Editor’s note: This piece was originally published here by the Incubator for Media Education and Development (iMEdD) on 11/30/2023 under the title “The trauma of covering the front line.” It has been republished by Long Road with iMEdD's permission. Since the article's original publication, the total number of journalists and media workers killed since October 7 has risen to at least 63, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.
For journalists covering the ongoing war in Gaza, there is no time to mourn. “We are victims, directly on live television,” said Salman al-Bashir, a journalist for the Palestinian Authority’s TV channel, while reporting live in front of the hospital where his colleague Mohammed Abu Hatab was declared dead on November 2. He threw his “PRESS” labeled protective jacket and helmet on the ground while still in tears, explaining: “They are merely slogans that we wear, and that is all. They don’t protect journalists at all.”
“There is terrible psychological distress for the journalists living in Gaza right now,” said Jonathan Dagher, head of the Middle East Desk at Reporters Without Borders, who spoke to iMEdD from his office in Paris through a video call. “There is nowhere they can hide. There are bombs falling on them from the sky by Israeli airplanes, from the sea by Israeli ships, and from the land by Israeli tanks. It’s unfortunately a situation where they are completely helpless,” he added.
A total of 57 journalists and media professionals have been reported dead since October 7, when Hamas militants launched an unexpected assault on Israel and took civilian hostages, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). The victims are mostly Palestinians, including four Israelis and three Lebanese reporters. Thirty-four journalists were killed only in the first two weeks of the conflict, making this the deadliest beginning of a war for journalists in the 21st century, highlights a report by Reporters Without Borders (RSF).
In Gaza, most of the journalists are Palestinians, working either as independent freelancers or correspondents for local or international media outlets from all over the world, explained Dagher. The situation differs from other conflict zones, where journalists can go to safety as soon as they are done reporting. Since the beginning of the war, civilians—and journalists among them—were not allowed to evacuate Gaza. Dagher explained that the very few journalists who crossed to Egypt through Gaza’s southern Rafah crossing were mostly those with foreign passports.
Stress is a normal human response to abnormal situations, said Dr. Anthony Feinstein, a professor of Psychiatry at the University of Toronto. “But when people are dying like this in large numbers, the level of stress, I think, can become intolerable.”
Dr. Feinstein has studied the mental toll on frontline reporters over the past three decades, publishing multiple academic papers. He observed numerous parallels between the Gaza conflict and previous conflicts, such as those in Syria and Mexico, where journalists and their families resided amid the war zones they reported on.
He specifically compared the current situation in Gaza to the trauma local journalists endured in Syria while reporting for both national and international media during the civil war. “The journalists covering the Syrian civil war had no downtime,” said Feinstein. “There was no bureau for them to go to. If you were not on the Bashar al-Assad side, there was no safe place. Essentially, you were constantly under threat, and what we found in that group was that the rates of depression became very high,” he added. “You couldn’t put your feet up and relax for one moment because it was always so dangerous. And I think that’s the situation in Gaza now.”
Jonathan Dagher of RSF gave us an overview of the situation in Gaza as well as the dangers and psychological pressures reporters face on the ground. Among the experiences and testimonies of journalists he shared was the story of Ola Al Zaanoon, RSF’s correspondent in Gaza since 2018.
RSF uses different communication channels to check on their correspondent and receive information. In the first few days, they were speaking to Ola on the phone 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. “A few days after the beginning of the war, there was less fuel in Gaza, and there were intentional power and internet cuts. And then, there were days where we couldn’t speak to her at all,” he explained.
This is not the first time Ola has covered the conflict in Gaza. “She says this is one of the most terrifying and scariest wars she has ever lived,” mentioned Dagher. “Imagine going to work and thinking this is the last time you see your daughter or your brother or your husband. This is extremely difficult. They tell us that they hug their children every morning and then they go, and they don’t know if they’re going to see them.”
“There is no safe place in the Gaza Strip, neither in the north, nor the south, nor the middle,” says Ola in a video where she talks about the daily challenges she faces as a journalist in Gaza. “Ola broke her foot,” mentioned Dagher. Although it is not a grave injury, it affected her ability to move quickly to safety. “If there’s a strike, she cannot run away, she cannot hide, so it adds to the distress of the situation,” he said.
Dagher also shared the story of some correspondents who had to return to Gaza City where the fighting was very intense, just so they could find an internet connection and send a few photos. “Not only are they cut off from the outside world, from us, from their editors, for their media outlets, but they also have to take immense risks to communicate,” he mentioned.
As for the extreme circumstances under which journalists operate, Dagher said that they barely get any hours of sleep. “When they’re completely exhausted, they can put their heads on a mattress and sleep but they’re constantly in a state of sleepiness and physical and mental exhaustion. They don’t have fuel in their cars to go somewhere, so they walk to interview sources. When they turn on the lights to film, they worry that the airplanes will catch the light and bomb them. So, they’re working in these stressful situations.”
During the conflict, it is normal for journalists to feel on edge, anxious, or find it hard to concentrate. These are common signs of emotional distress, said Gavin Rees, Senior Advisor for Training and Innovation at The Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, a project of Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, where he has been conducting workshops and facilitating discussions on trauma awareness and resilience. This also holds true for journalists covering conflicts from abroad and confronting traumatic experiences and scenes. “Some of those journalists may have personal connections to people in Gaza or Israel,” he added.
The data Dr. Feinstein collected in his research over the past three decades tells the same story every time. Even though it is not a given for most journalists covering war that they will develop a significant mental health illness, a minority will. “It’s a high minority,” Dr. Feinstein said. “It’s bigger than you would find in the general population.”
Stress affects the brain, which controls our emotions, behavior, and feelings, said Dr. Feinstein. Typically, journalists undergoing traumatic events may encounter transient emotional distress, a condition where individuals are expected to recover and feel better shortly thereafter. “Within the brain, the changes reflect their distress in a moment, but then it recovers,” he said.
A smaller number of journalists may develop intractable post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), characterized by significant and potentially irreversible changes in the brain. “That’s the worry,” Dr. Feinstein said.
If PTSD persists for weeks, months, or years, parts of the brain may shrink, like the hippocampus, where we store memories, said Dr. Feinstein. “When you’ve got a lot of stress and a lot of stress hormones, like cortisol, this is damaging to the brain. You can get atrophy or shrinkage of parts of the brain, like the hippocampus, and you can have dysfunctional neural networks that run from areas like the hippocampus and your amygdala to the frontal parts of the brain,” he added.
The recent academic article he co-authored with Jonas Osmann analyzed 1,103 journalists covering several conflicts from 2000 to 2022. Their findings indicate that single female journalists with a history of psychiatric difficulties are more susceptible to developing PTSD and depression. This vulnerability is attributed to the higher likelihood of female journalists experiencing sexual assault. Additionally, the absence of strong relationships, a significant protective factor, plays a crucial role, Dr. Feinstein explained.
While media organizations are invested in supporting their reporters on the ground, their options are very limited. “Media outlets are really helping. They’re really pressuring. We saw a letter signed by journalists in France, for example, demanding the protection of journalists in Gaza,” commented Jonathan Dagher. Journalists, however, are left to themselves in Gaza because there’s no aid to come in. “Even if money is sent, for example, and we’ve helped some journalists, there’s nothing to buy with this money. They don’t find what they need to buy, and things are becoming more and more expensive.”
“What truly matters in emotionally supporting journalists on the ground is that editors, commissioners, and others collaborating with journalists maintain regular communication and are transparent about their requests,” said Gavin Rees.
He emphasized the significance of attentively listening to a reporter’s concerns, treating them with seriousness, and ensuring that the reporter feels genuinely understood. When a journalist in the field raises ethical concerns, such as considering it inappropriate to interview a specific individual due to their inability to communicate, it becomes crucial for remote journalists to respect and honor that decision.
Even when communication is difficult, ensuring journalists stay connected, collaborate in problem-solving, and share the workload can be beneficial. It prevents the burden of falling solely on individual journalists, added Rees.
Enduring trauma and gaining resilience is challenging, even for the most experienced frontline reporters. Gavin Rees went on to explain that a sign of resilience for journalists is being able to focus on basic survival tasks in addition to reporting. These can be finding resources or caring for their relatives’ necessities. “Engaging in activities that reduce the feeling of powerlessness is a positive step, too, however small those might be. Acts of kindness to strangers, finding opportunities for humor, and keeping in touch with some aspect of daily routine can all be surprisingly helpful,” he added.
Resilience also originates from the sense of purpose in the journalists’ work. Referring to those still on the ground, Dagher said: “They know that they are the only ears and eyes in Gaza today. They know that their job is indispensable. They know that without them, the world doesn’t know what’s happening.”
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