How Coverage of Middle East Conflict Impacts Journalists

Ethics, Open Letters,

Soldiers in Israel

By Al Tompkins

Think of this post as you might think of the announcement on the airplane that tells you to put on your oxygen mask before you try to help others.

Nonstop exposure to images of war, violence, hate and protests causes mental harm far beyond the heroic work of journalists on the battlefields. Recognize that thousands of miles away from the bullets and rockets, images of death and misery can deeply affect producers, editors and writers who look at the incoming images nonstop.

I have taught and talked with thousands of journalists around the world about the stress they endure as part of their jobs. Newsroom bosses know to check on reporters and photographers who are in the direct line of fire, but researchers have documented that producers and online editors also suffer high levels of traumatic stress but are less likely to talk about it, partly because they are unsure if anybody will take their concerns seriously. After all, they were not in the war zone, and they never left their office chair.

I have been thinking about a video editor I spoke with who worked in Washington, D.C., when the Jan. 6 insurrection unfolded at the U.S. Capitol. This editor told me that days of watching that violent video left him shaken and sleepless. He had been looking at the video on big monitors and listening to the chaos on headphones while he edited for hour after hour. A month later, he said, I was the first person he had spoken with about the trauma because he was concerned that his colleagues would dismiss his feelings as being weak or overly sensitive.

Traumatic injury is real. The U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration said trauma can cause “Lasting adverse effects on the individual’s functioning and mental, physical, social, emotional, or spiritual well-being.”

Job stress is in addition to a range of other stressors on journalists these days. MIT neuroscientist Dr. Tara Swart studied stress among journalists and found, “The headline conclusion reached is that journalists are undoubtedly subject to a range of pressures at work and home, but the meaning and purpose they attribute to their work contributes to helping them remain mentally resilient despite this.”

Researchers also find that when journalists believe that their work matters, they are more likely to recover faster from traumatic stress. It is difficult to remember that journalism matters when social media and critics come at journalists with a constant barrage of hate and criticism. Newsrooms can help colleagues by openly talking about why journalism matters.

Be a “noticer.” Pay attention to how you are feeling and how your colleagues are acting. What are they saying or not saying? This may be more difficult for newsrooms that still have employees working remotely. Be intentional and check on your colleagues.

Be honest about your own well-being. Are you avoiding things you usually enjoy? Do you avoid talking about work to loved ones because you don’t want to disturb them with the truth about what you have experienced at work? Do you have someone you trust who you can share your feelings with? If you are not comfortable sharing your thoughts with another person, write them down. Journaling can be therapeutic while remaining private.

Make your newsroom a safe place to talk about stress and trauma. Bosses can start the conversation rather than waiting for staff to bring up their feelings. When you ask somebody, “How are you?” the answer probably will be “OK.” But if you ask, “How can I help you? What are you feeling right now?” you might get a more forthcoming response. In my years of conversations with journalists about stress and trauma, I find that women and younger journalists are the most reluctant to openly talk about their feelings of traumatic stress because they fear they will be judged as weak or too sensitive to do their job.

Repetitive emotional injury is real. Bosses must pay attention to everyone in the newsroom, not just the people working in the field. Encourage producers and editors to take breaks from looking at traumatic images.

Emotional detachment is your body’s way of telling you that you have stopped coping with the reality that thousands of people have died senselessly and more will die in the days ahead. My wife, Sidney, who is a licensed therapist, said, “If your emotions have gone cold, get professional help. Now. It is not only a matter of mental health; emotional detachment leads to some of the worst journalistic decisions. You will ask insensitive questions, air or publish videos and photos, or approach people in unfeeling ways that seem normal to you.”

Vicarious trauma is a term that therapists use to describe how you can be deeply affected by images and stories that remind you of something you experienced. Images of bloodied Palestinian children covered in dust and debris were enough to move a battle-tested BBC journalist to tears this week.

BBC Arabic reporter Adnan El-Bursh fell to his knees as he stood in a Gaza hospital where he discovered that among the bodies lying around the hospital were his friends, relatives and neighbors. He said he spotted a young girl, about the same age as his own daughter, who had lost her family and her home and now sat on a hospital gurney covered in blood and dirt. El-Bursh said, “This is my local hospital, inside are my friends, my neighbors. This is my community. Today has been one of the most difficult days in my career. I have seen things that I can never unsee.”

While the war in the Middle East may seem far away in a physical sense, it may be intimately emotional for journalists who have personal connections to the unfolding violence. These may be religious and/or ethnic connections. I have spoken with journalists who have lived in conflict zones who say when they see those images in other countries, they relive their own trauma. Images of the Israeli military holding news crews at gunpoint might remind local journalists of tense confrontations with police in recent years.

Minimize the trauma you cause to others. Psychologists say that “moral injury” may best describe what journalists feel when they doubt whether the constant reporting about war and conflict serves any higher purpose. Without journalists, we would be left to consume government propaganda and social media posts as our sources of information. That is not nearly enough when the stakes are as high as they are today.

Take a break. Every journalist I know has the horrible habit of checking email and news feeds just before going to bed, sometimes during the night, then again as soon as they wake up. Researchers have found that the more disturbing news you watch, the more you tend to worry even about personal issues that have nothing to do with the issues in the news.

Some experts have found that humans have a negativity bias, meaning that humans tend to pay more attention to information that bothers us more than information that does not. Avoiding harm is a human survival mechanism, so we tend to spend more time consuming negative news.

Take a break. Take a walk. Be generous to someone. Gratitude is one of the biggest stress relievers. It is difficult to be both grateful and stressed at the same time.

As I watch, read and listen to coverage from Gaza and Israel, I am deeply grateful for journalists who have, in some cases, decades of experience covering the horrors of war in the Middle East. The best of them have kept their humanity. They are unapologetic about their feelings when they witness horror.

Avi Mayer, editor-in-chief of The Jerusalem Post, explained to Vanity Fair, “I feel that my life here has a dimension of meaning that I’d have never experienced anywhere else, that there’s a purpose to my presence here. And if I can play some role in this sensitive moment in time, I think, this groundbreaking moment in Jewish and Israeli and human history, then that is a role that I will embrace. And I think that that’s something that I feel every single day. It’s not always easy. In fact, it’s often quite difficult. But that is what has been guiding me through this period and guides me through my life in this country much more broadly.”

Put your oxygen mask on. Your readers, viewers and listeners need you.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This article was originally published by Poynter and has been republished with the author's permission.