Mexican journalists carry same traumas as war correspondents, says a scientific study

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  • September 17, 2012

By the International News Safety Institute (INSI)

Journalists in peacetime Mexico trying to cover drug-related stories are suffering levels of traumatic stress similar to those of war correspondents, according to a scientific study.

The survey was carried out by Dr Anthony Feinstein, professor of psychiatry at the University of Toronto, who 10 years ago also published the most authoritative study into trauma and stress among war reporters.

He found that 25 per cent of the 104 journalists he surveyed reported they had stopped covering drug news because of intimidation directed either at them or their family - and that they reported significantly more symptoms of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), depression and general psychological dysfunction than colleagues.

Mexico is one of the most dangerous countries in the world in which to be a journalist, largely due to targeting by drug lords trying to influence the news. INSI figures show it was the most murderous country last year with 11 deaths and is the fifth this year so far with seven dead. It has been in the top six deadliest countries consistently over the past 15 years. The rate of impunity is high with killers of journalists rarely brought to justice.

Feinstein's study, carried out with assistance from INSI, was the first of its kind on the effects of trauma on journalists covering their own country in peacetime. He found that more than 70 per cent of the journalists lived in a province where there was drug-related violence. Almost half of them knew a colleague who had been murdered by the drug cartels. More than half of those reporting drug-related news had been threatened. One in 10 had had a family member threatened.

Feinstein, whose landmark work Dangerous Lives: War and the Men and Women Who Report It exposed the trauma suffered by many war correspondents, said the percentage of Mexican journalists showing evidence of psychological distress fitted with data from the war reporters.

But he added:"Unlike the war group, who 'parachute' in and out of danger ... most Mexican journalists studied here both work and live in areas where extreme is endemic. There is no respite from danger..."
UNESCO, which funded the research, said it raised important questions about freedom of expression and freedom of the press in Mexico.
"If journalists are too intimidated to report the news and if their emotional stress is such that they can no longer continue working on a story, the supply of information to the public becomes undermined," it said.
"These disturbing psychological findings should come as a call to Mexican news organisations to support the men and women who, at considerable risk, tell the stories of a local conflict with regional implications for all of the Americas."

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This post was originally published in the International News Safety Institute (INSI) website. Click here to read the original post.

Note from the editor: This story was originally published by the Knight Center’s blog Journalism in the Americas, the predecessor of LatAm Journalism Review.