How covering gory, violent crimes impacts mental health of journalists

Journalism is one of the professions where one can be more prone to exposure to the likes of crime, violence and social injustice on a regular basis.
A collage of journalists and violent, gory crime scenes and accidents
A collage of journalists and violent, gory crime scenes and accidents
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A senior TV journalist in Hyderabad who works for a TV news channel was taking a quick nap on the sofa. In his arms, hugged close to his chest, was a pillow. Suddenly, he awoke, sweating and panicked that he was being smothered by the pillow. A few deep breaths later, he realised it was just a bad dream.

He thought the nightmare was probably the result of a story he had been working on. Earlier in the day, he had been reporting the brutal case from Andhra Pradesh where two women were murdered by their superstitious parents. The parents killed the daughters, allegedly expecting them to be resurrected. The image of the body of one of the daughters he saw that morning, lying in the pooja room in a pool of blood, had been embedded in his mind ever since.

Journalism is a profession where one is exposed to crime, violence and social injustice on a regular basis. Several other professionals – like doctors and police officials – also see bloodshed and death more than others. For journalists, the task is often about getting to the bottom of the case after speaking to doctors, police officials, and other stakeholders, put the pieces together and then narrate the story to the public. In many cases, it is a more sanitary, toned down version that the public sees.

However, despite the blurring and censoring, the gory and distressing details and visuals remain with the journalist, which can take a toll on their mental health.

Impact of covering distressing stories

For instance, the Nirbhaya gangrape of 2012 that is embedded in the collective conscience of the country, was hard on journalists covering it too, especially women. A senior woman journalist recounted how her colleague once broke down while covering the developments in the case eight years ago. “My colleague was pregnant while she was covering the Nirbhaya gang rape case. That day, she was continuously on live, giving updates to the channel she was working on. After one such live, she suddenly put away her mic, and broke down. She said she wished she wouldn’t give birth to a girl,” she said.

While there is some amount of desensitisation that happens when exposed to distressing narratives and incidents, journalists, like any other person, can experience the long-term impact of the work that they do and what they see.

Ashish, a journalist in Hyderabad, was working on a story about hospitals and mortuaries. He had gone to Osmania General Hospital’s mortuary. As he entered a room located at one corner of the mortuary, he was shocked to notice seven-eight unclaimed bodies piled one on top of the other. Then, he suddenly tripped and broke his fall with his palms flat on the ground. After he got up, he was horrified to find his palms coated with a dark liquid that seemed to be coming from the pile of bodies. He rushed to wash his hands.

Eight years later, the memory still haunts him. “Even today when I recollect the incident or recount the story, I feel like the palms of my hands are unclean,” shared the journalist.    

Covering trauma can be traumatic too

Deepthi Bathini, who covered the Hyderabad bomb blasts in Dilsukhnagar for a national channel, recalls that she couldn’t sleep for many days after it. “We were one of the first media teams to arrive at the site of the blast. It happened around 6:30 pm and we were there in an hour. The entire area was dark and there were bodies and properties strewn all over. We did not know what we were stepping on. After hours of reporting, when I went back late in the night, I realised there were blood stains on my shoes. What I had witnessed – the crying, the pain and agony – came rushing back. It pained me. I couldn’t sleep for nights together.”

Experiencing trauma first hand is not the only factor that affects mental health – covering traumatic incidents can generate it too. It can lead to anxiety, loss of sleep and developing habits such as stress eating to cope. Some journalists may experience vicarious trauma which is also known as secondary traumatic stress, according to Dr Praveen Chintapanti, a consultant psychiatrist at Tranquil Minds.

“In this condition, people empathise with the victim. Their empathy towards the victim can affect them. Doctors and police officials who work with rape survivors are often seen to experience vicarious trauma. In such cases, over a period of time, they can experience a burnout," he says.

In some instances, flashbacks and images of a disturbing incident can keep coming back. In extreme cases, it can lead to depression and other mental health issues such as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). This is especially common for journalists who cover war and conflict.

“People always think this happens only to someone who has experienced something. The fact is that a witness in the incident can also have PTSD. In this condition, repeated flashbacks happen: of images or conversations or both together. This can cause anxiety. People tend to become hypervigilant and they can also experience palpitations,” explains Dr Praveen.

Need for training and sensitisation

Speaking to TNM, a senior crime journalist, based in Delhi shared that there are several stories that linger with her. “Nirbhaya’s story is one such example. It was heart wrenching, as was the Jessica Lal murder case… the Nitish Katara murder case… the Nithari killings. For TV journalists, the newspaper that comes the next day is like a report card of the work you do the entire day. This affects you over a period of time,” he said. 

Because of the pressures of the profession, journalists are often required to move from one story to another quickly, hardly giving them time to process how it has affected them.       

Dr Praveen says that there is a need for sensitisation and training – frontline responders and journalists also need to understand how much they want to be exposed to ideally. “How much would they like their viewers or readers to be exposed to is also important. Today there is so much desensitisation towards death on social media. It feels like as a society, we have become about voyeuristic pleasures of traumatic events and this is a very sad thing. Perhaps there is a degree of training that is needed and also restraint on the part of the professionals in terms of what is being offered.”

Seniors and editors should also be made aware of what reporters on ground go through, and could try speaking to them at the end of the day to help them discuss their feelings and have a sense of closure. Seeking professional mental healthcare should also be normalised, and organisations/employers should encourage journalists to seek help if required.

While something like immunity builds with controlled exposure, Dr Praveen says that there is no evidence in science that repeated exposure to gory, brutal cases can make people stronger. “This is the reason why restraint is important. On social media as well, trigger warnings, viewer discretion is important as otherwise it can cause real discomfort to many viewers. As it is a very subjective topic, quite often it is taken for granted,” he says.

What journalists can do to cope

Sabu John, a Counselling Psychologist working as Assistant Professor in Christ University’s Department of Psychology, says there are ways for journalists to deal with spontaneous distressing emotions. He says that they can:

- Measure the depth of the emotional trigger by observing the immediate bodily reactions (like palpitations, butterflies in the stomach) and try to not fall into the loop of negative thought cycle.

- Alter the physiological reactions (like deep breathing, brisk walking, or muscle relations) if the triggering situation is a must-attend and one cannot remove themselves from it.

- Have positive affirmation statements while facing the trigger (like - I can be calm; this story can help bring out truth etc.) and process the depth of how this is affecting oneself only after the triggering situation is completely dealt with.

In the long term, Sabu John suggests that speaking with mentors and peers about the story, or its impact on oneself can help process it. The counselling psychologist adds, “Mindfulness practices such meditation, yoga, prayer etc., can help too. Having a diverse social ecosystem – where instead of only hanging out with people from the media industry, people having friends from other walks of life and interests too, can help. Physical strength and simulation such as exercise and other physical workouts can help too.”

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