Journalism and trauma

J&PR IconThe nature of news is such that journalists are often required to report on events that may be distressing, such as suicide, terrorism, violence, war or natural disasters. Journalists may be visiting sites where there is graphic evidence of death and violence, they may see and be affected by other people's distress, or may be required to interview those who have been bereaved or are in shock.

It is increasingly recognised, within Australia and internationally, that such experiences can have a profound effect on journalists. These effects can range from temporary discomfort to more long-lasting distress about dealing with these situations. This can happen even to an experienced journalist who has covered such stories for many years and has not found them overly upsetting before. As a journalist or a student of journalism, it is important to be aware of the potentially distressing nature of the work and to be prepared to seek personal and professional support if you find this troubling.

In addition, journalists may wish to consider the ethical issues involved in interviewing survivors of traumatic events, or those who have been recently bereaved in a violent way, such as through suicide, crime or disaster. Keep in mind that these people may be grieving, disoriented, shocked or frightened. They may also not be thinking clearly or could be experiencing a range of emotions that might affect their motivation for speaking to the press. They may even regret speaking to the media later when they have recovered somewhat from their experience.

The following sections summarise some of the issues for journalists to be aware of in relation to reporting on traumatic incidents. Useful links are also provided.


The effects of trauma on journalists

Reporting on distressing events and working with the survivors of trauma can have a personal effect on the journalist. It is important to recognise that journalists; like other professionals, need to safeguard their own wellbeing in these situations. This may run counter to the culture in some media organisations and among some journalists, but unresolved stress can have a significant impact.
Signs and symptoms of stress and exposure to trauma may include:

  • emotional reactions, such as shock, fear, irritability, anger, sadness, feeling numb;
  • intrusive thoughts or memories, flashbacks or nightmares about traumatic events;
  • physical effects such as fatigue, insomnia, tension, headaches, stomach upsets;
  • relationship problems such as strain, conflict, withdrawal, distrust, loss of intimacy.

Temporary stress reactions to traumatic events are not uncommon, but repeated exposure to stress and trauma may increase the risk of more serious and long-lasting difficulties such as depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, panic disorder or substance abuse. It is important to be aware of this possibility and to take steps to safeguard your own wellbeing throughout your career to minimise the impact of trauma.

Here are some suggestions about looking after yourself:

  • Maintain a healthy and positive lifestyle, with a good diet and some regular physical exercise. Limit your use of alcohol and other drugs and don't use them to cope with problems; 
  • Learn to recognise your own signs of stress and monitor stress levels. Develop constructive ways to relieve stress, such as time out, exercise, or meditation;
  • After reporting on a traumatic event, accept that it is normal to have troubling feelings for a time. Don't buy into a culture that requires journalists to show no emotion. Some people find it helpful to maintain a normal routine: stay busy and have a structured lifestyle, but make time for ways to relieve stress;
  • If you are very distressed, or your feelings and stress reactions don't improve over time, make an appointment with a GP, counsellor or psychologist to talk about your experiences and feelings.


Ethical practices

There are ethical issues you may wish to consider when reporting on traumatic events. Maintaining your ethics and professionalism under pressure will ensure that you are comfortable with your own actions when you reflect on them later and will help you deal with your own feelings about the incident.

Before you interview a person who has been a witness to trauma, or a victim of violence, think about whether it is strictly necessary to interview the person immediately. They may be grieving, shocked, disoriented, or frightened. They may feel either guilty or elated that they have survived if others have not. This means that they may not be thinking clearly when they are asked for an interview or may have their own confused reasons for speaking to you. You need to ensure that they understand your role as a journalist and that they are able to give their consent to talk with you.

Some points to consider include:

  • Follow any directions that are given by the authorities, such as police or emergency services, about going onto the site or interviewing those involved. In particular, follow instructions about not revealing information that has not yet been publicly released, such as the identity of those involved; 
  • Identify yourself immediately and clearly as a journalist and explain that you are there to report on the event. Make sure that those who are distressed understand this before speaking with you; 
  • Give clear details of what type of report you are doing print or broadcast, what angle you intend to take. Make sure they understand that their comments or footage may or may not be used in the final edit of the story; 
  • Offer to pause the interview (and stop filming or recording) if a person is becoming distressed. Some people may feel more comfortable if they are able to turn or move away from the scene, or to have someone with them during the interview; 
  • Avoid revealing the identity of those involved unless you have their consent. Do not reveal the identity of a deceased person unless the authorities have officially released such information; 
  • Try not to take photographs or footage of specific people without their consent. Avoid capturing particularly disturbing images such as severe injuries or dead bodies, and do not show the method of death in cases of suicide; 
  • Review the facts with an interviewee before you finish and read back any quotes you are thinking of using. Make sure, again, that you have their consent to include their comments or images in a report.

 Ethical practices documentMindframe for journalism and public reations education
Ethical Practices






Bereavement after suicide

It is important to be aware that those who lose a friend or relative to suicide often experience significant distress and may be at risk of suicide or mental health problems themselves. Respect people's privacy and deal with the bereaved with sensitivity. Where possible, it may be best to avoid or delay interviews with people in these situations.

Those who have been bereaved sometimes want to tell their stories to the media in an effort to raise awareness about the issue of suicide and to deal with their own feelings of loss. However, this can be a temporary wish brought on by grief and they may later regret speaking with the media. Members of the public may also be unaware that certain types of stories about suicide - particularly those that focus on a single case and are explicit about the method of death - may actually increase the risk of suicide in the community.

As an ethical and professional journalist, you might consider checking what people would like to achieve by speaking publicly about their experience, then broadly discussing the recommendations for covering suicide in the media. In general, it is preferable to avoid prominent or repeated reports about cases of suicide in the community. You could still include a reference to the events but you should omit detailed descriptions of the method of death. Put the emphasis of the story more strongly on how the community can prevent similar events by referring to the effects of losing a loved one to suicide, by including statistics about suicide, and by emphasising how people can seek help for personal or mental health problems, or for someone they are concerned about.


Sources and links

Dart Centre for Journalism and Trauma:
The Poynter Institute: 

The International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies: