Out of Embed, But Facing Trauma?

By: Joe Strupp

More than most embedded reporters, Ann Scott Tyson of The Christian Science Monitor witnessed at close range the dangers of covering the invasion of Iraq. Not only did she share a tent with two embeds who were eventually killed, but she later flew out of the war zone aboard a helicopter that transported several body bags, including one holding NBC correspondent David Bloom.

In between, dead Iraqi bodies, surprise gunfire, and ear-splitting aircraft overhead did little to make Tyson and other reporters with the U.S. Army’s 3rd Infantry Division feel safe. “I saw my share of gruesome things,” said Tyson, who returned to her Maryland home April 10 after more than a month with the unit. “I did break down and cry several times because of the risk and trying to do my job all at once.”

After more than a week back home with her husband and four children, Tyson said the war remains very much in her mind. “I will hear a boom or the sound of a plane, and I will be back there,” she told E&P during a telephone interview. “I hear words used in the military, and it takes me back.”

A 16-year Monitor veteran with no previous combat experience, Tyson said she has yet to start reading newspapers on a regular basis because of her aversion to war news and does not like talking about it yet. “Re-entry has been way harder than I thought,” she admitted. “I’ve had to very slowly expose myself to the real world again.”

Tyson is just one of hundreds of journalists who have returned — or soon will — from the combat region now that the serious fighting (if not dying) has ended. While some reporters will make easy adjustments, others will need help to deal with postwar stress, say psychologists. Those problems can range from low-level anxiety to nightmares to lack of sleep, and even to permanent emotional damage.

“It always depends on the person,” said Roger Simpson, director of the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma at the University of Washington. “Evidence of emotional impact may not surface right away.” Simpson said news outlets should have a professional counselor or psychologist assess combat reporters when they return. Then they should watch them for problems that could endure and give them an opportunity to discuss their experience.

“If they see horrible sights, there is a good chance they might have some symptoms,” said Joseph Etherton, a clinical therapist and associate professor of psychology at Loyola University in New Orleans. “It is hard to get it out of your mind.”

News organizations are responding to the returning journalists in different ways. Some, such as Cox Newspapers Inc., are planning mandatory counseling, according to Foreign Editor Chuck Holmes. Holmes, whose combat experience includes coverage of fighting in Rwanda, Lebanon, and Kosovo, added: “I suffered a bit of post-traumatic stress disorder [PTSD] after Rwanda. I had nightmares for a few weeks, and it probably would have helped to have some counseling of some kind.”

Other newspapers, such as The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post, plan to use their existing employee-assistance programs, which provide counseling. Bill Spindle, who edits the Journal‘s Middle East coverage, said the program helped many after the 9/11 attacks in 2001 and the killing of correspondent Daniel Pearl last year.

Still, several editors said they have yet to focus on providing such counseling. “It is something we really should be looking at, but we have not,” said Tim Connolly, international editor of The Dallas Morning News, which has had as many as five journalists in Iraq.

A 2001 study by Anthony Feinstein, associate professor of psychology at the University of Toronto, found that war journalists were three times more likely to show post-traumatic stress symptoms than those who had never covered war and that more than one in four war correspondents were expected to receive a PTSD diagnosis sometime in their lives. This high rate is similar to that of combat vets, Feinstein said. War reporters also were found to have higher rates of alcohol abuse versus noncombat reporters. TV news outlets are better than newspapers at supporting war reporters, he added, with newspapers providing “very little, if anything” in terms of postwar support.

E&P welcomes letters to the editor: letters@editorandpublisher.com.

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