A study by a Japanese organization that monitors stress levels in journalists indicates that as many as 20 percent of the local journalists who covered the aftermath of the Tohoku earthquake of March 2011 may be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Indicators of this disorder previously diagnosed in reporters who have covered wars, natural disasters and human tragedies include flashbacks, an inability to concentrate on tasks, broken sleep and a sense of anxiety.

Members of the FCCJ who reported from the disaster zone after the triplewhammy of massive earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown three years ago have admitted to shock at the human and physical scale of the tragedy, as well as a sense of helplessness, stress and being “emotionally overwhelmed.” None interviewed for this article, however, believe that their sensations are symptomatic of PTSD.

“I think it affects everybody in different ways and to different degrees,” says photographer Martin Hladik. “But I also believe that once you have photographed a war or a major natural disaster, then you are no longer the same person. You have been changed.”

Hladik compares photographing Tohoku with reporting the conflict in Kosovo in the late 1990s. “After covering Kosovo, I promised myself that I would never again get involved in shooting disasters or wars because I was not able to keep an emotional distance from the people I photographed,” he said. “It cut me too deep, so I gave up the dream I had of becoming a war photographer.

“I’m a photographer who is emotionally involved because I believe that is the only way to shoot good images,” he said. “I did not feel the same involvement in Tohoku as in Kosovo, but there were a few moments when I had tears in my eyes as I was returning to Tokyo.”

Nevertheless, Hladik’s experiences in Kosovo had at least prepared him for the sight of death and destruction on an enormous scale. For most Japan-based journalists more used to covering cabinet reshuffles and the state of the economy, the Tohoku disaster took us out of our comfort zones and exposed us to raw human misery. And it was deeply unpleasant.

Similar reactions are commonplace even today, three years after the disaster, as journalists have discovered on their periodic returns to the hardest-hit areas.

“Time and time again, I find it hard to do the interviews,” said Lars Nicolaysen, bureau chief of Germany’s DPA news agency. “I was in Minamisoma a few days ago and I interviewed four schoolchildren. One girl I spoke to had fear in her eyes and I knew I was putting pressure on her asking questions. But we’re journalists and asking the questions is part of our job.”

Nicolaysen spent the first week after the crisis at the Fukushima nuclear plant trying to report from communities around the affected areas while simultaneously trying to stay one step ahead of the plume of fallout on his motorcycle. “I live with the fear that my exposure could develop into something more serious, but I don’t believe I’ve got PTSD,” he said.

The study, conducted by Hodojin Sutoresu Kenkyu Kai (The Organization for Research into Journalists’ Stress), examined the experiences of 270 staff at five newspapers across Tohoku through 21 multiplechoice questions. More than 75 percent said they were unsure of the most appropriate way to interact with people they met; over 30 percent believed they had hurt or emotionally burdened someone they interviewed.

Nearly 42 percent reported they were “more susceptible to crying,” 38.3 percent felt helpless or frustrated and more than 32 percent were depressed. Over 26 percent reported sleep disorders.

To estimate the number of media professionals suffering from PTSD, the group used the “Impact of Event Scale Revised” a system that uses a scale to measure the impact of symptoms such as the frequency of flashbacks. The research results suggested that 22.4 percent of those who worked in the zone were likely to be experiencing PTSD.

“The most shocking thing about the results is that the risk of PTSD in journalists involved in an experience like this is on the same level as firefighters or other professional disaster experts,” said Professor Yutaka Matsui, an authority on social psychology at the University of Tsukuba and one of the authors of the study.

“I feel it is inevitable that anyone who reports from a disaster zone such as Tohoku will be affected, but it is important that reporters understand that they need the appropriate help,” he told the Number 1 Shimbun. “Unfortunately, that sort of professional help is not always available after someone has been in the field here.”

The findings of the group are echoed by research compiled by the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, which is affiliated with Columbia Journalism School and helps newsroom managers and professional organizations to train employees about traumatic injury and self-care.

Cait McMahon, managing director of the Asia-Pacific branch of the center, said there are many lessons our profession can learn from the events of March 2011, “but the most basic ones are about self-care, based on social support and the issue of ethical treatment of victims and survivors of trauma.”

“The journalist who is ‘trauma literate’ that is, one who understands their psychological response to horror will be better equipped to look after themselves and lower the concept of stigmatization,” she said.

“[A trauma-literate journalist understands] that trauma responses are normal; it’s not because you are weak,” she said. “They also have a language and understanding of those they interview which will deepen their stories.”

McMahon believes that the risks, and associated trauma, for journalists in Asia appear to be growing. “Attacks on journalists for doing their job reporting is certainly increasing the world over, but especially in Asia,” she said. “It seems that a journalist’s life is cheap.

“Also, the fact that younger journalists are going off to hazardous environments with very little training in first aid or hostile-environment training creates further risks,” she added. “And they often go as freelancers, so they also don’t have an organization to back them up.”

In an article titled “Good mental health key to success in traumatic job” in Quill, the magazine of the Society of Professional Journalists, Carla Kimbrough-Robinson points out that journalists sometimes cover devastation, war and tragedy “simply because they must.” “They tell the stories of life and of death,” she states.


“Sooner or later, though, they may begin to suffer psychologically or emotionally. Studies have shown that journalists just like firefighters, police officers, medics and soldiers can suffer trauma from covering intense situations.”

Fully 20 percent of people who are exposed to traumatic events develop clinically significant psychological problems, according to the International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies website. “Feelings of grief, helplessness, irritability, depression and fear are not unusual for someone who has witnessed a traumatic event,” writes Kimbrough-Robinson. “Witnesses also might experience nightmares or upsetting thoughts some time after the event.

“The psychiatry journal article noted that journalists covering the war drank alcohol at about two to three times the amount of non-war journalists,” she added. “If journalists are using alcohol or drugs to self-medicate, then that could signal a problem in the making.”

Illegal drugs are unlikely to be an issue in Japan, with most foreign journalists finding “therapy” in the form of talking things through with colleagues at the end of another draining day, a degree of black humor and, yes, probably too much to drink.

And that’s probably not surprising. “Seeing towns that were just flattened, like Rikuzentakata, was deeply moving,” said Lucy Birmingham, who was reporting for Time magazine. “I think that I and all of us kept going on the adrenalin of the experience,” she said. “There was no time to cry when we were reporting, and then there was the accumulation of the lack of sleep hanging over us, the insane hours, the exhaustion.”

Several people I spoke to describe just finding a private corner and breaking down and sobbing.

For some, it was hearing surviving kids singing a school song, for others a brief phone conversation with loved ones elsewhere, the sight of bodies being delivered to a makeshift morgue or something as simple as muddied photos in the remains of someone’s home.

“Most of the stress and trauma was in the first two weeks of the disaster. For me, it culminated in an argument in a café with Nanako, my pregnant partner,” said David McNeill, who covered the crisis for the Independent in London and Irish media.

While in the affected areas, McNeill said he experienced an “overwhelming sadness” at hearing survivors’ stories. After two weeks, “shoving a notebook in people’s faces just to get the story became emotionally draining.”

One low point came in a high school in Rikuzentakata that had been turned into a refuge center. McNeill asked a woman about her experiences, to be told that she had lost her mother, a daughter, two other members of her immediate family and their home. “When someone says that, how can you react?” he said. “All I could do was to say that I was sorry and I walked away. That was one of the worst.”

The problem, of course, is that we live and work in the world’s most seismically active country, where major natural disasters are a fact of life. There will be another major event; the only question is whether it happens on our watch.

“I dread it happening again,” said McNeill. “I don’t ever want to have to do that again.”

Julian Ryall is the Japan correspondent for The Daily Telegraph.