The Psychological Dangers
of Photojournalism

by Bob Haring

Newsroom managers should be alert for stress disorders among photographers who covered the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, says a psychologist who has studied such problems.

Elana Newman of the University of Tulsa studied post traumatic stress disorders in a survey of about 800 photojournalists. She found that while most are resilient, continued exposure to tragedy does take a toll. "Witnessing death and injury takes its toll, a toll that increases with exposure," she told a convention of the National Press Photographers Association (NPPA), which requested the study. "The more such assignments photojournalists undertake, the more likely they are to experience psychological consequences."

Carnage of automobile accidents ranked at the top of situations likely to cause distress. The study was funded by the University of Washington's Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma. Roger Simpson of the Dart Center and David Handschuh, NPPA president, worked with Newman on the survey. Handschuh was one of the photographers injured during the collapse of the World Trade Center Towers.

An event like the World Trade Center destruction is larger in magnitude than what most photographers witness in daily work and has the added dimenson that human-induced traumatic events "have been found to be more distressing to people," Newman said.

Such an event is likely to be worse because it "challenges core assumptions people carry in the world about other people, trust, safety, benevolence/malevolence of the world and justice."

Newman said little research has been done on how best to help photojournalists cope with such events. The Dart Center, at , has a list of suggestions, plus an area where photographers can unburden themselves of reactions, sensations,etc.

An associated organization, News Coverage Unlimited has trained some counselors, who are available to assist media people who have problems. Its Web connection is at unlimited.html. Newman is a consultant with that group, which also has a special site,, raising funds to help with problems from the terror attacks.

Signs of stress disorder, Newman said, may include "having troubleconcentrating, feeling burnt out, feeling callous, feeling more fearful, not enjoying the work, avoiding work that is associated with traumatic events, feeling numb, having intrusive images of stories, excessive worrying about one's kids." Newman said research is just beginning on stress reactions among photographers, and other journalists. One of her students did a survey which found that 96 percent said they had responded that year to an assignment in which someone was killed or injured. Only 4.3 percent, however, reported stress problems.

Professional photographers, Newman said, "understand the importance of their job. "I see all news media as first responders, much like emergency workers. Although they do not save the victims, they serve as a conduit between the public and the event."

Most are aware of the physical dangers; fewer are warned about the potential psychological dangers. In general, Newman says, she has found that photographers "are also a resilient group who care about the work that they do and offer society a great service."

© 2001 Bob Haring

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