Greek-Canadian freelance journalist Will Vassilopoulos arrives at the cemetery on the small Greek island of Lesbos to find nothing but a bulldozer and four bodies wrapped in sheets.

Raindrops fall from the ominous grey skies. There are no mourners present who know the stories of the dead refugees, just a few local people performing the ceremony. Vassilopoulos inches closer to film scenes for l’Agence French-Presse. He notices one of the deceased has an eerily similar body shape to his seven-year-old daughter.

“Why would this happen to such a young girl?” Vassilopoulos asks himself.

He ignores the knot in his stomach and fulfills his journalistic obligation. The severity of the migrant crisis needs to be broadcast to the rest of the world. He films the young Muslim girl being lowered into a pit with three strangers at the far end of the Christian cemetery.

In 2016, Vassilopoulos’s coverage of Europe’s refugee crisis was recognized with the prestigious Rory Peck Award for News, but it came at a cost. His mental health.

“At the time, there was a percentage of me that felt the award was won on the back of human suffering,” Vassilopoulos said.

This kind of guilt is a common sign of someone suffering from a moral injury.

What is moral injury?

According to Columbia University’s Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, between 80 to 100 per cent of journalists experience work-related trauma. For the past 20 years, neuropsychiatrist Dr. Anthony Feinstein has been investigating the effects covering trauma has on journalists. Feinstein has identified something he calls moral injury.

Moral injury differs from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in that it’s not a mental illness. Moral injury occurs when one’s moral compass has been damaged by perpetrating, witnessing or failing to prevent an act that goes against one’s moral beliefs, said Feinstein. For Vassilopoulos, his injury was caused by witnessing the unfairness of the migrants’ misery while he remained safe.

“Some journalists feel this sense of moral injury because they feel they have built their careers on the suffering of other people,” Feinstein said. “I can work with them to show them that this a mistaken sense of beliefs, but nevertheless, at the moment, this is what journalists can believe.”

After being educated on moral injury and after covering many more migration stories, Vassilopoulos is better positioned to cope with the trauma he has seen. He can now go to sleep at night knowing he did his best to portray the migrants” suffering with as much dignity and fairness as possible.

“I was reporting on historic times. Those images needed to be seen and those stories needed to be told,” Vassilopoulos said.  “While I was uncomfortable on the one hand, I am grateful that all my hard work was acknowledged with the Rory Peck.”

Feinstein said PTSD dominates the discussion when it comes to mental health issues among reporters, but only because people just don’t know about moral injury. But it is important to identify moral injury, said Feinstein, because if it goes untreated, it could lead to PTSD.

Curt Petrovitch’s battle with PTSD

In November 2013, Typhoon Haiyan hit the Philippines, destroying over one million homes and killing more than 6,000 people. CBC reporter Curt Petrovitch was sent to cover the aftermath. Petrovitch was no rookie when it came to reporting on suffering, disaster and death. He has reported from the world’s largest refugee camp in Africa and from Japan in 2011 after the tsunami caused the Fukishima nuclear disaster. But his trip to the Philippines broke him.

Petrovitch arrived at Tacloban City before aid did. Everything was destroyed. Palm trees stripped bare. Houses in shambles. Bodies buried in the rubble. Survivors begging for food and water.

“It was overwhelmingly bad,” Petrovitch said. “There was nowhere to go where you weren’t confronted by death and suffering.”

Petrovitch’s spouse said he changed dramatically when he came home from the assignment. He became increasingly angry and was suffering from intense flashbacks. A couple of months later, a psychologist diagnosed him with PTSD.

Petrovitch was adamant that the psychologist was wrong; he feared such a diagnosis would end his career. Throughout his 25-year career at CBC, Petrovitch feels mental health issues were stigmatized by the network. Admitting he was struggling would send the message that he couldn’t be assigned anymore. It would take a lot more therapy before he realized how badly he’d been injured by reporting on traumatic events.

Like Vassilopoulos, Petrovitch believes reporting on these distressing and dangerous scenes was essential because he gave those suffering a voice. He just wished he was more prepared to deal with fallout trauma.

“I was trained how to type to avoid a repetitive strain injury; why wasn’t I trained on how to avoid repeated mental injury?” Petrovitch said.

Has CBC improved?

CBC mental health trainer and advocate Dave Seglins says the network has a long way to go when it comes to preparing journalists to cover trauma-related stories.

“We need a level of literacy around well-being, mental health and trauma among the highest level of news management down to our frontline people,” Seglins said. “Which I fear we don’t have, even today in 2021.”

Seglins has interviewed news organizations internationally such as BBC, Reuters and The New York Times about their mental health training and literacy ¾ he believes Canadian media is lagging.

Seglins is launching a pilot program at CBC that will require the majority of top-level managers and assignment editors to learn about brain science, the impacts of repeated exposure to trauma and how to monitor the well-being of their front-line employees. Additionally, a peer-support network for CBC’s employees will be implemented in January 2022.

Are J-schools failing their students?

Cliff Lonsdale, the co-founder and president at the Canadian Journalism Forum on Violence and Trauma and former chief news editor for CBC Television, believes that trauma training must begin in journalism schools

“We want people to go into the business aware that there are a variety of mental health issues that can arise from reporting,” Lonsdale said. “There are training courses available, and they ought to be taught in journalism schools because almost all journalists encounter trauma at some point during their careers.”

A 2017 study funded by the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma found that of 623 Journalism faculty members surveyed, 75 per cent said there was no education at their institution about trauma in journalism, leaving prospective journalists ill-prepared to cover domestic and international violence and disasters.

Victoria Walton and the Portapique shooting

Like a lot of Nova Scotians, Victoria Walton will never forget April 19, 2020. She was then the weekend reporter for Halifax Today and woke up to an alarming text from a co-worker. There was an active shooter in the northern area of the province. By the end of the tragedy, 22 people were dead.

Since the mass killing took place during COVID, she was working from home. Showering and eating didn’t matter. She wanted Nova Scotians to get up to date.

Walton relayed information from the RCMP through a slew of tweets. She spent hours combing through social media, seeing numerous reports of the shooter and of dead bodies strewn across the road.

It wasn’t until 2 p.m., long after the shooter was apprehended, when she finally took a breather to eat and shower. Her day was far from over.  Walton agreed to cover the chaotic RCMP press conference, where no one had answers for why the tragedy had transpired. She finished her final story late that night.

Walton says she didn’t take time to process the emotional toll the tragedy had on her that evening. She didn’t know how to, that wasn’t taught at the University of King’s College Journalism School. Walton had no knowledge that a moral injury could potentially occur from reporting on trauma. She had never heard of the concept.

“It would have been incredible to have a class on managing difficult news, “Walton said. “There was nothing. There was maybe one part of one class where I learned it’s not all fun and showing up with a microphone.”

How many Canadian journalists are suffering from moral injury?

No real data exists on the prevalence of mental health issues among Canadian journalists. The Canadian Journalism Forum on Trauma and Violence is partnering with Carleton University’s School of Journalism and Communication to conduct a survey that will hopefully provide a detailed picture of the extent of moral injury and other psychological conditions among Canadian journalists.

“If we survey 1,000 journalists and learn 60 per cent had problems in this area and 30 per cent had jobs in that area, we have some data to base solutions off of,” Lonsdale said. “Wouldn’t it be nice to know how widespread the problem is in our industry? I suspect it’s worse than we think, because many still don’t want to talk about it, but they might answer an anonymous survey.

Importance of moral injury awareness

Feinstein believes it’s essential for journalists to understand moral injury. Vassilopoulos agrees. The pair have spoken together on multiple journalism panels to spread awareness about the concept.

A report co-authored by Feinstein concerning moral injury among journalists covering the migration crisis was very helpful to Vassilopoulos’s recovery. He continues to report on migrants landing on European shores, like those he covered on Lesbos.

“The process of recovery involves being educated about moral injury,” Vassilopoulos said. “Speaking with Feinstein and other journalists made me realize many colleagues were going through the same stuff I was, which made me realize it’s not just me.”



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About the author

Will McLernon

Will McLernon is a journalist with The Signal. He is currently finishing up his Bachelor of Journalism (Honours) degree with a minor in International...

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