For thousands of journalists reporting sensitive events, threats, violence, dealing with online abuse and trolling are just a few among many challenges. Yet, their emotional and psychological wellbeing is not front and center in our social discourse.

On February 24, 2020, a wide swathe of north-east Delhi was wracked by violence after people supporting the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) clashed with those who had been peacefully protesting against the amendments to the Act. The violence and police action that followed left 51 dead, including 36 Muslims and 15 Hindus. NDTV correspondents Saurav Shukla and Arvind Gunasekar were recording the violence around them on their mobile phones near Seelampur, Delhi. The duo had decided against using their NDTV mics as rioters were extremely agitated with the media. Suddenly a mob attacked Gunasekar. He was beaten up, lying on the ground bleeding from the mouth, with three broken teeth. As Shukla rushed to help his colleague, the angry mob punched him in the stomach and back, and hit him with sticks as he shielded Gunasekar. The mob then grabbed their phones and started deleting photos and videos. Recalling the incident, Shukla wrote in an NDTV blog, “I showed them my ‘rudraksha’ to prove my religion. This was the saddest part for me—to have to prove my religion to save my life. The rioters said when I’m from their community, why was I shooting videos (that could go against their version of the story). They scolded me and hit me again. We folded our hands and pleaded with them to let us go.”

What started like a regular news day ended up being one of the most dreadful days of my life, he says.

Runjhun Sharma of CNN-News 18, who was also present with Shukla, recalls the incident. “We literally had to beg the mob with folded hands to let Arvind go. But that was only after we were able to prove we are Hindus.”

By evening, Sharma was back in her studio and the news of the three journalists being assaulted was trending. She started receiving frantic calls from friends and relatives, concerned about her safety. “I was petrified that my parents would get to know and freak out. So I asked them to switch on the TV. I was going live in my studio and I wanted them to hear it from me,” she shares.

Fortunately for Sharma, support from various quarters helped boost the morale of her worried family. “They understand my passion for this job,” she adds.

Although shaken, the three young journalists were back at work almost immediately. The next day, Sharma went back to report on the structure desecrated by the mob she had confronted.

Trauma works in insidious ways. Sharma recalls feeling an impending sense of doom in the days leading up to the riots. “There was a lot of hate mongering leading up to the riots. Although I thought I was unaffected by it all, I had dreams of being stuck in a riot with my colleague. With so much hate, it’s inevitable. And then, it happened. Suddenly, I found myself in the midst of a full blown communal riot, right in the middle of the country’s capital. That’s when it hit me,” Sharma confides. Every day, correspondents, field reporters, photojournalists, cameramen and other members of the media, report on many complex and difficult events, including riots and civil unrest, protests and political violence, poverty, sexual violence, natural disasters, and human suffering at large. Often, they do this racing against deadlines, fighting fake news and misinformation, caste and religious biases, and gender discrimination at work. Yet, the newsroom script calls for standard stoicism and objective observation, causing mental exhaustion and lasting effects, some more crippling than others.

Crimes against journalists have seen a sharp rise in the last few years. Notably, the assassinations of Bengaluru-based journalist Gauri Lankesh in 2017 and Rising Kashmir’s founder editor Shujaat Bukhari in Srinagar in 2018, among many others across small towns and cities of India, shocked the fraternity. In August 2020, three Caravan journalists— Shahid Tantray, Prabhjit Singh and a woman journalist— were beaten, threatened with murder, subjected to communal slurs and sexually harassed, while reporting in Subhash Mohalla, in northeast Delhi. Then in October, Kerala journalist Siddique Kappan was arrested by UP police on his way to report on the Hathras rape case—Kappan has since been lodged in a prison and charged with sedition and other serious charges. In January this year, journalist Mandeep Punia and Dharmender Singh were roughed up and arrested by Delhi Police while they were investigating a story at the Farmer’s Protest on the Singhu border on the outskirts of the Capital.

Members of the fourth estate are increasingly under threat for doing what they are ethically sworn to do—report the truth.

In 2020, an independent study by journalist Geeta Seshu for the Free Speech Collective found that 154 journalists were arrested, detained or interrogated between 2010 and 2020 in India, and 40% of these cases were reported in 2020 alone. Called Behind Bars: Arrest and Detention of Journalists in India 2010-20, the research analyses the decade of summons, detention, arrests, questioning and show-causes notices against scribes. According to the findings, in 2020 alone, 67 journalists have been arrested, detained and questioned for doing their work. It notes that while physical assault of journalists has increased (198 attacks recorded between 2014-19 and 30 deaths since 2010), there has been no conviction in the deaths of journalists since 2014. Another 2019 study by Thakur Foundation notes that “journalists have been fired upon, blinded by pellet guns, forced to drink liquor laced with urine or urinated upon, kicked, beaten and chased. They have had petrol bombs thrown at their homes. Journalists covering conflict or news events were specifically targeted by irate mobs, supporters of religious sects, political parties, student groups, lawyers, police and security forces.”

Worryingly, the attacks on women journalists have also increased. “The targeted attacks on women journalists covering the Sabarimala temple entry issue were sustained and vicious, it notes.
Speaking truth to power, therefore, comes at a cost.

A safety guide for Journalists—a handbook for reporters in high-risk environments by UNESCO and Reporters Without Borders states that journalists are just as vulnerable to emotional injury as soldiers, firefighters or other frontline participants in tragedy. Their trauma however is rarely spoken about.

Women and online trolling

Newsrooms are notoriously male. In 2019, UN Women in its report ‘Gender Inequality in Indian media’ supports the claim. The report revealed the skewed ratio of male-female writers and anchors across print and TV media. Digital newsrooms tend to do better in terms of diversity, however, the overall male dominance continues. While 26.3 percent of top jobs were held by women at online portals, TV channels employed 20.9 percent and magazines came third with only 13.6 percent women in leadership roles. The study also found out that women continue to be given what are essentially ‘soft beats’, like fashion and lifestyle, while men are left to report on more complex and ‘hard’ beats such as politics and economy, thus marginalizing women’s voices and opinions.

Women journalists fight misogyny and sexism at work, and trolling and online bullying for calling this out. In 2018 when the #MeToo movement gathered momentum, scores of women journalists recounted stories of sexual harassment from colleagues, seniors and editors. Recently, a Delhi court judgement dismissed former Union Minister M.J. Akbar’s criminal defamation complaint against journalist Priya Ramani, who has accused him of sexual harassment in a revelation made at the height of the #MeToo movement. Following Ramani’s disclosure, about 11 women journalists came out with different allegations against him. In the wake of all the online allegations, counter allegations, sexist barbs and misogynist abuse that followed, Ramani deactivated her Twitter account. This is a case in point, in how women journalists are constantly threatened across a range of online platforms, digital communities, often overlapping and converging into offline spaces. Where and how they intersect can be terrifying.

Neha Dixit, an independent journalist from Delhi, known for her fearless work on politics, social justice, and gender, has had to face extensive online trolling for the stories she reported on. She recently took to Twitter to share the alarming story of her harassment. Since September 2020, she is being stalked, has received rape and acid-attack threats. In her statement, she further revealed, “the stalker identifies my exact physical location on phone calls and threatens me with rape, acid attack and death, clearly bringing my profession as a journalist into the conversation. The stalker also indicates the whereabouts of my partner and threatens to kill us both.”

Dixit recognizes the difficulties that come with being an opinionated and visible journalist but finds herself frustrated at the thought of how many such incidents go unaddressed. “I have a lot of support from friends, colleagues, senior journalists, lawyers and activists. It is a wholesome circle of people, supporting you from various ends. I recognize as a privileged journalist, sitting in Delhi, who writes in English, for national and international publications, that I have been able to build a network that can help me.”

Journalists working in small towns may not enjoy this privilege and are left to fend for themselves, she says. Depending on their caste and class, they may or may not have the means and support—both moral and strategic. “There is no institutional support, especially for reporters working in the interiors of the country,” says Dixit.

At a time when large national media outlets are folding up, India’s local journalism is admirably buoyant, thanks to the entrepreneurial courage displayed by small town journalists who continue to use their platforms to highlight local issues. However, the discussion around how they are targeted, attacked and silenced is missing from mainstream discussion. In an interview with the Hindustan Times, Kavita Devi, the editor-in chief of Khabar Lahariya, a UP-based rural news platform that employs Dalit, Muslim, Adivasi and OBC women and reports with a feminist lens, highlights the challenges that come with being a Dalit woman journalist. “The officials wouldn’t talk to us. We’d keep going back to them for comments. And if they refused, we’d write they refused. Now the threats have changed. People troll us online, and make personal comments.”

The Mental Toll of Trauma

Whether it is dealing with online abuse or offline stalking, such incidents can cause long term psychological trauma. Researchers studying traumatic stress have only just begun to recognize the existence of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in the field of journalism and examine how it may impact the mental health of journalists. Although most associate PTSD with war veterans, studies suggest it can affect anyone who has witnessed traumatic events—from abuse to violent crime, natural disasters and accidents.

Journalists who carry out the unique role of observing and documenting, are not immune from the impacts such distressing events may bring. Dr. Vani Kulhalli, consultant psychiatrist at Nanavati Hospital, points out, “prolonged exposure to stressful events can cause post traumatic stress disorder, depression, substance use disorders and morbid personality change. The changed personality may be susceptible to bodily disturbances like aches, pains, fatigue, tendency to be suspicious and blame others. Such people may also lose their sense of agency.”

Gayatri Jayaraman, an ex-journalist and now a mind, body, and spirit counsellor feels that vernacular writers, women writers and journalists from minority and marginalized castes and genders face a particularly uphill task. “The minute people know you are not like them, the sidelining begins in very subtle ways. You don’t get the plum assignments, your work dries up and you get pushed around. You can be these categories in a way that fits into the dominant narrative that is set by a colonized, upper caste, patriarchal club. It is a fight for a lot of people and it takes a toll on mental health. ”

While the challenges of women and members of the minority community and marginalised castes are disproportionately higher, male journalists are also highly vulnerable. Ironically, our culture does not always leave space for men to express their inner struggles. Conversations around emotional wellbeing in newsrooms, therefore, remain under the radar.

Akshay Deshmane, a Delhi-based journalist, shares, “Men are expected not to be vulnerable to stress—a consequence of the nature of the job.”

Casteism in newsrooms

In March 2020, Tejas Harad, a copy editor with Economic & Political Weekly documented the limited representation of marginalized caste communities in media workspaces and how caste-based discrimination creeps into day-to-day functioning. His study found that out of the 121 newsroom leadership roles—editors, bureau chiefs, input/output editors across newspapers, digital and business magazines—about 106 were occupied by the upper castes. Only 5% of all articles on news websites are written by Dalits or Adivasis. Hindi media outlets fared comparatively better, with a 10% of representation from marginalized writers. Not surprisingly, besides a lower representation in workplaces, journalists from the marginalized castes and communities also have to fight for their right to pursue stories they want to tell, while constantly being policed for their food and lifestyle choices, even in organizations perceived as ‘liberal’ in their outlook. For instance, in 2014 The Hindu reportedly put out an internal notice urging its employees to desist from bringing non-vegetarian food into the publication’s dining hall as it ‘causes discomfort to the majority of employees, who are vegetarian.’ As a result, many of the Bahujan journalists Harad spoke to, noted feelings of alienation, low self-esteem, discrimination, rejection and isolation.

Harad, who in his independent capacity also writes commentaries on the anti-caste movement in India, says about his own experience, “If you write about caste-based atrocities, discrimination and oppression, the media houses are quick to publish it. But the moment your writing implicates people or the system that fosters it, you face resistance.”

The burden of the 24/7 news cycle

If the advent of “breaking news” in broadcast media changed the nature of the Indian media business a quarter of a century ago, the emergence of social media has recast the dice. Politicians talk directly to their audience, everything from policy decisions to personal opinions are tweeted and a convergence of real-time Facebook or Instagram live by demonstrators at a protest competes with live TV coverage.

Deshmane explains, “There has been a radical shift in the way media content is created, transmitted, and received. This 24-hour news cycle puts pressure on journalists.”

On the sidelines, traditional media has come under scrutiny, for drifting away from its core values of independence, truth and accuracy, fairness and impartiality, humanity and accountability. Corporatization of media has allowed biases to creep in, fake news and political and ideological polarization has put a question mark on accuracy and objectivity of news, and the incarceration of journalists and editors has undermined press freedom. In the last few years, the open hostility towards the journalist community has resulted in increasingly serious and frequent acts of violence. Excessively trolling and peddling fake news from unverified sources to discredit journalistic work are just some of the ways to invalidate and gag the media, and its foot soldiers in India today.

Not surprisingly, in 2020, the annual analysis of press freedom index by Reporters without Borders ranked India 142nd out of 180 countries.

Big corporate, politics and media handshake and shrinking freedom

In 2018, well-known TV news anchor, Punya Prasun Bajpai revealed the shocking wreck going around in Indian newsrooms. He disclosed that the current government had employed 200 people to provide directions to editors on how they “must” report on the prime minister’s activities, alleging that he was asked by executives at his own network not to mention Modi on his news programmes. Eventually, Bajpai claimed, the news organization’s satellite signals were tampered with during his broadcasts, leading to his resignation.

Aakash Hassan, an independent journalist from Kashmir says that his fraternity frequently hears of police cases and threats against independent journalists who are doing their job. “On the other hand, large sections of mainstream media, run by corporations, have taken a pro-government stance. The TV stations have become increasingly noisy, brash and openly peddling hate against Muslims. It has forced journalists into self-censorship. Reporting events which involve the State, directly or indirectly, has become difficult,” he admits.

Things get further complicated when you are reporting from a protest site or sensitive hotspot in the country, forced to back down by regular internet shutdowns, political pressures and censorship.

On the field, a journalist also experiences the conflict between giving an equal voice to both sides of a story and the need for truth-telling and humanity in reporting voices of the disempowered. The central, ethical question being, will “both-sides” journalism also end up boosting unsupported claims? Will it further suppress or invalidate marginalised voices? “Both-sides” journalism may leave many stories incomplete. In India, this ethical conflict is especially true when reporting on religious, caste and sexual minorities. As in the case of caste-bias and discrimination faced by reporters from marginalised communities, experts argue that “both-sides” journalism can further contribute to reinforcing stereotypes and structural sexism and casteism, and dislodge nuance and truth-telling.

It also robs the journalist of a chance to lend their perspective of events on the field. For instance, in Kashmir, years of conflict have caused deep emotional suffering for the region’s journalists. In 2019-2020, Kashmir has seen one of the harshest communication blackouts, with restrictions on physical movement, intimidation of journalists and clampdown on newspapers. Hassan explains, “as a journalist, it is extremely difficult to work in an atmosphere where even phones and the internet are not available. Collecting information, confirming its veracity, and sending it across for publishing was near impossible. Personally speaking, while reporting in Kashmir, it is difficult to disassociate oneself from the story because I am a stakeholder—born, raised and living here. The events impact my life.”

COVID-19 and the field reporter

In October 2020, a study of 1,400 English-speaking journalists in 125 countries including India, by the International Centre of Journalists and the Tow Centre for Digital Journalism at Columbia University, USA, found that the media identified the psychological and emotional impact of dealing with the COVID-19 crisis. Right from lack of safety equipment for field reporting, denial to access to government representatives, unemployment, increased online harassment, and little help from their employers were some of the main challenges journalists faced. More than 80% of the respondents noted at least one negative psychological effect, including anxiety, burnout, difficulty sleeping and a sense of helplessness.

Jayaraman has been offering free counselling to journalists during the pandemic and has witnessed dozens of scribes breaking down, given the state of media shutdowns and layoffs, without concerns about the way this was done and how it would impact a journalist’s emotional health. “Journalists have pretty much shown up at work and have been told that they were being fired or the department shutting down. In my experience, mental health within journalism is a highly neglected space. Often when journalists have reached out, they do so in their individual capacity. There is zero help, aid or concern within media organizations.”

An unrecognized crisis

Speaking to journalists, media advocates and mental health experts, the subject of mental health in newsrooms is hard to broach. “This is an often unrecognised and under-reported consequence of the physical and psychological stress journalists and newsroom managers face. The perception is that journalists just ‘carry on’, no matter what they have been exposed to or regardless of the damage that may be being done by internalising the accumulated stress associated with the job,” says Vincent Peyrègne, CEO- WAN-IFRA, The World Association of News Publishers.

With its global network of 3,000 news publishing companies, 60-member publisher associations representing 18,000 publications in 120 countries, WAN-IFRA is an international NGO working to defend, promote freedom of press, support development of independent media, and foster global cooperation. Peyrègne feels that in newsrooms, stress is often associated with what is considered as traumatic events, but less recognized aspects such as stress from daily accumulation of reporting on ‘regular beats’ such as crime, health, etc. can be equally damaging. “In the current context, reporting the COVID pandemic and the consequences for victims and their families has shown to have put journalists and newsroom managers under a great deal of additional stress,” he adds.

Dr. Kulhalli thinks that the ‘us versus them’ principle may be at work. She feels, “many times a journalist may build a psychological barrier, believing that they are not at immediate risk and their primary responsibility is reporting other people’s distress. Therefore, there is a resistance to speaking openly about their own emotions.” In her experience of working with journalists and their mental health challenges, she identifies depression as a common consequence. . “Another common challenge is dependence on alcohol, caffeine or nicotine as stress busters, given their odd working hours,” she adds.

Newsrooms need to take a lead in tackling and supporting mental health of its members
The news industry, like any other business, needs to look at the best ways to create organizational culture that supports mental health, to ensure its members experience their jobs in a meaningful and purposeful way.

Earlier last year, PROTO, an Indian media development start-up, ran a series of weekly online webinars for Indian journalists to tackle emerging issues in media and journalism around the COVID-19 crisis. Among many experts was Dr Soumitra Pathare, a consultant psychiatrist and Director of Centre for Mental Health Law and Policy at the Indian Law Society. When asked about how editors and newsroom managers could support journalists, he said, “I think the important thing to do is to provide much more active mentorship and professional supervision. And this can be [done] by creating a buddy system within the newsroom or bringing in someone from outside to the organization who people can talk to without feeling like they will be judged negatively by their superiors as being inefficient or weak or anything of that sort.”

He further noted that to set more realistic expectations, editors and newsroom managers need to know how people feel when they are stressed, and understand the biology of stress itself. “Very often editors tend to have very unrealistic expectations as any bosses have, and it creates more anger and frustration when those expectations are not met. All these factors need to be managed,” Pathare added.

Jayaraman reiterates that institutional checks are crucial for protection of journalists. “Journalists at this point, seeking mental health help, do so in their personal capacity. Help needs to be made available to them in a professional capacity as well, with the assurance that the professionally oriented intervention is completely confidential and is a safe space to cope with any stresses within workspaces.”

Dixit agrees, “the support must be more institutional, where we start acknowledging everybody reporting for a news organization, whether employees or freelancers. I am not only speaking for people like me, who have the choice to work as freelancers, but also for reporters in smaller towns and villages too. We need to be responsible for them too.”

Newsroom managers can also create opportunities and platforms to facilitate regular peer debriefing, where journalists feel safe to open up in front of each other, thus normalizing difficult conversations. It can also help journalists recognize their own feelings and emotions, while encouraging them to seek help, if required. Professional training from recognized health experts with experience in trauma management, can assist journalists and editors alike to spot the signs early and take timely action.
Jayaraman adds, “the onus is never on the individual alone. Media organizations need to make structural changes in terms of job security, access to financial aid, access to legal help, fixed hours, a culture of open communication—something that every good organization offers its members.”

Peyrègne agrees that news organizations must actively promote a healthy culture of listening and understanding, through awareness, training, and a recognition that the profession is extremely stressful under the best of times.

He leaves us with a parting thought, “It all hinges on the culture present in a newsroom—the pressure to simply ‘carry on’, especially for freelancers, increasingly for younger journalists and women journalists, is potentially deadly. If we feel that raising issues regarding our mental wellbeing could damage our position, our careers, or simply the prospect of being assigned challenging stories in the future, then journalists are less likely to speak out and seek the help they need.”