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Journalists court PTSD in a society riven by it

July 1, 2022

Last weekend’s SA National Editors Forum (Sanef) AGM was not focused on on the usual litany of journalism problems, such as ethical breaches, disinformation, threats to media freedom and retrenchments.

This time the meeting had a presentation from the SA Depression and Anxiety Group (Sadag) on how to deal with the growing evidence of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other mental health challenges for reporters who day after day have to confront the high levels of violence and conflict in our society. As a routine part of their work, reporters come face to face with dead bodies, the victims of natural disaster, violence, unrest and poverty; they have to deal with blood, gore and bereaved families. In recent months, on top of the routine violence of this country, journalists have had to be first responders in the KZN floods and last year’s July looting, as well as well as horrors like mass tavern deaths.

And when they get home after a tough day out of the office, they deal with a rising tide of online abuse, threats and harassment.

It was no great surprise then when Cassey Chambers of Sadag told the meeting that journalists experience high levels of depression and anxiety and “more PTSD than doctors working on the frontline”. Journalists often checked all seventeen boxes on the PTSD checklist, she said. The checklist has questions such as: in the past week have you “had a loss of interest in activities you used to enjoy … irritable behaviour, angry outbursts or acting aggressively … suddenly feeling or acting as if the stressful experience were actually happening again?”

Sounds like newsroom behaviour, doesn’t it?

This is worth bearing in mind when one pictures journalists – as so many do all too easily – as vultures and opportunists serving the masters of money and sensation. We depend on reporters to keep us informed of these traumatic events, and get right in there to give us details, texture, interviews, sweat and tears. Photographers in particular have to get up close and intimate to get the photos we expect to see.

Much of the work is a far cry from the movie-like glamour of hobnobbing with people of power and money. Certainly, that is life of some journalists, but for many of the frontline reporters it is rough, tough, demanding and depressing work in a society where violence and conflict are everyday news.

Sanef teamed up with Sadag a year ago to deal with this, offering counselling and other support for journalists. Now they have formed a Safety and Wellness Committee, alongside the more traditional Media Freedom, Access to Information and Training sub-committees. This one will “pay special attention to the growing incidences of violence, including personal threats and cyberbullying”. (We will gloss over the technical abuse of the word incidences by the country’s leading editors, clearly under stress.)

They are handing out cards with contacts numbers for counsellors, putting up posters in newsrooms urging journalists to get help, training news editors to spot and deal with PTSD, and so on. Every editor has a story to tell about handling traumatised reporters and photographers, many of them – having grown up in newsrooms that rewarded macho toughness – reluctant to admit the problem.

It says a lot about the state of our society, not just journalism, that this is what Sanef has to attend to. It may signal how much trauma runs through our society, carrying a hidden cost beyond the immediate victims.

The other matter that took up time at the conference – in contrast – was the frustration that the presidency was so aloof, giving little access, information, briefings and interviews to journalists.  When journalists question presidents, they do it on behalf of those who do not have the same access. Disdain for journalists from the powerful is a disdain for citizens and their right to have questions answered.

The same evening, journalists got together for the Sikuvile Awards, a chance to recognise and reward some of the best recent journalism. It was a celebration of some notable work, such as Pieter Louis Myburgh’s Digital Vibes exposé of Covid corruption; Lucas Ledwaba’s photos; and Willemien Brümmer’s features.

And the Lifetime Achiever Award for Tony Heard, former Cape Times editor was a reminder of the value of brave, visionary journalism and how the Cape Times was not so long ago a place where this happened. Heard defied the law to interview ANC president-in-exile Oliver Tambo in 1988, a critical moment in the opening up of this country.

But again, it was the gaps that stood out. There were two categories in which there were no entries deemed worthy of an award: Popular Journalism and Indigenous Language Reporting

That also says a good deal about where our journalism – and our society – is.

*Harber is Caxton Professor of Journalism and director of the Campaign for Free Expression.



Anton Harber

Adjunct Professor Anton Harber is the executive director. Harber has 40 years of experience as an editor, journalist, and journalism teacher and has been involved in free expressio

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