Documentary examines struggles faced by war journalists

There is an expression in newsrooms called “feeding the black”, referring to the insatiable beast that is the 24-hour news wheel. Dead air is not an option, so providing a steady diet of instant sound bites is the new name of the game. But with more news all the time, there’s a risk of taking the process for granted, particularly for news items covering conflict abroad. For all the little snippets of destruction we graze before clicking forward on our remotes, there is a crew of journalists and photographers risking their lives somewhere in the line of fire.
Dr. Feinstein was intrigued. He asked his research team to search what had been published on the topic of journalism, trauma and war. Incredibly, nothing had. Dr. Feinstein followed up with a grant application to a Washington organization called the Freedom Forum, who funded his first study on this topic. More than a decade of pioneering work later, Dr. Feinstein is now a leader in this area of care and research. And his newest project – a documentary he produced called Under Fire: Journalists in Combat – was shortlisted for an Academy Award.Only 2 journalists were killed covering World War One.

Yet in the last two decades, more than 900 have lost their lives reporting from war zones. Like many of us, Sunnybrook’s Dr. Anthony Feinstein says, he never really considered the dangers front line journalists faced until he encountered a particular patient in 1999. She was a war reporter working for a large news organization suffering from a condition called conversion disorder, meaning her neurological symptoms couldn’t be explained by a physical cause. Her body appeared to be having a severe reaction to extreme stress.

The film is a raw look into the terrors faced by many journalists covering war and their struggles to cope. It’s estimated that about 29% will suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a condition that can affect daily functioning and increases the risk for substance abuse and suicide. Dr. Feinstein has given their suffering not only a name, but also hope in ongoing treatment. As one reporter explained in the film, he used to call his problem “needing a drink”. Now, he knows it’s PTSD, and can reach for a phone consult rather than the bottle.

So what’s the difference between how a journalist and a soldier experience war? Absolutely nothing. Dr. Feinstein hopes this documentary will continue to raise awareness about the extraordinary risks journalists in combat face, as well as continued support for research. The film has made the storytellers the headline. It’s up to rest of us to decide if and when we reach for the remote.

About the author

Monica Matys

Monica Matys is a Communications Advisor at Sunnybrook.

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