IPSO Blog: Does reporting on major incidents have an impact on journalists?

When a disaster strikes, journalists play a key role in telling the public what is going on, conveying public safety messages, and can contribute to a community coming together in the aftermath to grieve and recover.

When we developed our guidance on the reporting of major incidents, we talked a lot about the challenges facing journalists reporting on such events, recognising the need for often on-the-spot editorial judgements in difficult circumstances.

Traumatic events can have a long term impact on those who have experienced them. When reporting, journalists may come into contact with extremely vulnerable people. These can include people who have themselves been seriously injured, individuals who have been told that a loved one has died or been hurt, or children who have been caught up in an event.

Rightly, there are protections under the Editors' Code for people who are experiencing grief or shock, including those caught up in a disaster, requiring journalists to make approaches and enquiries to people with sympathy and discretion.

Responsible reporting in this area is of the utmost importance - and certainly reporting on a major incident is one of the most challenging parts of the job. But I think we should also recognise the impact of reporting such events on journalists themselves.

I was interested to read research from Kent State University, looking at the impact of reporting on Hurricane Harvey for journalists working in the local area. Professor Gretchen Dworznik-Hoak, a journalism professor, surveyed and interviewed 30 journalists who had covered Hurricane Harvey, a Category 4 storm that inundated Texas in August 2017.

Her respondents included reporters, editors, photographers, news anchors and meteorologists who worked at newspapers and television stations in the Texas cities hit hardest by Hurricane Harvey.

Professor Dworznik-Hoak interviewed those journalists about two months after the hurricane happened and then analysed the interviews for information related to stressors and emotional responses. She also asked participants to complete a survey that measured for symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression.

The findings make for powerful reading. According to the survey results, 1 in 5 respondents met the threshold for PTSD, and 90% experienced some level of PTSD symptoms related to Hurricane Harvey coverage. 2 in 5 respondents met the threshold for depression, and 93% experienced some symptoms of depression. These experiences of PTSD and depression were directly related to the hurricane.

Many of the journalists interviewed for the research talked about the fact that not only were they reporting on the disaster, they also had to deal with the disaster themselves, as it affected their own home town, and their friends or family.

The particular impact of reporting on traumatic events in their local community is something that Rob Irvine talked about when he reflected on his experience of editing the Manchester Evening News in the aftermath of the Manchester Arena attack in a recent IPSO podcast.

Obviously, we should be careful with the results of any piece of research. But I think these findings show why we should recognise that one of the many challenges for journalists reporting on these sorts of events is the potential impact that it could have on the reporter themselves.

For more details on reporting major incidents, check out our guidance for journalists and information for the public.