indicator. And Ms. LaFlamme suggested the best way is for reporters to be sent to difficult natural disasters first to see if they can cope with those.

That prompted a discussion about so called "parachute reporting" and whether it was better to keep a seasoned reporter in those situations and what that means for constrained budgets.

Read a live blog of the CJF panel here.

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Sylvia Stead has been a reporter and editor at the Globe since 1975, after graduating from the University of Western Ontario in Journalism with a minor in Political Science. She won the Board of Governors Award there in 1974. As a reporter, Sylvia covered courts, education and Queen's Park. More

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