Forget the myth of reporters as cynics and accept that journalists have feelings too

One of the persistent myths about journalists is that they are all hard-bitten cynics. Representations of editors and reporters in TV dramas, in movies and on stage portray them as lacking any semblance of humanity.

Journalists have done very little to counter this negative stereotype. In fact, just the reverse. Many of them, too many of them, have been happy to adopt the persona of the callous, world-weary nihilist. Ethics? Isn’t that a county to the east of London?

The image of the jaded newshound without a scintilla of compassion was created in The Front Page, a comic play written in 1928 by two Chicago reporters, Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur.

Restaged many times since and memorably adapted for the cinema in 1974, with Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon in the key roles, it is a favourite with journalists despite its baleful depiction of their trade.

When reviewing a 1986 revival of the play, the New York Times’s then-theatre critic, Frank Rich, observed that it was popular among journalists because it was how “newspaper people liked to think of themselves”. Just so. 

All too often they appear happy to inhabit the role of heartless, indifferent, rebellious rule-breakers for whom getting “the story” (as distinct from the truth) is all that matters. Public interest is superseded by personal interest. 

This travesty of the truth has taken hold despite contrary images of the journalist as noble truth-seeker, as in films such as All the President’s Men, Spotlight and Defence of the Realm. 

In reality, of course, journalists are neither heroes nor villains. They are somewhere in between and are subject to the same emotions as the rest of the population. Indeed, because they are so often witnesses to tragedies and are expected to report on them dispassionately, they are required to suppress those emotions, which can cause psychological problems. 

This problem is rarely discussed because, as related above, reporters are supposed to be stonyhearted observers able to take anything in their stride.  

But a 42-page paper released this week by the International News Safety Institute (INSI), “The Emotional Toll on Journalists Covering the Refugee Crisis”, tells a very different tale. It is thought to be the first study to consider how reporters suffered “moral injury” while covering a humanitarian disaster. 

The research, published by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, was prompted by the arrival in Europe of more than a million migrants who crossed the Mediterranean in 2015. Some 3,700 are thought to have perished at sea. 

Its authors, INSI’s director, Hannah Storm, and Anthony Feinstein, professor of psychiatry at Toronto University, define moral injury as “a condition linked to experiencing events and behaviour that violate one’s moral compass”. 

They argue that it can be the source of considerable emotional upset while stressing that it is different from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which is regarded as a mental illness. 

However, they believe moral injury “has the potential to have a significant impact” on the mental health of people who witness, or fail to prevent, acts that transgress moral values and ethical codes “if nothing is done to prevent or treat it”. 

Eighty journalists who covered the refugee crisis, drawn from nine European and American news organisations, took part in the survey. Jonathan Paterson, who was then BBC World’s newsgathering deployment editor, said the impact on staff of covering the plight of the refugees “was a little bit unexpected”. 

It was different from the trauma experienced in a war zone, because those risks were predictable. By contrast, the flight of refugees “was completely unprecedented” and proved to be “a learning experience for everybody on all sorts of fronts”. 

Most obviously, it presented journalists with a moral dilemma, as explicated by Yannis Behrakis, a Reuters photographer working in his native Greece. 

He said: “A lot of times you are not sure what to do: leave the camera and actively help people come out of the sea or do practical things for them, drive them up the road, or give them clothes, or take their pictures”. But he also understood that “my job to make sure that everybody around the world knows what is happening and that is my mission”. 

Carrying out this mission was traumatic. Will Vassilopoulos, a freelance working for Agence France-Presse (AFP), spoke of the challenge of “getting over the images of dead people” after returning home from an assignment. He is quoted as saying: “You don’t want to keep on reminding yourself of this world”. 

AFP’s global editor-in-chief, Phil Chetwynd, pointed to one particularly distressing factor: acting as witnesses to the suffering of children. “Regardless of whether you have been in conflict zones reporting before”, he said, “the fact there are so many children involved; it’s so close to the safety of your own children, it’s certainly had an impact”. 

Among the key findings from the survey was a recognition that local journalists, plus those freelances working alone and without any previous experience covering war, were more likely to experience moral injury.

That is unsurprising, but it was clear that veteran journalists with a background as war reporters, were also upset by the task. For example, the BBC’s diplomatic correspondent, Caroline Hawley, who spent many years covering the Middle East, spoke of the troubling disconnect about “seeing death when you’re in a holiday destination”.

In a war zone, “you really put up the psychological barriers”, she said, implying that no such barriers were in place when covering the refugees’ ordeal.

According to the authors’ interpretation of the research data, what emerged among was “a complex triad of guilt, moral injury, and behaviour that entailed journalists stepping out their media role to provide direct assistance to migrants”. 

They write: “The traditional notion of the journalist as the neutral observer seems to have been called into question in part because journalists… were often among the first responders, in part because they were often reporting on something that was happening on their home soil, and in part because, by providing help, they were unlikely to put themselves in significant danger”. 

Storm commented: "We recognise that the trauma experienced by journalists as witnesses could never be equated with the suffering endured by the migrants, but we wanted to try to better understand what some journalists were experiencing so we could ensure those covering the refugee crisis could continue their important work of recording history”.

The report concludes with a set of considerations for the news industry on how to educate those who are at risk of developing moral injury.

Doubtless, Walter Burns, the tyrannical editor portrayed in The Front Page, would have tossed it in the bin. Good knockabout stuff maybe, but that was fiction written almost a century ago.

Journalists in this era need to cast off that outmoded image and show that they, like the people for whom they act, are compassionate human beings.   

 

*The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and not IPSO*