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Dr. Anthony Feinstein authors Moral Courage, a new Globe and Mail series

June 10, 2021


Dr. Anthony Feinstein, neuropsychiatrist in Sunnybrook’s Hurvitz Brain Sciences Program and professor of psychiatry at the University of Toronto, has launched a new 12-part series in the Globe and Mail entitled Moral Courage.

The Globe describes the series as “a project that will feature frank and intimate interviews between Dr. Feinstein and a journalist working in hazardous situations around the globe. Each story showcases the work of these journalists, the factors that explain why they feel compelled to pursue such an all-encompassing mission, and the personal consequences their work entails.”

Dr. Feinstein is an expert in the study of mental trauma in journalists who work in conflict zones, having written several books on the topic, and producing the documentary Under Fire: Journalists in Combat, which was shortlisted for an Academy Award in 2012.

Dr. Feinstein discusses the Moral Courage series and how dangerous conditions, working on the front lines of conflict, and working in the COVID-19 pandemic can have a psychological impact on journalists.

You have extensive experience with treating journalists who have experienced psychological trauma in conflict zones, in addition to covering stories from the field. What draws you to these different aspects of journalism in areas of combat?

Journalists fulfill an essential part in civil society, namely keeping the population informed of important events. They lead interesting lives. Given that we now live in an interconnected world it is essential we understand the broader world around us, and it is journalists who help us with sharing their insights and understanding of issues. However, work in conflict zones does entail great risk and this can have negative psychological consequences for journalists.

What kind of psychological trauma could journalists experience in the field?

Journalists on the frontlines of a war zone or revolution are at risk for conditions such as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), depression and anxiety disorders. There are also significant stressors associated with the relentless coverage of bad and often violent news. Examples here include pandemic coverage, the recent attack on a Muslim family in London, Ontario, the discovery of the remains of 215 Indigenous children who were part of Canada’s residential school system, the George Floyd murder, mass shooting and attacks on Asian Canadians and Americans, and others. These events can also undermine a journalist’s emotional wellbeing.

Why do journalists continue to report from conflict zones despite dangers to their physical and mental well-being?

Journalists continue to report from zones of conflict for a multiplicity of reasons. They recognize the importance of their work. They understand the necessity of keeping the population informed of what is going on. They enjoy the work. They find it interesting. They have a front-seat to observe history unfolding. Their writing and photography can be very creative. Taken collectively, one can see multiple motivating factors at play.

How has the COVID-19 pandemic impacted reporting for journalists covering issues both abroad and locally?

There is much greater complexity in the lives of journalists during a pandemic. My team and I just completed a study which we hope to publish shortly. It found that rates of anxiety in particular have been significantly elevated amongst journalists during the early stages of the pandemic.

Our pandemic study also found that when journalists get therapy, they are much less likely to feel anxious and depressed compared to journalists who have not received therapy. Data like these suggest that it is imperative for news organizations to look after their journalists psychologically if they expect them to undertake difficult and dangerous work.

What does the Moral Courage series mean to you?

The Moral Courage series is meaningful to me because, in a time of attacks on the media, when many journalists around the world are being targeted or facing threats, it has never been more important to uphold the importance of freedom of the press, and the role a vibrant press has in our civic discourse.

The series focuses on those journalists who live and work in dangerous and difficult environments who continue their journalism despite the threats posed. I believe the primary motivating factor here is one of moral courage. By that I mean these journalists feel a sense of moral outrage in response to governments and/or drug cartels who commit human rights violations. Rather than keep quiet about what they observe, they frequently put their lives on the line to bring us, the general public, news of what is going on. This kind of resolve takes great moral courage given the associated risks. My series will highlight this and explore the motivating factors that drive this resolve.

Read part one of the Moral Courage series: From on the ground in Idlib, Yakeen Bido bravely chronicles Syria’s pain amid its decade-long civil war

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