Dr. Anthony Feinstein

601. What drives journalists to put themselves at risk?

Several years ago, Anthony Feinstein, PhD, had a journalist walk into his neuropsychology clinical practice and tell him that despite feelings of depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, she never sought out help for her mental health. 

“The reason she didn’t ask for help was she was concerned she would be pulled from the field,” says Feinstein, the author of seven books including the recently released “Moral Courage: 19 Profiles of Investigative Journalists,” which examines the characteristics that drive reporters to risk their lives in places where the government is hostile toward the press. 

When Feinstein met that reporter, he conducted a search of literature going back more than 20 years and found there was no research on the topic of journalists, trauma and emotional well-being. He wrote a grant application to the Washington, D.C.-based Freedom Forum, resulting in the first-ever funded study on journalists, trauma, war and mental health. 

Many people go into journalism, especially investigative work and international correspondence, because they will not be satisfied with a routine life that involves a more traditional 9-5 job and are driven by a sense of adventure and wanting to do more with their lives, Feinstein says. 

There have historically been few programs in place to help reporters work through the trauma they witness, whether in person or by editing footage provided by people on the street, who send in cellphone video of tragic acts, according to his most recent study. 

In addition to sharing a drive for excitement, journalists also often share a strong sense of moral courage, or the irrepressible urge to speak up and speak out when they witness something they feel is immoral or wrong, Feinstein says. Moral courage is the antidote to moral injury, which he says is the sense of guilt or shame someone might feel if they do not speak up after witnessing something they feel is in violation of their moral compass. 

Feinstein’s new book shares the stories of 19 journalists who are upholding their moral compasses in countries where journalists are targeted and can be jailed, tortured or killed for speaking out against government actions. 

“Mohammad Mosaed, an Iranian journalist, was being walled off,” Feinstein says. “He was told don’t do this, it’s upsetting the government. The newspapers who admired his writing were scared to publish him, so he went online. Tens of thousands of Iranians followed him, because they wanted to know what was going on. (Authorities) locked him up. They locked up his girlfriend. They tortured him. They arrested him in his parents’ home. He had to flee to Turkey and nearly died in the process of having to cross the high mountains in the winter. He would not keep quiet. For him, speaking about corruption in Iran became a mission.” 

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