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BY 4.0 license Open Access Published online by De Gruyter Mouton February 8, 2022

Economic crisis and trauma journalism: Assessing the emotional toll of reporting in crisis-ridden countries

Lambrini Papadopoulou, Theodora A. Maniou and Eleana Pandia
From the journal Communications

Abstract

This article discusses the relationship between the post-2008 global economic crisis and trauma journalism through a quantitative study of reporters covering austerity’s everyday manifestations and examines the effects on the media professionals involved. The findings indicate that journalists who cover economic crisis-related incidents suffer specific symptoms of trauma. As such, the study re-conceptualizes the economic crisis as primarily affective for media workers, it establishes a direct correlation between the economic crisis and emotional trauma, and provides an insight into the kind of trauma that stems from covering austerity and its impact on society. A regression analysis of symptoms indicates trauma journalism as an emerging field of research into the economic crisis.

1 Introduction

Trauma journalism, which explores the impact of traumatic events on media professionals (McMahon, 2001), has gained unprecedented momentum in recent years, with an abundance of studies focusing on the emotional toll that stems from covering tragedies and disasters (e. g., Buchanan and Keats, 2011; Feinstein, Owen, and Blair, 2002; Seely, 2019). Interest in the intersection of journalism and trauma emerged as a focus of research for academics and practitioners in the late 1990s (Beam and Spratt, 2009). Until then, notions of objectivity as well as the professional ideologies of detachment and distanced observation were prevalent (Rentschler, 2010), resulting in a widespread hesitance to address and examine the relationship between trauma and media professionals’ mental health (Feinstein, 2006). This hesitance has given way to a new strand of literature that records the traumatic impact that covering death or suffering may have on media professionals (e. g., Konow Lund and Olsson, 2015; Tandoc and Takahashi, 2018).

This article takes these findings a step further and discusses the relationship between journalists and the economic crisis, which is conceptualized as an explicitly traumatic event, arguing that covering economic crises could be as traumatic for journalists as covering death and suffering.

It presents a quantitative study of media professionals (journalists and photojournalists) covering the recent economic crisis, focusing on the effects on the media professionals involved. The findings clearly indicate that journalists who cover economic crisis-related incidents suffer trauma. As such, the study establishes a direct correlation between the economic crisis and emotional trauma.

2 Literature review

The intersection of journalism and trauma: From the culture of objectivity to the re-conceptualization of journalistic practices

For many years, emotions had been a somewhat taboo and stigmatized topic in the media sector (Brayne, 2008), and journalists were expected to report objectively on crises, without including subjective opinions and, most importantly, without being affected emotionally by the events they were covering (Backholm, 2017). However, as Thomson (2018) points out, journalism is produced by humans with emotions, and despite their efforts to ignore them in favor of framing themselves as rational beings able to objectively document the world (Schudson, 2001), they cannot detach themselves from the overwhelming emotions that can stem from the traumatic stories they cover and their encounters with survivors or relatives of victims. Gradually, the notion of the objective and distant observer journalist has given way to a reconfiguration of media workers as first respondents, whose work involves reporting on crises and disasters, bearing witness to human tragedy, providing a truthful and a morally compelling narrative of it, and thereby presenting the struggle and suffering of those caught up in such events as a cause of emotion and political action for their publics (Chouliaraki, 2006; Andén-Papadopoulos and Pantti, 2013).

School shootings, terrorist attacks, and large-scale natural disasters in the late 1990s reaffirmed the emotional connection between journalists and their work (Rentschler, 2010) and prompted media scholars, who until then had under‐theorized and under‐researched this field, to acknowledge the intellectual and non-material dimension of journalism and re-conceptualize journalistic professionalism as primarily affective (Kotisova, 2019; Siapera, 2019; Wahl‐Jorgensen, 2016). Following this line of thought, it can be understood that the current articulation of trauma journalism not only emphasizes the reporter’s agency and involvement in the events and issues on which he or she reports but goes one step further to identify and re-code journalistic practices as primarily affective, and, in some cases, extraordinarily so (Rentschler, 2009).

Moving from war correspondents to the ‘war zones’ of everyday reporting

The role of emotion in media is without question a very broad and exciting line of inquiry holding promise for a vast array of communicative contexts (Nabi and Wirth, 2008). For instance, a strand of literature in recent years has focused attention on journalists’ reactions when covering war conflicts (Feinstein, Owen, and Blair, 2002; Feinstein and Nicholson, 2005), large-scale natural disasters (Castle, 1999), or terrorist attacks (Strupp and Cosper, 2001). In terms of specific case studies, a series of studies focuses on events such as the 9/11 terror attacks in New York (Zelizer and Allan, 2011), the Iraq war (Feinstein and Nicholson, 2005), the terror attacks in Norway (Backholm and Idås, 2015; Konow Lund and Olsson, 2015), typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines (Tandoc and Takahashi, 2018), hurricane Katrina (Moritz and Crapanzano, 2010), the refugee crisis (Feinstein, Pavisian, and Storm, 2018), and the Syrian war (Feinstein and Starr, 2015).

Traumatic stress symptoms, however, are not limited to reporters who cover war and other large-scale disasters. Balzarotti and Ciceri (2014), for instance, stressed that the threatening impact of traumatic events can even extend to the public at large.

Other researchers have tried to shift the focus from war reporters and shed light on the effects of routine trauma coverage on domestic reporters who witness violence and tragedy (e. g., fatal accidents, robberies) almost every day (Dworznik, 2006; Pyevich, Newman, and Daleiden, 2003; Seely, 2019).

Recent studies also suggest that there has been an increase in the likelihood of exposure to everyday traumatic events due to the changing conditions in media professions, which have increased the demands put on journalists, making them more likely to cover traumatic stories and more likely to cover these types of stories more frequently (McMahon and McLellan, 2008; Seely, 2019).

Moreover, as Chouliaraki (2008) points out, the media, abiding by the well-worn newsroom adage that if it bleeds, it leads (Kay, Reilly, Amend, and Kyle, 2011), confront people every day with the suffering of distant others. Indeed, the audiences’ gluttony for violence-filled programs (Simpson and Coté, 2006), as well as the political economy of the profession, has played its part in enhancing fierce competition among media organizations and forcing journalists and photojournalists to display material with strong emotional content, which has been proven to be the most profitable, especially if it points to danger or loss (Richard and Rees, 2011). Based on this analysis, this work initiates from the following hypothesis:

H1: The coverage of crisis-related news stories and events may cause emotional trauma to journalists covering these stories.

Coping strategies of silence and stigma in the newsrooms

Talking about emotional trauma and admitting vulnerability has proved to be an effective way of mitigating the effects of trauma and, indeed, according to McMahon (2001), the majority of media professionals would welcome an opportunity to talk about their traumatic experiences at work.

However, research in the field has found a prevalent ‘macho culture’ in the newsroom, stemming from a widely held belief that admitting emotional injuries is a sign of weakness and a career liability (Feinstein et al., 2002; Keats and Buchanan, 2009). Simpson and Boggs (1999) were among the first to describe an unwritten code among journalists that says no assignment, no matter how brutal, can interfere with one’s ability to take a picture, gather facts, and tell a story. These rigid organizational norms and unwritten codes that stigmatize emotional expression and define emotions as taboo, lead journalists to suppress their feelings so as not to be perceived as weak (Buchanan and Keats, 2011). The result is the creation of a newsroom culture that promotes silence and suppression rather than expression and relief (Seely, 2019).

In their effort to control, minimize, or prevent emotional distress and trauma-related symptoms, many media workers adopt a number of coping strategies. In their study on journalists who covered the July 22, 2011 terror attacks in Norway, the deadliest in Norway since World War II, claiming a total of 77 lives and wounding a further 319 people, Konow Lund and Olsson (2015) found that coping mechanisms in times of organizational stress will range from the expected (routine, habit) to the unexpected (improvisation, bricolage), and that the individual must pick up where the organization leaves off. Not all media workers, however, can effectively buffer the effects of covering traumatic events. On the contrary, Buchanan and Keats (2011) found that media professionals used strategies that could be labeled as maladaptive (e. g., denial, disengagement, using substances) and which are not only ineffective but can also lead to exacerbation of trauma symptoms (Norris et al., 2002).

Yet, even the effective adaptive coping strategies and mechanisms (e. g., planning, positive reinterpretation, use of black humor) are largely individual, and none of them are usually institutionalized. Trauma training and resources are often an afterthought for most newsrooms, which rarely take responsibility for journalists’ work-related stress and its consequences (Buchanan and Keats, 2011; Kotisova, 2019; Zeng, 2018).

Bearing in mind the above, studies suggest that journalism programs and courses should incorporate education on the impact of covering potentially traumatic events and also on the ways that journalists could cope with emerging trauma-related symptoms (Ikizer, Karanci, and Kocaoglan, 2019). However, crisis-reporting education and trauma-related resources are still lacking in many journalism programs (Seely, 2019). To this end, we can assume that this lack of emotional literacy, compounded with a newsroom and professional culture that fosters silence and stigma, leaves media workers suffering in silence (Buchanan and Keats, 2011).

PTSD among media professionals

Research on the impact that traumatic experiences may have on media professionals has recorded numerous short- and long-term problems such as panic attacks, alcoholism, substance abuse, depression, and burnout (Feinstein et al., 2002; Keats and Buchanan, 2012; McMahon, 2001). Most of the studies in the field of trauma journalism use the post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptomology to measure the trauma inflicted on media professionals (Backholm and Björkqvist, 2012b; Smith, Drevo, and Newman, 2018). Previous studies that focused on the emotional responses of audiences to disaster reporting (Murphy, 1984; Putnam, 2002) also used the PTSD symptomatology to point to the increased substantial stress reactions after media coverage of dramatic incidents such as the Gulf War (Nader, Pynoos, Fairbanks, Al-Ajeel, and Al-Asfour, 1993), the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing (Pfefferbaum et al., 1999), school shootings (Haravuori, Suomalainen, Berg, Kiviruusu, and Marttunen, 2011), and the 9/11 terror attacks (Ahern et al., 2002; Bernstein et al., 2007). According to Rentschler (2010), this preference can be attributed to the fact that much of the assumed knowledge on trauma’s status as both a subjective/corporeal state and a cultural condition is constructed and codified through the symptomology of PTSD, which constitutes the main source of medical classification for trauma and in turn is used as diagnostic proof of victimized subjectivity.

In the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) (APA, 2013), trauma is defined as exposure to actual or threatened death, serious injury or sexual violence in one or more circumstances, regardless of direct involvement. Events that happened to others, information about traumatic events happening to relatives or close friends, systematic exposure and dealing with traumatic events for professional reasons also tend to cause trauma. This definition is of great importance since it establishes a direct relationship between traumatic experiences – that may not involve actual bodily pain – and emotional distress.

According to APA (2013), the individual must report symptoms that span four categories. These symptom domains include (1) intrusion symptoms (i. e., when the trauma is re-experienced in a sudden and involuntary manner), (2) avoidance of reminders of the trauma, (3) changes in cognition and mood, and (4) alterations in physiological arousal or reactivity. Of these symptoms, one should occur for at least one month to indicate PTSD. PTSD is unique among psychiatric disorders because it requires exposure and fearful response to traumatic events as the proximate precipitants of the syndrome (Neria and Sullivan, 2011).

Regarding the parameters that could lead to PTSD, existing data suggest that the central risk factors include the type of stories covered (Dworznik, 2011), number of years working as a journalist (Backholm and Idås, 2015), total assignments (Newman, Simpson, and Handschuh, 2003), personal identification with an event, geographical connection to a location, and lack of post-event social support (Pyevich et al., 2003).

It is important, however, to stress that not all journalists who experience work-related trauma will be adversely affected. As Marais and Stuart (2005) point out, individual parameters such as temperament profile and sense of coherence can significantly impact whether a media worker will suffer.

Based on this analysis, the second hypothesis for the study is the following:

H2: Emotional symptoms and coping strategies may vary among journalists based on their socio-demographic characteristics.

The post-2008 global economic crisis as a source of trauma: The cases of Greece and Cyprus

During the past two decades, studies on trauma and journalism have continuously added to the collective knowledge base (Backholm, 2017). Although we acknowledge the significance of these studies, we argue that current research has failed to address and study one of the most dramatic and multilevel traumatic events that media professionals around Europe and beyond have been covering for the last decade, namely the ongoing economic crisis.

According to Gezgin (2006), to be characterized as traumatic, an incident should be unexpected, immediate, untimely, and intimidating. Moreover, as Konow Lund and Olsson (2015) point out, genuinely unprecedented and shocking events may be termed ‘frame breakers’, whereby people suddenly and deeply feel that the universe is no longer a rational, orderly system (Weick, 1993), and which thus immediately challenge and undermine both preparations and journalistic routines. Following this line of thought, we argue that the economic crisis constitutes a traumatic frame breaker that can lead to extreme responses in society, such as the establishment of aggressive rhetoric against the state as well as the outbreak of violence and lawlessness (Gerodimos, 2018) and may also have a severe traumatic impact on media professionals.

Nowhere other than Greece and Cyprus has the impact of the economic crisis been more evident and profound. Indeed, Greece was the first country to be hit by the crisis, suffering a depression as deep and long as the 1930s US Great Depression (Raudon and Shore, 2018). During this period, social services evaporated, taxes were increased, and salaries, pensions, and disability benefits were reduced (Madianos, Alexiou, Patelakis, and Economou, 2014). Consequently, increasing numbers of people relied on food banks and turned to charities or community organizations for basic primary health care. By 2016, Greek unemployment had reached 23.6 % (Hellenic Statistical Authority, 2016), with an estimated 3.8 million citizens living in poverty (Vaiou and Kalandides, 2017).

Sochos (2018) points out that as economic crises typically affect large parts of the population, they may potentially elicit traumatic responses on a mass scale. Indeed, suicide rates in Greece reached “epidemic” levels (Davis, 2015). Particularly between 2007, the year before the crisis, and 2011, a 55.8 % increase in suicide mortality was observed (Madianos et al., 2014). Moreover, Greeks reacted against the impoverishment of society at large, and the country experienced violent anti-austerity protests, vandalism, and repeated unrest (Chryssochoou, Papastamou, and Prodromitis, 2013).

Three years after the onset of the Greek economic crisis, Cyprus’s large indebtedness and oversized banking sector culminated in the banking crisis of March 2013 (Maniou & Photiou, 2017). The agreement reached between the government and the Troika, the decision group formed by the European Commission (EC), the European Central Bank (ECB), and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), stipulated the closing of the already bankrupted Laiki Bank and its takeover by the Bank of Cyprus (BoC) as well as restrictions on the bail-in to the newly merged entity and to all accounts above €100,000. All deposits at Laiki Bank above €100,000 were largely lost, and all deposits at the BoC above €100,000 were cut by 40 %. These financial measures resulted in societal changes in every sector of everyday life, leading most Cypriots to a different notion of reality (Maniou, Photiou, Eteokleous & Seitanidis, 2017). Social inequality rose steeply, and there was a significant shock in terms of the uncertainty that prevailed and in the sense of insecurity that was widespread for several months, peaking in the two weeks during which the banks were closed (Ioannou and Charalambous, 2017).

Unemployment rose from 5.4 % in 2009 to 16 % in 2015 (Ioannou and Sonan, 2016), irregular and precarious employment expanded and several strikes took place. It comes as no surprise that many researchers argued that the social shock produced by the bail-in process brought to mind images of the 1974 Turkish invasion of Cyprus (Ioannou and Charalambous, 2017). Although Bryant (2016) is more hesitant to compare the loss of money to loss of life and ancestral properties, she argues that, as in 1974, Cypriots are again living in an unfamiliar present reality in which the current moment is experienced with abnormally acute foreboding, anxiety and an inability to predict the future.

Journalists and photojournalists from both these crisis-ridden countries inevitably experienced this devastating reality and covered its everyday manifestations to inform their audience, which, as usually happens in times of crisis, showed an increased interest in information flow to be able to assess the damage and plan for the future (Author citation, 2017 (Maniou et al., 2017)). Despite the absence of research on the impact that exposure to such stories may have, negative effects may reasonably be expected, since journalists not only experience media coverage, but produce it and are therefore part of the equation (Verhovnik, 2017). To this end, we argue that economic crises should be regarded and assessed as explicitly traumatic events that can have a severe impact on media professionals’ mental health.

3 Method

RQs and scope of study

This study seeks to build on past scholars’ work by expanding the object of inquiry to the economic crisis realm and by exploring whether media professionals covering crisis-related events and stories suffer from PTSD symptoms. Additionally, this work aims to investigate PTSD symptoms related to the various aspects of economic crisis reporting and the ways in which media professionals mitigate their effects. The research focuses on the following research questions:

RQ1: Do Greek and Cypriot media professionals who cover crisis-related stories suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) symptoms? Which sociodemographic characteristics relate to PTSD symptoms among media professionals?

RQ2: Which coping strategies are used by Greek and Cypriot media professionals to mitigate the effects of PTSD? Which sociodemographic characteristics relate to these strategies?

To assess the amount of trauma and PTSD symptoms which the research participants reported, we used the revised Impact of Events Scale (IES-R), which contains questions that closely follow the DSM-V criteria for PTSD as well as the APA revised list for PTSD characteristics (APA, 2013). Finally, a regression analysis was conducted regarding the data of our survey to test the observed symptoms, with a dependent variable of the main area of reporting covered by study participants.

Participants

This study draws on a combined group of two national samples of journalists and photojournalists covering crisis-related stories and events in Greece and Cyprus. The two countries were selected because they were the ones most affected by the economic crisis in the European south (see analysis in previous section) and therefore constitute a compelling case that offers critical insights into the impact that economic crisis coverage may have on media professionals. Full usable records were obtained from 302 journalists and photojournalists in Greece (n=234) and Cyprus (n=68) from a survey conducted in 2018. In both countries, participants were approached via the journalistic unions to safeguard their anonymity, given the nature of the study. All journalists who expressed interest in participating in the study received full information about the aim of the study, RQs, issues to be examined, procedures for handling personal data, etc., and all their questions and concerns were addressed.

Of the 600 journalists who expressed interest in participating in the study (482 in Greece and 118 in Cyprus), 102 did not respond when they were sent the link to the questionnaire. A further 196 (50 in Cyprus and 146 in Greece) of the responses were omitted due to missing data, resulting in a final response rate of 50.4 %. After the research, we shared with our respondents a list of information and resources that could help them address their experiences and seek the kind of help they might need.

In the case of Cyprus, it was relatively easy to recruit the journalists covering crisis-related events, since the number of journalists in this small country is limited: 500 in total (retired and unemployed journalists included), according to the data of the Union of Cypriot Journalists[1]. As such, it was not difficult to locate the 70 journalists (68 of them agreed to participate in the research) who mainly dealt with crisis-related events on a daily basis, as identified by data deriving from the country’s journalistic union, cross-checked against data provided to the researchers by the editors-in-chief of the 5 national newspapers and the 5 national media entities (including television channels, websites and radio channels). In the case of Greece, the questionnaire was distributed using a randomized sampling frame, through journalistic unions as well as key staff members of the major news entities, who agreed to inform journalists and photojournalists covering crisis-related stories and events. Informed consent was received from all participants in the study. The final sample distribution, regarding gender, age, monthly income, media sector, years of experience and type of news coverage agrees with the relevant reports for Greece and Cyprus of the Worlds of Journalism (Dimitrakopoulou, 2017; Milioni, 2017). The sample consists of 51 % men and 49 % women, 30.5 % aged 25–35, 35.8 % 36–45, 25.5 % 46–55, and 8.3 % 56–64. Most of them (30.5 %) stated that they work in more than one media sector. Of the others, 21.2 % were working in the printed media, 9.3 % in radio, 17.5 % in television, 16.9 % in online media, and 4.6 % in news agencies. Of the 302 participants, 12.3 % had up to five years of experience, 15.2 % 6–10, 12.9 % 11–15, 20.5 % 16–20, and 39.1 % more than 21.

Based on the retrieved data, the average profile of the journalist covering crisis-related news stories in Greece and Cyprus is a man in his early 40s, earning no more than € 1,200 a month, working in more than one media sector (consequently earning his monthly income from at least two work placements), having more than two decades of journalistic experience and of center-left political beliefs.

Initially, a t-test carried out between the two independent samples of journalists in Greece and Cyprus revealed no significant statistical differences (p>0.05) in the variables examined. Analytically, an independent sample test (Levene’s test) for equality of variances was conducted related to PTSD findings (Variables 5.1–5.20 as presented in the Questionnaire-Appendix A). Variable 20 (“Which city do you work in?”) was used as the grouping factor. A dummy variable was created based on the data of Variable 20 (“Which city do you work in?”), in which the answers ‘Athens’, ‘Thessaloniki’, and ‘Rest of Greece’ were coded as 1 (Greece), whereas ‘Nicosia’, ‘Limassol’, and ‘rest of Cyprus’ were coded as 2 (Cyprus). The two independent samples were therefore analyzed jointly as one.

As regards the statistical analysis, descriptive statistics for variables regarding PTSD symptoms include results (%) per variable, means, and standard deviations. As regards the correlations tests conducted, when ordinal variables were included (political affiliation and years of experience) Spearman’s and Cramer’s V-tests were also conducted to test the size of the effect.

Measures

For the measurement of PTSD symptoms, we used the PTSD Checklist (PCL-5) Standard developed by Weathers et al. (2013) to correspond with symptoms of PTSD according to the criteria in the most recent version of the Diagnostic Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) (APA, 2013), the tool used by clinicians and researchers to diagnose and classify mental disorders. The PTSD Checklist was developed in 1990 and has become one of the most widely used, extensively validated PTSD questionnaires. It was adapted in 2013 to fit new diagnostic criteria in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) (APA, 2013). The PTSD Checklist has been widely used to identify PTSD symptoms in populations, including journalists (Backholm and Björkqvist, 2012a; Pyevich et al., 2003). It is a 20-item self-reporting scale that asks participants how often they have experienced a variety of different physical and psychological symptoms, which also reflect the diagnostic symptoms for PTSD recognized by the American Psychological Association.

The full questionnaire (see Appendix A) comprised 23 key questions, including another 23 sub-questions (46 questions overall), divided into three main clusters: Questions in cluster A were to distinguish and verify that all participants had covered crisis-related news stories after 2013 (Questions 1–4), those in cluster B were to measure PTSD symptoms (Questions 5.1–7), while those in cluster C (Questions 8–14) were to record the ways in which media professionals handle their trauma. For questions in cluster A, participants were asked to choose an answer indicating how often they had covered crisis-related news stories after 2013 (1=Never, 2=Rarely, 3=Sometimes, 4=Often, 5=Every day). For questions in cluster B, participants were asked to choose an answer describing their feelings on crisis-related news stories using the same scale. Finally, for the questions in cluster C, participants were asked to describe the period these symptoms lasted as well as their coping strategies.

The dependent variable for the regression analysis was Variable 5.1 (“Reminders of it – the traumatic event – caused me to have physical reactions”), as a key measure indicating PTSD (APA, 2013). It is an interval/scale variable, ranging from ‘Never’ (1) to ‘Daily’ (5).

Independent variables included Variables 2.1 to 2.13, which describe the frequency of reporting crisis-related news stories (e. g., soup-kitchens, demonstrations, bankruptcies) as well as other news stories (e. g., national issues, natural disasters) to fulfil the main aim of this study: to assess the emotional toll of reporting on crisis-related events.

Findings

The findings of the study show that media professionals covering crisis-related events experienced symptoms of PTSD. Almost 25 % of all media professionals reported that they had experienced several PTSD symptoms often or even every day. As shown in Table 1, more than half of the participants admitted experiencing fear or guilt/shame, of whom 18.5 % did so every day and 36.1 % often (Mean=3.50, SD=1.09); almost one in two (47.3 %) felt powerless (Mean=3.34, SD=1.12), and 23.2 % said that reminders of covering the news stories caused them to have physical reactions often or every day (Mean=2.32, SD=1.12). In addition, 27.5 % of the participants reported having had negative thoughts connected to the crisis-related events covered (Mean=2.97, SD=1.36). Overall, the mean value in 6 of the 20 symptoms of PTSD examined (avoiding memories, negative thoughts, self-blame, feeling powerless, experience of fear-guilt-shame, feeling watchful) exceeds 2.5 (Mean) and in another three (physical reactions, irritated and angry and endangered myself) is close to 2.5 (Mean), indicating the existence of these symptoms on a regular basis.

Table 1:

Observation of PTSD symptoms in media professionals covering the economic crisis.

PTSD symptoms

Never

Rarely

Sometimes

Often

Every day

Mean

SD

Reminders of it caused me to have physical reactions.

29.1 %

29.5 %

24.2 %

14.2 %

9 %

2.32

1.127

Any reminders brought back feelings about it.

29.8 %

33.4 %

22.5 %

12.6 %

1.7 %

2.23

1.06

I tried to avoid memories of the events.

25.5 %

27.2 %

24.8 %

17.5 %

5 %

2.49

1.189

I tried to avoid circumstances connected to the events.

40.1 %

23.8 %

20.2 %

11.9 %

4 %

2.16

1.190

I had negative thoughts connected to the events.

19.9 %

19.5 %

18.5 %

27.5 %

14.6 %

2.97

1.361

I blamed myself/others.

25.8 %

23.8 %

25.5 %

19.2 %

5.6 %

2.55

1.221

I felt powerless.

6.3 %

29.1 %

29.1 %

31.1 %

16.2 %

3.34

1.129

I experienced fear, guilt/shame.

6.0 %

11.3 %

28.1 %

36.1 %

18.5 %

3.50

1.099

I lost interest in work/other activities.

43 %

21.9 %

20.9 %

9.9 %

4.3 %

2.11

1.221

I felt cut off from other people.

40.4 %

25.8 %

15.2 %

14.2 %

4.3 %

2.16

1.303

I felt watchful and always on my guard.

20.9 %

16.2 %

25.2 %

26.8 %

10.9 %

2.91

1.303

I felt irritated and angry.

25.2 %

31.1 %

23.2 %

16.9 %

3.6 %

2.43

1.144

I took risks/put myself in danger.

35.8 %

26.8 %

22.2 %

11.9 %

3.3 %

2.20

1.148

I was jumpy and easily startled.

42.1 %

29.1 %

16.2 %

9.6 %

3.0 %

2.02

1.113

I had trouble concentrating.

38.4 %

29.1 %

22.2 %

8.3 %

2.0 %

2.06

1.056

I had difficulty remembering details of the events.

56.3 %

24.2 %

13.9 %

4.0 %

1.7 %

1.71

0.962

I had trouble falling asleep.

42.7 %

25.2 %

17.2 %

10.3 %

4.6 %

2.09

1.193

I had dreams about it.

49.0 %

27.8 %

13.6 %

7.3 %

2.3 %

1.86

1.054

I felt upset when remembering the events.

41.4 %

28.8 %

18.9 %

8.6 %

2.3 %

2.02

1.077

Other things kept making me think about it.

45.0 %

26.8 %

18.2 %

8.6 %

1.3 %

1.94

1.047

To assess the relationship between the frequency of covering crisis-related news stories and the emotional toll, a regression analysis was performed, which showed that the frequency of reporting on specific crisis-related news stories can indeed cause PTSD symptoms. As Table 2 indicates, reporting often on issues directly connected to the economic crisis such as soup kitchens (Sig.=0.002) and personal stories related to the crisis (e. g., unemployment) (Sig.=0.06) can affect the appearance of PTSD symptoms.

Table 2:

Regression analysis.

Model summary

Change statistics

Model

R

R square

Adjusted R square

Std. error of the estimate

R square change

F change

1

.374a

.140

.101

1.068

.140

3.601

Coefficientsa

Unstandardized Coefficients

Standardized coefficients

t

Model

B

std. error

Beta

1

(Constant)

1.276

.301

4.236

House auctions and evictions

–.079

.073

–.074

–1.084

Business bankruptcies

–.012

.076

–.012

–.155

Refugee crisis

–.011

.064

–.011

–.170

Crime reports (burglaries, murders …)

.018

.047

.025

.392

Soup kitchens

.219

.068

.224

3.199

Personal stories related to the economic crisis (homelessness, unemployment …)

.122

.066

.128

1.856

Demonstrations/violent clashes

–.037

.062

–.038

–.602

Developments in the financial sector

–.086

.079

–.106

–1.095

Developments in the banking sector

.104

.089

.125

1.157

Stock market

.135

.080

.142

1.689

Model

Sig.

1

(Constant)

.000

House auctions and evictions

.279

Business bankruptcies

.877

Refugee crisis

.865

Crime reports (burglaries, murders …)

.696

Soup kitchens

.002

Personal stories related to the economic crisis (homelessness, unemployment …)

.064

Demonstrations/violent clashes

.547

Developments in the financial sector

.274

Developments in the banking sector

.248

Stock market

.092

a. Dependent Variable: 5.1 Reminders of it caused me to have physical reactions (e. g., sweat).

The analysis revealed specific sociodemographic variables that seem to directly relate with PTSD symptoms. Cramer’s V-test showed that the journalist’s political affiliation plays a significant role (value=0.196, appr.sign.=0.046) in blaming themselves or others (‘I blamed myself/others’) and the journalist’s ability to concentrate (‘I had trouble concentrating’) after the traumatic event (value=0.205, appr.sign.=0.012), with journalists affiliated with the left appearing more affected than others.

The journalist’s gender seems to be significant when ‘trying to avoid memories of the event’ (x2=0.002), ‘feeling powerless’ (x2=0.011), ‘feeling jumpy and easily startled’ (x2=0.003), and ‘having trouble concentrating’ after the event (x2=0.001), with women more affected than men in all four PTSD symptoms.

As regards the coping strategies Greek and Cypriot journalists use, some interesting findings refer to the ways journalists themselves manage these symptoms. In general, only 7.6 % of the participants reported to have consumed stress relief medication, while only 18.9 % of the participants admitted that they had asked for help after the traumatic incident, although only 6.3 % of those addressed a mental health professional. The only demographic variable that seems to play a significant role as regards coping strategies that journalists tend to employ is gender, since more women admitted having consumed medication after covering a traumatic event (Levine’s test=0.04).

Table 3:

Journalists’ coping strategies.

Yes

No

Total

Total

Did you consume stress relief medication after the traumatic event?

7.6 %

(Male=30.4 % Female=49.6 %)

92.4 %

(Male=52.7 %

Female=47.3 %)

Has your regular alcohol consumption changed after reporting on the stressful event?

12.6 %

87.4 %

Have you asked for help to cope with the ways you have been affected by the traumatic event you covered?

18.9 %

81.1 %

4 Discussion

This paper seeks to address the emotional toll that economic crisis news stories may have on media professionals. We draw on theories of trauma journalism in the context of media professionals working in the two countries most affected by the austerity measures of south Europe, namely Greece and Cyprus. Economic crises do not constitute isolated events with specific financial impact on societies for a specific period of time. On the contrary, when economic crises occur, they penetrate all aspects of social, political, and economic reality and subsequently affect all facets of society (Damstra and Vliegenthart, 2018) for a period long after normality has returned. Similarly, economic crises affect all types of reporting, adding an economic crisis frame to all kind of stories and functioning as an essential filter through which different stories are interpreted and understood.

A general finding that stands out from the descriptive statistical analysis is that 25 % of all media professionals who cover news stories related to the economic crisis experienced several of the PTSD symptoms often or even every day, and the more highly affected journalists seem to be those covering developments in the economic sector, business bankruptcies, and personal stories related to the economic crisis. These findings correspond in part to previous research, which also showed that the proximity of the events as well as personal identification with an event can enhance the individual’s risk of more severe impairment (Backholm, 2017). According to a strand of literature (e. g., Feinstein, Audet, and Waknine, 2014; Seely, 2019), the type of assignment can severely impact a journalist’s mental health. For instance, a journalist who is frequently exposed to traumatic events, such as personal stories related to the crisis (e. g., homelessness, evictions), could be at greater risk of suffering from PTSD symptoms, depression, and emotional distress.

These findings are of significance since they establish a direct relationship between economic crisis news stories and PTSD symptoms. As mentioned already, most relevant studies in the field of trauma journalism focused on the long-term psychological problems that may affect media professionals covering harrowing events such as wars, large-scale natural disasters, or terrorist attacks (Castle, 1999; Feinstein et al., 2002; Feinstein and Nicholson, 2005). However, the economic crisis after 2007 also seems to have a shattering impact on media workers.

Economic crisis stories may not bring media workers face to face with death, but they do carry the same subtle, yet distinct, reminder of an end and of a loss that sometimes resembles death. Losing one’s salary, pension, house, business, work, and eventually dignity is an end to ‘life as we knew it’. Anti-austerity demonstrations and violent clashes with tear gas, stone throwing, and other scenes of confrontations were also referred to as battlefields with regards to the violence (Veneti, Lilleker, and Reilly, 2018) and the aggression and brutality of the police response (Xenakis, 2012).

With regards to the main sociodemographic characteristics related to PTSD symptoms, gender and political affiliation seem to play an important role. According to our study, women appeared more affected than men. This finding corresponds with previous research on gender differences in PTSD, which found that females are reported to be diagnosed with PTSD after a trauma twice as often as males and develop stronger symptoms than males (Haskell et al., 2010).

Our next finding indicated that journalists more affiliated towards the left appear more affected than others. One way to explain this finding could be that right-leaning journalists were more supportive of the austerity measures that were implemented in both countries by right-wing governments. The perception of these measures as harsh but necessary steps to bring the economy back on track seems to have made them less emotional when covering stories related to the impact that these measures have had on society in general.

As regards coping strategies employed by journalists, the only demographic characteristic that seems to play a significant role is gender, as more women admitted having consumed medication after covering a traumatic event. Previous research has concluded that women generally use medicines more often than men (Glaeske, Gerdau-Heitmann, Höfel, and Schicktanz, 2013).

One of the most telling observations of this study is that the majority of Greek and Cypriot media professionals (85.8 %) were not likely to ask for help in order to cope with the ways they have been affected by the traumatic event they covered. These results re-affirm the findings of previous research studies that describe a culture of silence in the newsrooms (Buchanan and Keats, 2011). Rigid organizational norms that stigmatize emotional expression within newsrooms seem to be commonplace, although there are a few exceptions of newsrooms that are moving toward the “culture of caring” envisioned by Massé (2011).

In her research, Seely (2017) recorded a few cases of supportive newsrooms where the editors-in-chief showed real concern and offered help to their traumatized journalists. One journalist even mentioned that every new hire at her newspaper gets a booklet from the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma. Others said that their newsroom’s healthcare policy allowed for a certain number of free trips to a psychologist. Buchanan and Keats (2009) also recorded an editor’s practice of arranging a ‘lessons learned’ group debriefing after traumatic story assignments, where reporters could talk about their experiences and what they had learned. All these caring newsrooms are a beam of hope, but they remain the exception to the rule. Mental wellness continues to be an afterthought in newsroom culture, journalists themselves have no expectations that professional counseling/support will be available during training or work, and indeed in most cases provision of help for traumatized journalists continues to be limited (Verhovnik, 2017).

5 Conclusion

This study attempts to re-conceptualize the economic crisis as affective for media workers, while providing an insight into the emotional trauma that stems from covering austerity and its impact on society. Austerity’s dimensions are usually analyzed from economic and political perspectives, which are often quite distant from the lived experiences of the people they most affect (Raudon and Shore, 2018). This work instead discusses austerity and its impacts through a prism that focuses on its effects on the media professionals who witness and cover it.

The findings of the study show that almost 25 % of all media professionals in Greece and Cyprus who were covering crisis-related events declared that they had experienced several PTSD symptoms often or even every day. Among them there are several findings that allow us to speak of a causality between journalistic work and traumatization; these are the frequency of coverage of specific news stories linked to PTSD symptoms, namely personal stories related to the crisis and soup kitchens. Previous research has also managed to connect journalistic work with traumatization (e. g., Kotisova, 2019; Rentschler, 2010; Wahl‐Jorgensen, 2016) and defy the prevailing notion that journalists can cover any type of story without being affected (Backholm, 2017). However, the majority of these studies focused mainly on large-scale traumatic events (such as terrorist attacks, school shootings, natural disasters) or stories with explicit violence and tragedy (fatal car accidents, robberies, etc.). This study goes one step further to identify and re-code crisis-related stories as primarily affective, and, in some cases, extraordinarily so.

Although one might argue that the economic crisis concerns only the most affected countries – and even those just for a limited period – we must not underestimate its lingering effects on the lives of its victims and consequently on the lives of media professionals who witness and cover it. Moreover, as recent literature and economic experts point out, state crisis tends to become normalized rather than exceptional, and a Great Recession 2.0. might be already ahead (Raudon and Shore, 2018; Stewart, 2018), especially after the global pandemic crisis of 2020 regarding COVID-19. Predicting or warning of a new economic crisis is of course far beyond the aims of this work. However, having proven that economic crisis coverage is a type of affective labor that can cause emotional injury, we argue that academics, media practitioners, and media owners should recognize the importance of trauma that results from coverage of the economic crisis and develop specific training and educational material to mitigate the effects of this trauma not only for the sake of the journalists but for societies as well, since it has been proven that societies become even more vulnerable to the repercussions of ‘frame breaker events’, when journalists are directly affected (Konow Lund and Olsson, 2015).

Following the argument of Feinstein et al. (2014) that “good journalism depends on healthy journalists”, we advocate that during an economic crisis, good journalism is needed more than ever to explain the origins of the crisis, hold the powerful to account and highlight important stories and voices (Waisbord, 2019; Papadopoulou, 2019). This study constitutes a first step towards the effort to open up this issue, define this new emerging field, and start a discussion that is long overdue.

The study has certain limitations which may provide pathways for future research. First of all, it is based exclusively on quantitative data. It would be beneficial if these findings were supported by interviews providing a much-needed insight into media professionals’ own narratives and needs. It should also be pointed out that journalists participating in this study were not diagnosed with trauma; they merely expressed having had trauma symptoms. Future research could deepen this analysis and look for possible trauma symptoms based on a medical examination. These findings point towards a new emerging field, and there is no doubt that more research is needed to establish the direct correlation between the economic crisis and emotional trauma.

Despite the fact that numerous countries have been profoundly hit by the economic crisis and the related austerity measures of the previous decade, there has been only limited research into how media professionals continue to do their jobs in the face of the crisis-related traumatic events which make up the bulk of their daily work (Papadopoulou and Maniou, 2020). This absence of other previous baseline studies hinders any effort to put our findings into perspective.

Moreover, it would be interesting to see the kind of impact that economic crisis stories have had on freelancers and non-unionized journalists, who might also have been traumatized not just from reporting on the crisis but also from experiencing crisis-related job uncertainty themselves. Of course, one could argue that all journalists working in crisis-ridden countries (regardless of the content of their work) have become victims of the crisis as precarious workers and may be traumatized by it. A control group of journalists who have not dealt with the financial crisis and/or have not experienced the financial crisis as precarious workers would be very helpful into putting our findings into perspective.

Future research on the topic could further address the issue of the culture of silence in newsrooms, to suggest possible remedies that could help media professionals better negotiate the trauma that covering economic crisis stories entails.

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Published Online: 2022-02-08

© 2022 Lambrini Papadopoulou et al., published by Walter de Gruyter GmbH, Berlin/Boston

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