More than physical violence: Experts warn that Mexican journalists also face trauma, mental health problems

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  • December 7, 2016

By Perla Arellano*

For Mexican journalists, covering la nota roja – or the crime beat – goes beyond being exposed to physical dangers. By living and working in high-risk areas, their constant and systematic contact with violence puts their mental health on the line.

The Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas spoke with three experts about the potential traumatic effects and mental health issues for journalists who cover violence in Mexico.

Since former Mexican President Felipe Calderon started the Drug War against cartels in 2006, more than 164,000 people have been killed between 2007 and 2014, according to Frontline. The government has said that more than 22,600 people disappeared in Mexico between 2007 and October 2014, according to Animal Político.

This violence often directly extends to journalists themselves. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, out of the 85 journalists killed in Mexico between 1992 and 2016, 37 were confirmed to have been killed because of their line of work; the motives for the remaining journalists are still unclear.  Just this year, 10 communicators have been killed in the country, according to Article 19.

In a country where journalists receive threats from both the drug cartels and officials, journalism is one of the most dangerous fields of work in Mexico. Yet, not all threats to a journalist’s health are physical.

Rogelio Flores Morales, a psychology professor at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, has studied the psychological effects on journalists who have dealt with victims of violence.

“I have interviewed journalists who have had continuous and systematic contact with victims and I see how the journalists suffer because of the victim’s story,” Flores said in conversation with the Knight Center.

Flores, one of the authors of the study “Secondary Traumatic Stress (STS) in Mexican Journalists and Human Rights Defenders,” interviewed 88 Mexican journalists and human rights defenders who have interacted with victims of direct violence in the Drug War: people who have either disappeared, been kidnapped or have been caught in crossfire, and also direct family members of the kidnapped or missing person.

Unlike Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) that manifests itself when the person is the direct victim of aggression, Secondary Traumatic Stress (STS) occurs when a person is in systematic and continuous contact with a person that has gone through a direct violent experience.

“They are infected, if you allow the metaphor, with the symptoms that the direct victim has,” Flores said. “Given that they work in a systematic manner, they know their stories of pain, despair, how they have been impacted.”

Victims of STS can experience nightmares and flashbacks, and can fear going out in the streets.

“All of their energy cannot be channeled to help the victim and instead they have a series of additional stressors that impede them to work effectively,” he said.

Flores found that journalists who work more than 40 hours a week have a higher presence of STS due to them not allowing their brain to think of things other than violence.

And the conditions in which journalists in Mexico work also add another burden.

Flores described that for many journalists, the average workweek is more than 40 hours, with pay grade of around 500 dollars per week. In addition to the low wages, Mexican journalists receive little to no health care or life insurance through their employers. Things don’t fare any better for freelance journalists who get paid only by the work that gets published.

Their job is what sustains their living, which makes it difficult for them to take step away and have a “period of oxygenation,” as Flores puts it.

“There needs to be a detoxification,” Flores said. “But the reality is that they need to work because that is the only income that allows them to live.”

One of the solutions would be for the journalists to break the cycle of continuous coverage of violence. But it’s more difficult than that for journalists who live in an area of constant conflict, according to Flores.

“I sometimes consider that the journalist’s work conditions are like working in a black tunnel where you cannot see the light,” Flores said. “It’s very complicated.”

According to Flores, the report is not meant to generalize the entire journalism population in Mexico.

Out of the 88 participants in the study, 29 were journalists. Flores acknowledged that the sample size of journalists was small and said he would have liked to include more in the study, but many were unwilling. He speculated that this might have been due to fear or distrust, even though the researchers were open about identifying themselves and their intentions.

Flores has some helpful advice for journalists who find themselves stuck in the cycle of covering repetitive violence. He suggests leaving work at the work place and not taking it home, to do activities that aren’t focused on violence and to be have a social life in whatever measure they can.

But getting journalists to accept help is also an obstacle. Through his experiences, Flores said that both women and men journalists reject the idea that they need help and “believe they are self-sufficient and that they alone can handle their problem.” Only small numbers of journalists have accepted his advice.

“It is part of the Mexican idiosyncrasy,” Flores said. “Because there are still stigmas surrounding ‘craziness.’ This is to say, ‘I’m not crazy. I am OK. I am strong.’ It is what is called in the guild: professional machismo.”

Anthony Feinstein, professor of psychology at the University of Toronto, conducted a study comparing the psychological wellbeing of Mexican journalists and war correspondents. His study “Mexican Journalists and Journalists Covering War: A Comparison of Psychological Wellbeing” found that journalists working in high-danger areas in Mexico reported more “symptoms of psychological distress” in comparison with the war correspondents.

Unlike the correspondents who were in a war zone for about six weeks and could leave the country to “return to a safe home environment,” Mexican journalists were unable to leave, according to Feinstein. This creates a challenge for Mexican journalists who may also face threats to themselves and their families.

“[War correspondents] can climb on a plane to a home country where it’s safe and get therapy,” Feinstein told the Knight Center. “What makes it difficult for journalists is that their families are often getting targeted by the drug people as well.”

Feinstein wrote in his study that fears felt by journalists are exacerbated by “corrupt law enforcement” that give victims “a sense of helplessness.” This can make mental health problems even worse.

For journalists experiencing psychological distress, the first obstacle that must be crossed is for the journalist to accept that they have a problem, according to Catalina Cortés who works as the program coordinator for Latin America for the Rory Peck Trust in London. The organization focuses on giving support and assistance to freelance journalists worldwide who have been threatened, assaulted or killed because of their work.

If journalists who systemically cover violence do not give themselves a break from that cycle, they will begin to see their symptoms as normal, according to Cortés.

“It’s their job,” Cortés said to the Knight Center. “The violence is normalized, and it scares them very much that for them it is nothing to report the number of disappeared and dead.”

Journalists have normalized symptoms include lack of sleep, “a constant state of anguish and anxiety,” or anger. Without sharing names, Cortés described that some journalists have developed paranoia and that others have had family members killed because of their line of work.

“Every day journalists are threatened, every day they are censored further, every day they report less, every day they are more afraid and every day they distrust more,” she said. “All the levels of the journalist’s life are altered.”

Workshops that help journalists identify or deal with mental trauma are only a “grain of sand of what needs to be done,” she said. Journalists must also dedicate the time to continue with their treatment to get mentally healthier.

Freelance journalists don’t have a team or editor behind them checking to see how they are coming along or a set salary like journalists who are employed with a news organization theoretically can count on. Cortés stated many employed journalists don’t have that, either.

She points out that there is problem with the lack of measures in place that address mental distress before they manifest in journalists. Preventative measures must be a priority and qualified people must be put in place to give that support, Cortés said. However, she does not see agencies at any level making that their priority.

All three – Cortés, Feinstein, and Flores – said that news organizations had to take a role in putting systems in place that will help and protect the journalists working for them.

Furthermore, those mechanisms in place, Feinstein said, need to be ones in which the journalists can obtain complete confidential help from a doctor.

“I think it’s [the news organization’s] moral responsibility to look after the journalists,” Feinstein said. “If you want your staff to cover these very dangerous stories then you have to have these mechanisms in place to help them should they be traumatized. I think this is a moral imperative.”

*Perla Arellano (@PerlaYArellano) graduated from The University of Texas with a B.J., Journalism and is a member of the Senior Fellows honors program at the Moody College of Communication. She plans to pursue a career in multimedia journalism covering immigration and minority issues.  

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.