The War Inside

War correspondents can be "Totally fucked up. They can't face reality. They can't face the down of not having the adrenaline pump." An in-depth look at the hidden aftershocks of covering bloody conflicts up close

Nina Boccia
Spring, 2008 | Comments (0) - Report an Error

Neil Macdonald and Patrick Brown, two of CBC’s most distinguished foreign correspondents, are acting up:

“This is ridiculous!”

“It’s all psychobabble!”

The pair has briefly returned to Canada to attend the annual CBC correspondents’ conference. The year is 2002 and they, along with at least 50 English-and French-speaking CBC reporters and their producers, are sitting in a function room at Ottawa’s Fairmont Château Laurier Hotel watching a series of PowerPoint slides. The presenter is Anthony Feinstein, director of the neuropsychiatry program at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre in Toronto and professor of psychiatry at the University ofToronto. He’s been brought in by then-CBC news chief Tony Burman to talk about the effect on journalists who have witnessed scenes of barbarity and horror. “

Twenty-two per cent of war journalists suffer fromclinical depression and 29 per cent suffer from lifelong post-traumatic stress disorder [PTSD],” states one slide.

“To suffer from PTSD, an individual must have experienced or witnessed an event that involved actual or threatened death, or serious injury,” states another.

“Even journalists without PTSD experienced isolated, persistent, and at times disturbing, intrusive symptoms,” says one more. But Macdonald and Brown, rooted in the macho culture of war reporters, aren’t buying it. They’re skeptical—rude even.

Remembering the session five years later, Feinstein refers to their “objectionable schoolboy” behaviour,which he believes “basically shamed the entire room to silence” at the Q&A session he had scheduled.

Only after people began filing out did some CBC-ers approach Feinstein. “This is good stuff you’re doing—keep it up,” he recalls one man telling him as they shook hands.

While much research has been done on the trauma experienced by ordinary citizens, soldiers and first responders, such as medical personnel and police officers, only Feinstein and a few others have looked deeply into whether journalists are just as prone to trauma’s aftershocks as everyone else.

And if they are, what then? Are individual reporters, producers and camera operators currently doing enough to protect themselves? And are the major news organizations in Canada and the United States that dispatch them guilty of shirking their responsibility to help the very people who, in the cause of doing good journalism and helping ratings and readership stay up, head off willingly to bloody places and witness almost unimaginable scenes of cruelty and gruesomeness?


John Scully, once one of Canada’s leading TV war correspondents, hunches over a tiny, round table at a quiet Second Cup in Toronto.With Scully, age 67, is Toni, his wife of 42 years. They now live in the small town of Dwight, Ontario, near Huntsville and Algonquin Provincial Park, where Scully operates as a journalist and author. As he sips a coffee and carefully picks up a wrap sandwich, Scully explains that though it’s been 13 years since he’s been in a war zone, he still flinches whenever the fire of a deer hunter’s shotgun pierces the crisp morning air.

During his 50-year journalism career, which included stints at CBC and Global TV, Scully reported from more than 70 countries and 36 war zones. The native New Zealander became an “expert in getting stories in shitholes.” Like the time he first came under direct fire, in1975, dodging Viet Cong mortars in Vietnam: “I was panic-stricken with fear. I didn’t know what to think.”Or the time in 1981 at a morgue in El Salvador,when he discovered that what looked like a “skinned baby duck” was actually a fetus carved from its mother’s stomach. Or the time in1982, when he huddled behind sandbags during Lebanon’s civil war during a “long, sickening” day of protecting himself from mortars, grenades, rifles, machine guns—and an aide to Yasser Arafat, then leader of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). Holding Scully at gunpoint, the aide demanded he hand over camera footage that he mistakenly thought showed Arafat’s photograph burning. “A sane person would have complied… I went nuts,” Scully wrote afterwards in his book, Am I Dead Yet? He was so enraged by this “swaggering bully” that he roared: “Who the fuck do you think you are? ...Now put the gun away.”

But it wasn’t until April 1986 that Scully, so accustomed to looking outwards, briefly looked inwards, at himself, and at the risks he had continually ignored—until this day. Standing in the lobby of the Libyan Al-Kabir Hotel, he listened to the thunder of American Air Force F-111Fs launch an air strike targeting Libyan leader Colonel Muammar Al-Qaddafi’s nearby compound. Hearing the roar and crack of the bombs dropping in the distance, Scully thought, “Ah, what the fuck, I don’t care. They’re just bombs.” That’s when, shaken by his indifference to a dangerous situation, he finally realized: “I won’t just get myself killed—I’ll get the crew killed.”

Sipping his coffee, Scully explains that after Libya he started to look for an alternative to reporting on guns, blood and carnage, and eventually, in 1986, he returned to his native country for an office job—as head of current affairs for Television New Zealand (TVNZ). The move didn’t go as well as he and his wife had hoped. Already dealing with depression as a result of what he’d witnessed and unhappy with his new job, Scully drank and went from taking two Rohypnol pills (roofies) a day to 14.

As her husband finishes, Toni looks up from the wrap she’s eating, and in a quiet voice, says she couldn’t deal with the downward spiral anymore. She was fed up dealing with his foul moods and bursts of anger, and worrying that he really would follow through on his suicidal thoughts. Such erratic behaviour strained their marriage, and the kids, Jerome and Emma, started to resent him. Did Toni consider divorce? “Oh yes,” she says with a nod, and explains that eventually she and his mother pleaded with him to really take a look at himself. Scully’s speech was slurred. He lost all ability to think properly. The two women had him committed to a psychiatric hospital in New Zealand.

“I had lost my journalism,”he says sadly, staring at Toni, going on to admit he still suffers from severe depression and PTSD.While the depressionis likely genetic, he adds, his condition has been exacerbated by what he’s seen and experienced through work.He receives a combination of medicine and weekly therapy at the Centre forAddiction and Mental Health in Toronto.

Why is Scully talking so openly now? “Because no one else will,” he says with conviction. “It’s not a manly thing to admit you are depressed. It’s not a manly thing to say you need treatment. It’s not a manly thing to say you are mentally ill.”For “war-strutting journalists,”he concludes, “it’s not even acceptable to admit there’s a problem.”


At Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre in northeast Toronto, follow the brightly lit main corridor east until you reach the FWing and then swing right, into the psychiatric wing. There you’ll find Feinstein’s office, a soothing sanctuary compared to the sterile, clinical environment found on the other side of the door. It’s a dimly lit room furnished with darkwood bookcases and desks, and a rich brown leather couch.On the window, the blinds are closed; on one of the shelves sits a stack of books, including Ben Shephard’s A War of Nerves, Jon Steele’s War Junkie and Stephen Hess’s The Media and theWar on Terrorism.

Feinstein is no stranger to gore and war, having experienced it first-hand when he was conscripted into the South African Defense Force in the 1980s as a medical officer and posted in Namibia. His diary of his war experiences is titled, appropriately, In Conflict, and was published in 1998. He had come to Canada five years earlier.

After completing a three-month tour, Feinstein realized that something was wrong on his first night back home in Johannesburg. He wrote that his enthusiasm for the symphony he attended, a pastime he usually enjoyed, had been replaced with a “deadness that was crushing.” He felt numb, detached and filled with worry, and he found it impossible to relax. Later that evening Feinstein fell ill: “I spent the night bent over the toilet or sitting in the darkened lounge, feeling utterly wretched and completely alone.”

Feinstein feels war journalists are a self-selected group: “They go into it because they like it and they have the stomach for it.”For the most part, he explains, they can withstand the pressures and the dangers as well as the travelling and long periods of time away from home.What’s more, “neither risk, normorality, is highly relevant” to them. Feinstein’s research was sparked by a referral from Sunnybrook’s department of neurology in 1999.The patient was suffering from anxiety, uncontrollable sweating, shaking and muddled speech.At the end of the note to Feinstein, the referring doctor wrote: “I wonder if this has anything to do with her work? You may recognize the name. She is a war reporter.”

“She,” an unnamed Canadian journalist, met with Feinstein and told him about her time in the MiddleEast, the Balkans and Sudan, and how she witnessed the death and wounding of many colleagues and innocent citizens. Recognizing the symptoms, he diagnosed her with PTSD. Wanting to know more about the journalists who “chased wars, revolutions and famines” and their experiences with psychiatric distress, he then looked for the research. Nothing. “It’s really strange,” he says. “There is such enormous literature on trauma, but no one had looked at journalists.”

Feinstein applied for a grant from the Freedom Forum in Washington in 1999 and received US$15,000 to collect data on the emotional health of war correspondents. With the help of CBC, BBC, Reuters, CNN, The Associated Press, ITN and the Rory Peck Trust—an organization that supports freelance journalists, named after freelance cameraman Peck, who was killed in the crossfire while covering the October 1993 coup in Moscow—he sent questionnaires to 170 journalists who reported from conflict regions and had been doing so for 15years or more; 140 responded. His findings, based in part on interviews with 28 of them, indicated many used war as a stimulant, admitting the rush of excitement propelled them throughout their coverage. Feinstein found evidence of unhappy childhoods, broken families and “aloof, dysfunctional” military fathers. His research also indicated that PTSD symptoms were “more frequent and intense in still photographers, followed by cameramen, and then print reporters and producers.”

To help explain why photographers were more susceptible to PTSD, Feinstein offers a quote by famous war photographer Robert Capa: “If your photographs are not good enough, you are not close enough.” In other words, says Feinstein, one of the theories is that photographers and cameramen top the list because they must be closer to danger and risk to get the great shot.

Overall, according to Feinstein’s research, the lifetime PTSD rate among war journalists is 29percent, almost identical to the 30per cent rate for combat veterans. By contrast, the PTSD rate for “traumatized” police officers is seven to 13 per cent and five per cent for the general population.

Feinstein presented his initial findings at a NewsWorld (the Europe-based international broadcast news conference, now NewsXchange) meeting in Barcelona, Spain in November 2000, where he says, “the journalism profession was absolutely fascinated by it. There were lots and lots of questions.” Three years later, he published Dangerous Lives:War and the Men and WomenWho Report It, which includes the findings of his initial study, as well as excerpts from his interviews. Also in 2003, CNN funded another study, in which he looked at 85 journalists in Iraq, about half of whom were embedded and half of whom were not. Feinstein wanted to know if one group was more prone to emotional distress than the other. The result: no difference. “The psychological risk appeared to be identical for the simple reason that if the journalist was not embedded with the military, he/she still managed to get to the frontlines and to the story,” states Feinstein. Those not embedded, he adds, were “wonderfully ingenious” at working around the military and getting to where the story was. This research, including a study done after the September 11 attacks, was included in Feinstein’s second book, Journalists Under Fire: The Psychological Hazards of Covering War.

As our interview comes to a close, Feinstein looks at me, pauses and asks, “Now, I don’t know if I asked you this already… are you interested in this kind of reporting?”

“Yes,” I reply.

“Oh,” he replies ominously, and wishes me luck.

I close his door, wondering if one day I might be back here, with my own aftershocks.


During the interview I did with Scully at Second Cup, he mentioned he’d received several notes along the lines of what one producer wrote: “John, thank God you’ve spoken up—I’m going through the same thing.” Scully, who actually went back to Beirut and other conflict riddled areas after his release from the New Zealand mental health hospital and his return to Canada, believes most hard-boiled journalists would rather suffer with depression, lack of concentration, constant weeping, sleepless nights and other PTSD symptoms than go to their news organizations and admit something is wrong. Many of them are just like he was, consistently going back to the mayhem in war zones or conflict regions for the sheer purpose of smothering any sign or feeling of despair and helplessness. To deal with it, he explained, they often self-medicate with alcohol and drugs. But when they come back home, “they are totally fucked up. They can’t face reality. They can’t face the down of not having the adrenaline pump.”

That adrenaline pump actually consists of a number of different areas in the brain. This circuitry includes the almond-shaped amygdala that scientistsbelieve is tied to emotionalmemory. The amygdala is also the fear centre of the brain. Another aspect of the brain’s reaction to fear is the secretion of neuro transmitters such as adrenaline and noradrenaline. These hormones can influence the way information is processed by the brain during stressful periods. While scientists don’t have a definitive explanation about the mechanics of memory, they have identified nightmares, flashbacks andre-experiencing the trauma through unwanted images and memories as symptoms of PTSD.

Sharing the pathway with other stress hormones is dopamine, a chemical that influences behaviour. Feinstein has based some ofhis research on Zuckerman’s Sensation Seeking Scale, a rating system used to measure the willingness to take risks. According to Feinstein, lower levels of dopamine are linked to more cautious behaviour while higher levels contribute to more adventurous actions, including war reporting.

Nancy Durham is a correspondent at CBC’s London, England bureau and one of the 28 journalists interviewed for Feinstein’s first study. “I’m not a thrill-seeker,” says Durham, “but I love great stories.” She left Canada in her 30s, keen on seeing the world. She moved to Oxford, having already been greatly influenced by her future husband’s involvement in the underground culture during the early days of upheaval in the former Soviet Bloc: “That’s where my appetite was whetted and it just grew from there. It was very, very exciting.”

And, over the years, very disturbing. Like the time when, during the Kosovo conflict in the late ’90s, Durham met Rajmonda Rreci, a teen who claimed her young sister was killed by Serb forces and was motivated to seek revenge by joining the Kosovo Liberation Army. After the war, Durham returned to Rreci’s village. But after knocking on her door, Durham was jolted: the beautiful little girl who was supposedly dead answered the door. “It was sickening. I felt physically weakened,” she pauses uncomfortably. “I felt like I lost my journalistic compass,” she says, almost ashamed.

Or the time in August 1995, during the Bosnian war, when she rode with a family in a hay wagon with all of their belongings. They were just one of thousands of Serb families fleeing the area. “It’s so sad, so senseless, so horrible,” she says. “How do you start over when you’re 40?” That event, she explains, more than any other, still haunts her, bringing on bouts of sadness and depression.

Another notable war reporter is Ann Medina,who reported from such war zones as Lebanon, Nicaragua and Uganda for CBC’s The Journal from 1981 to 1986. Medina, writing about Feinstein’s book in 2003 for The Globe and Mail, was not impressed with his methodology: “Well,we’re told they [the findings] come from a questionnaire he sent out and interviews with 28 of the 140 who responded. Not exactly a statistically large sample, but given the small universe it’s an important start and I was curious what the research might tell me.” In addition, she thought Feinstein should also have focused on the 70 per cent who showed no signs of PTSD: “I wanted to know more about them.”

Andas for the two CBC veterans,Macdonald and Brown, the men who said Feinstein offers little more than psychobabble, Macdonald acknowledges he has “no real authority to dispute Dr. Feinstein’s findings.” However, he says in an email: “My view is that if you haven’t the stomach for violence or death, don’t go to awar zone.”


The fascination with Feinstein’s results, as well as the acceptance of them, is growing. “It was an idea whose time had finally come. It’s a breakthrough,” says Burman, adding that because of the Lebanese civil war and the conflicts in Chechnya, Bosnia and Kosovo that followed, there was increasing awareness at CBC that returning journalists and their crews might need help, particularly those who had “repeated exposure to this kind of reporting.”

Also playing an early role in raising awareness of the potential for PTSDamong journalists, according to Scully, were the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), based in New York, and Reporters Withou tBorders, which has its headquarters in Paris.

Elisabeth Witchel, the coordinator of the impunity campaign and journalist assistance program for CPJ, has seen the progress made by newsrooms. While most media organizations have always made counselling available, she explains, only a few provided any sort of trauma support for their correspondents and domestic reporters until recently. In February 2005, though, The New York Times introduced a program that includes pre-assignment counselling for reporters assigned to a conflict zone. Reuters and BBC,Witchel adds, had already launched their own programs.

In Canada, news organizations such as CBC and the Toronto Star have Hostile Environment courses, which their correspondents are supposed to take before heading over to awar-torn country. These courses are designed to provide journalists with the skills required to deal with risk assessment, risk management and first aid. Durham says the training came in handy when she was on the edge of the Albania-Kosovo border during the NATO bombardment. The course taught her to maintain as much control as she could, stay calm and smartly think of a plan that would get the crew out of danger. While these courses educate and train journalists how to deal with a physical threat, there is no preparation or training for the psychological threat a war journalist may face, and, says John Owen, former chief news editor of CBCNews, there needs to be. “There’s no excuse for any news executive not to be aware ofwhat’s happening.”

In a 2002 article for The Thunderbird, the University of British Columbia’s online student magazine, reporter Hilary MacKenzie said that what Canadian newsrooms offer reporters whomay have been psychologically hurt by their coverage is “pathetic.”But Martin Regg Cohn, the Star’s foreign editor and former Asia and Middle East correspondent, disagrees, at least as far as his paper is concerned. He emphasizes that “safety is paramount” when it comes to the Star’s foreign correspondents and that the paper provides several standard counselling and psychological services—“war zone or no war zone.”


It’s early February in London, Ontario, and Cliff Lonsdale, chair of the committee for the graduate program in journalism at the University of Western Ontario, is welcoming 128 delegates to the inaugural Canadian Journalism Forum on Violence and Trauma. It’s an event put together by Lonsdale, who co-founded the forum with his wife, Jane Hawkes, an independent television documentary producer. It is supported by the Seattle,Washington-based Dart Center for Journalism & Trauma, the International News Safety Institute (located in Brussels, Belgium), and the Canadian Association of Journalists.

Lonsdale discusses his own background: he was raised in southern Africa and went off to war at an early age, hitchhiking his way there to report on it when he was 16. His destination: Congo, during the war that followed the country’s fight for independence. “There was a bloodbath going on,” he said. “Everybody was fighting everybody else; it seemed like too good an opportunity to miss.” It landed him his first full-time job as a journalist at the Times of Zambia. Still, despite the horrors he witnessed in the Congo, Lonsdale believes war is not the sole place where a journalist may experience PTSD while working: “War is just the more obvious, sexy end of it.” He then goes on to say that many domestic reporters also suffer in silence. He cites local murders, car accidents and high-profile cases like the Paul Bernardo and Robert Pickton trials as situations where the images and information journalists confront can be psychologically harmful.

Later in the day, Feinstein highlights several findings from his research and emphasizes a point in which he differs from Lonsdale. Being exposed to war and the dangers of war is a more significant risk factor than being exposed to a scene of domestic violence: “The big difference between the situations Lonsdale describes and the war journalist is the absence of personal threat.” And a physical personal threat, he explains, is an extremely significant variable in determining a person’s psychological health.

Another significant variable, he says, is the death of a colleague, and as the forum continues we hear several examples. CBC cameraman Brian Kelly, for instance, tells us about the death of Clark Todd, a CTV reporter who was killed in Lebanon in 1983. Even though it’s been 25 years, Kelly says, he still can’t “say ‘Lebanon’ without crying.” Like Scully, Kelly grew moody and angry without warning.

Another story of loss—and the associated trauma— comes from Ian Stewart, former West Africa bureau chief for the Associated Press. “A bottle of scotch and an extra two weeks off is not enough,” he says, describing his personal experience with PTSD. He covered conflict in South Asia and reported from Uganda, Congo and Liberia. Stewart speaks in particular about reporting on the gruesome details of the carnage caused by the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) in Sierra Leone.There, hemet a child named Maria,who was wiping her tears away with gauze covered wrists and then asked, “Mama, will my hands growback?”

Her mother’s answer: “We’ll have to see what the doctor says.” After which she explained to Stewart that the RUF hacked off her daughter’s hands because she would not give up the location of her family’s whereabouts.

Days later, Stewart,who admits to losing himself “in the misery of conflict,” saw his war correspondent career come to an abrupt end when, while riding with a convoy in Sierra Leone, he came under gunfire and was struck in the head by an AK-47 bullet. The bullet lodged itself in the back of his head after passing between two hemispheres of his brain, leaving him paralyzed on his left side.Next to him, Myles Tierney, anAP television producer, slouched over. He’d been hit and killed immediately.

In the hushed lecture hall,Stewart explains that in addition the paralysis, his PTSD runs deep. He describes the moodiness, the chain-smoking and the nightmares. In one, he’s trying to give poor children coins, but they have no hands.

And the heartbreaking stories don’t stop with Stewart. For two days, participants at the inaugural Canadian Journalism Forum on Violence and Trauma discussed the possible psychological effects of covering murder trials, child abuse, shooting massacres, terrorists attacks and war,whichat onepoint in the proceedings prompted Chris Cramer, former head of CNN International, to lean into a microphone and say: “If you join this profession, it’s going to hit you one way or another.”

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