Since October 7, the violence in Gaza has marked the most dangerous conflict on record for journalists, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). As of February 2, airstrikes — most of which the CPJ has been able to trace back to the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) — and on-the-ground conflict have killed 85 journalists and media workers, including 78 Palestinian, four Israeli, and three Lebanese journalists. The IDF’s targeted killing of journalists represents not only an urgent threat to press freedom, but also a call to protect the journalists covering what Al Jazeera reports is the “deadliest conflict of the 21st century,” thus far. 

However, attacks on journalists covering conflict within their own country aren’t isolated to the Middle East. Both authoritarian regimes and criminal gangs around the world continue to target journalists in an attempt to undermine press freedom and thus suppress public dissent against violence and corruption. 

It goes without saying that journalists are integral to ensuring that any civil society remains just that: civil. After all, it is the journalists who call out violence and corruption when they see it and hold leaders and institutions accountable for their actions. Despite this, few researchers truly examine how journalists — particularly those who cover conflict — can cope with the work they do. 

Anthony Feinstein, a professor of psychiatry at U of T, not only pioneered the study of emotional health in war journalists but has also investigated the psychological traits that allow a special niche of journalists to stand up to oppressive regimes while pursuing an independent and uncensored press.

The Varsity recently sat down with Anthony Feinstein to ask about his research on journalists who cover violence, corruption, and oppression. 

The origins of Feinstein’s research

Twenty-three years ago, Feinstein, who was running a medical practice in Toronto at the time, was referred a patient suffering from serious psychiatric problems brought on by stress from her profession. As he described, the patient was a journalist who had just “[returned from] working in East Africa, covering famine.” Despite the mental strain her reporting had on her while on assignment, Feinstein explained, she held back in seeking treatment, out of fear that her editors would pull her from the field. 

To better understand what the patient was experiencing, Feinstein reviewed the existing literature on journalists and psychiatric symptoms caused by their line of work. However, to his surprise, he found a great lack of research on the topic. 

With that in mind, he wrote a grant application to the Freedom Forum, an organization in Washington, DC dedicated to protecting freedom of speech, including freedom of the press. The organization accepted his application, and he received funding for what he described as “the very first study on journalism and emotional health.” 

Eventually published in the American Journal of Psychiatry in 2002, the study revealed deeper, unspoken problems within the field of journalism. Among the journalists Feinstein studied, war journalists suffered from significantly higher rates of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, and substance abuse than journalists who didn’t cover war. The likelihood of these war journalists developing PTSD at some point in their lives was comparable to that of combat veterans. The key problem, however, was that despite the poor condition of their mental health, these war journalists weren’t seeking treatment. 

That the management within the news organizations these journalists worked for failed to address this problem speaks to the larger issues that existed within the field of journalism. In the interview, Feinstein acknowledged that at the time of his first study, although managers knew these war journalists were coming home traumatized, they chose to ignore the problem. According to Feinstein, this ignorance was part of the larger culture within journalism: the consensus was that if you’re not fit to handle the stress of the job, you should find another job. 

In the years since his first study, Feinstein has continued to examine the emotional impact of journalism, specifically reporting on foreign war coverage from Western news organizations. In fact, the findings in his research have become an instigator for change within larger news organizations, with managers beginning to implement specific measures to address war journalists’ emotional well-being. 

Interestingly, Feinstein described how his initial study also became a catalyst for further studies on the mental health of journalists covering conflict within their own country. Soon enough, he began studying other specific cases of journalists facing violence, including Mexican journalists investigating drug-related violence, Syrian journalists covering the civil war in Syria, the underground movement of Iranian journalists doing political coverage of the oppressive regime currently in power, and Kenyan journalists covering election violence and terrorist attacks. 

On moral courage, moral injury, and their overlap 

It should come as no surprise that journalists who persist in covering conflict within their countries, despite persecution from authoritarian regimes and criminal gangs, possess extraordinary courage. 

In what initially began as a project for The Globe and Mail, Anthony Feinstein’s 2023 book, Moral Courage: 19 Profiles of Investigative Journalists, documents the experiences of 19 investigative journalists from countries with a poor history of press freedom. Throughout each profile, Feinstein explores the psychological traits — specifically, what he refers to as “moral courage” — that motivate these journalists to remain so committed to their work, despite the harm that comes with it.

In his book, Feinstein writes that the countries these journalists are from all share “an intolerance of a free press,” and so “journalists who tell an inconvenient truth are treated brutally.” It is not uncommon to find details of harassment, death threats, and prolonged imprisonment in the profiles of these journalists. And for women journalists specifically, the corrupt governments they’ve reported on have targeted them in an incredibly sexually violent way. 

Feinstein writes, however, that “these journalists have not arrived at this rarefied place solely by chance. Moral courage, a component of free will, has led them there.”

To understand Feinstein’s theory of moral courage, one first needs an understanding of a concept he calls “moral injury,” and how it develops in these journalists. 

Feinstein defines moral injury as “a condition that arises from witnessing, perpetrating, or failing to prevent acts that transgress a person’s code of ethics or moral compass.” Both acts of commission — doing something wrong — and acts of omission — failing to do the right thing — elicit feelings of moral injury. 

For journalists in countries or settler colonies rife with corruption, violence, and human rights abuses, the events they witness daily transgress their moral compass and give rise to the feelings of shame, guilt, anger, and disgust associated with moral injury. For them, staying quiet about what they’re witnessing further heightens these feelings of moral injury. 

And while there isn’t just one factor motivating these journalists to continue their work, there is a common thread driving the 19 journalists Feinstein profiles: their strong sense of moral courage. After all, not everyone will speak out when the things they see exceed their threshold for feelings of moral injury — especially when the consequence of speaking out is persecution by an authoritarian regime. This raises the question: what exactly is moral courage?

As Feinstein explained in the interview, there are three vital components one must have to exhibit moral courage: a dangerous environment; a strong moral compass; and the agency, energy, and endurance to speak out against the acts that transgress one’s moral compass. For these journalists, “by stepping out and saying something and writing about [transgressions], photographing [them], bringing [them] to the public’s attention, [they] avoided [their] own moral injury.” 

It’s important to note, however, that these journalists represent a small group within society of the few people willing to speak up, despite all the threats, the violence, the losses, and the fear they have endured. 

It is not hard to see then, as Feinstein writes, for these journalists, “it has fallen to them to keep alive the remnants of their failing civil societies. In doing so, they remind their fellow citizens, cowed by authoritarian governments or criminal gangs, that all may not be lost.” 

Eroding press freedom in Western countries

Reporters Without Borders, an organization that safeguards the right to freedom of information, reports that many Western countries have a history of ranking high in press freedoms, but democracy and an independent press aren’t guaranteed in Western countries. The reality is that democracy and an independent press aren’t guaranteed anywhere. 

Given Donald Trump’s hostile record with the press, the 2024 US elections have raised questions among American journalists about what a Trump reelection could mean for the future of press freedom in America. With the upcoming election, Feinstein also said that the threat to democracy and journalism in Western countries is more pressing than ever. 

In his future research, Feinstein hopes to learn from the 19 investigative journalists he’s interviewed, because he says that the kind of moral courage they possess — that allows them to continue their work despite persecution — is something that journalists will continue to need, even beyond the niches of journalism that he’s studied. As Feinstein said, “The moral courage that they display is a kind of moral courage that we need in our society for us to live our lives in a democratic way.” 

Towards the end of the interview, Feinstein noted that “the journalists who do this kind of work, they need to be supported, acknowledged, and kept safe. You cannot target journalists, wherever you go — it’s just unacceptable. Because if you do so, you’re targeting all of us. You’re targeting civil society by doing it.”