Coming back with more than a story: journalism, terrorism and mental health

It’s Friday, November 13th. On this date, five years ago, Paris experienced unprecedented murderous attacks. I remember the turmoil perfectly, since I was in France that day. While my memories come back to me, Mathieu-Robert Sauvé publishes a new essay that intrigues me: The Beluga Journalist. “Like the belugas of the St. Lawrence, journalists are on the verge of extinction,” to use the author’s words.

I cannot deny it. While I haven’t had a chance to read the entire essay yet, there are some excerpts that have fueled my thinking. I studied the inner workings of the journalistic profession for two years. I made it my subject of memory. Like many journalists and researchers, Mr. Côté points to social media, disinformation and precarious working conditions. Being exposed to this while working in a professional environment lacking clear regulations, journalists must fight to assert the essence of their profession and obtain very little recognition. But what about the human behind the professional?

Because unfortunately it is not just these three Goliaths against David. A whole spectrum of factors helps to define the tricks of the trade. My study has indeed enabled me to see that the professional voice was not the only one threatened with extinction. The emotional voice is still too often overlooked. In fact, there is just as much risk of making the profession of journalist disappear if we do not focus on their mental well-being.

Importants events

Bringing a global reflection on the coverage of local traumatic events and their impact on information professionals: this was the main objective of my research. Because between 80 and 100% of journalists will be confronted with a traumatic situation during their career. Because about 20% of them will suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. But above all, because there is still a palpable taboo concerning mental health and work.

I embarked on this long-term research in 2018. After having personally experienced the attacks of November 13, 2015 up close, I wanted to discuss with 15 journalists who covered events of a terrorist nature in Quebec, France and in Belgium. Results: five years after those in Paris, many of them are still marked by this type of attacks, unfortunately more and more recurrent. However, terrorist attacks are far from being the only events to disturb journalists. In fact, any situation is likely to destabilize them in one way or another. Their perception of mental health problems, the context in which they receive the information, and the geographic, psychoaffective and cultural proximity between them and the event are all factors that have a significant impact on emotional management.

And rather than offering them better access to the tools necessary to ensure physical and mental security, we prefer to perpetuate an often archaic vision of the social and professional role of the journalist. This then gives all the space necessary for a culture of persistent silence, a myth of the hero journalist and a double stigmatization to prevail. Let us be clear: the distress of some seems more legitimate than that of others, because they have covered the war or gone to hostile areas, for example. And again, it all depends on the type of distress. Indeed, the journalist wins by saying that he suffers from professional exhaustion, since that means that he would have worked too much. In a performance-oriented society, it is certainly valued to define yourself by your performance at work. Other more emotional disorders, such as depression, will be largely overlooked, even today.

Mental well-being

We have to admit that this emotional drift is sometimes precipitated by strategies adopted by journalists, mistakenly thinking that they will be immune or at least, better protected. One of the preferred strategies remains the use of a device, such as a camera between oneself and the event. However, these strategies are often just an illusion of protection and fuel a hidden sense of helplessness. Let us think in particular of the case of the photographer Kevin Carter, who ended his days, a year after having captured one of the most famous images in the media world: The girl and the vulture.

I trust that there is more and more a concern for mental well-being, regardless of the workplace, particularly given the current context. However, I also think that five years after the attacks of November 13, there is still a long way to go to protect our journalists from possible extinction. Very few concrete measures have been put in place, whether related to social networks, disinformation, job insecurity or mental health. Far from me the ambition to claim to have the miracle solution by these few words. It probably does not exist. However, in my humble opinion, it is already a first step to open a transparent discussion on the issue. Let us not forget that in order to have the right to quality information, we must take care of those who provide it to us, because they are also essential workers.

Hélène Maillé,

Graduated with a master’s degree in international strategic communication

University of Sherbrooke & Catholic University of Louvain

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