Guilt, shame, anger, vicarious trauma, moral dilemmas: these are some of the challenges that journalists are increasingly grappling with. In recent years academics researching the psychological toll on reporters have concluded that moral injury is to become the next major challenge.
Like first responders, firefighters and ambulance staff, journalists are among the earliest to arrive at scenes of violence and disaster, but they often have little training or psychological support. Journalists are there to report on and record events in real time, but they can sometimes be expected to step outside their role and provide assistance in ways they are not trained for – for example, helping civilians wounded in war or those fleeing natural disasters. This can lead to journalists having a sense that they might have compromised their moral compass and that leads to moral injury, which can be debilitating, disorienting and lead journalists to become disillusioned or drop out of the industry altogether.
It’s important to clarify that moral injury is not a mental illness in the same way as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression or anxiety disorders. Moral injury is associated with two primary emotions: guilt and shame. It can arise when the boundaries of journalism are blurred, where tough moral dilemmas might present themselves. It was common among journalists covering the refugee crisis in the Mediterranean, which reached its peak in 2015. A 2017 report by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism showed that moral injury was strongly associated with journalists becoming actively involved in helping refugees and it discussed the need for the industry to reach consensus on defining appropriate expectations in situations like these.
I was taken aback when Anthony Feinstein, a professor at the University of Toronto and one of the leading researchers on the psychological stresses facing journalists, told me he considered moral injury to be the next big challenge for journalism, much more prevalent than PTSD. As director of the Rory Peck Trust, an organisation dedicated to the support, safety and welfare of freelance journalists, I had been exploring the psychological needs of journalists for a few years at this point. In 2021 the trust started a resilience programme to support journalists with trauma management skills but I hadn’t heard of moral injury. Indeed, more than half of journalists we polled were unaware of the concept, let alone how to recognise its effect and impact on their work and well-being.
It’s my job to look for ways to provide freelancers with the support and tools they need most to carry out their work safely. The nature of freelance journalism is already precarious. Factor in financial instability, the growing risk of physical attack, cyber-bullying and Slapps (strategic lawsuits against public participation, used to silence journalists) and it’s no wonder the threat of mental health disorders and moral injury is great.
There exists a moral injury symptom scale for the military, where the concept is much better understood, but nothing similar for journalists. This is what Feinstein has been developing, with support from many in the industry to recruit journalists to take part in the research. Feinstein sees this work as a first attempt at getting to grips with defining and quantifying moral injury in the journalism sector. Once a scale is published and recognised, we can start to assess the prevalence of the problem and address it.
Researchers and trainers at the Dart Centre for Trauma and Journalism, a project of the Columbia University School of Journalism, tell me that the issues of boundaries and guilt are very complicated; they come up again and again, and need to be revisited regularly in workshops. Not enough training on ethical dilemmas is included in journalism courses and the culture of journalism encourages avoidance. Freelance journalists in particular can lack the protective element of a community of colleagues, though the most damaging cases of moral injury are often experienced by journalists who feel betrayed by their management.
Sanne Terlingen, a Dutch investigative reporter specialising in migration, trafficking and organised sexual abuse, shared her experience of moral injury with me. “I thought that in a Western democracy like the Netherlands, if I reported on an injustice, politicians and authorities would thank me, pick it up, and make sure that justice was done and the errors in the system would be corrected,” she said. “I’ve worked with over 100 survivors of organised child abuse. Some of them still weren’t safe, but the police did not take their stories seriously so they didn’t get any help, even though they had supporting evidence. Nothing changed after our publication, the injustice was still there. It felt like a betrayal – a betrayal of all the sources who had the courage to trust me with their stories, sometimes even endangering themselves, and a personal betrayal when my editors chose not to pursue the investigation.”
For anyone who values journalism, moral injury poses a great risk. We must plan how to provide the professional psychological support to meet this growing need so that journalists can maintain their vital role as the fourth pillar of democracy. A pandemic or a war without journalists to help report the facts and keep us informed is unthinkable. If we don’t look after journalists, who is going to remain on the front line of our democratic freedoms?
The Rory Peck Trust provides direct financial and practical support to freelance journalists and their families globally. This article is adapted from a presentation at the International Journalism Festival in April 2022.