cyber attacks

Religion, especially the discrimination and persecution experienced by religious minorities, is a hot button issue in South Asia. There are numerous instances of journalists in countries such as India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh being harassed, persecuted, assaulted and even killed for reporting on matters involving the rights of religious minorities, crimes committed in the name of religion, opposition to blasphemy laws, and more.

Although physical violence and legal persecution by authorities is a very real threat to journalists, there is an aspect of their professional lives that is often woefully overlooked: trauma and other mental health pressures caused due to online abuse and attacks.

When it comes to their digital presence, journalists are in a peculiar position: they need to maintain a public persona on social media, but must also be careful about securing their data, because a breach could put both them and their sources in danger.

Journalists today are often primary targets of online harassment, trolling, doxxing, hacking and spyware. In addition to abuse from anonymous users online, they are also subject to surveillance, intimidation and persecution by powerful entities like large corporations, legal and local authorities, or the state machinery at large. All of this can exact a severe toll on reporters’ mental health and cause various forms of trauma.

“We usually tend to think of trauma in journalism only arising out of reporting from conflict zones or highly disturbed or devastated areas, but this is a narrow and limited way of looking at this problem,” said Amrita Tripathi, who is a writer, journalist and founder of the Health Collective. “Trauma can legitimately be caused by reporting on a number of beats including crime, geopolitics, health, malnutrition and more.”

The regular stresses of the job can cause trauma, noted Kamna Chhibber, who heads mental health for the Department of Mental Health and Behavioral Sciences at Fortis Healthcare. Journalists are always expected to be on the go – ready for a story to break at any time, irrespective of whether they are unwell or on holiday. Various aspects of reporting a story can also cause secondary trauma, she added: “You could be covering a health story and constantly witnessing patients in a terrible condition, which can be extremely distressing, or even listening to endless stories of death, injury and devastation can cause secondary trauma.”

On top of this, the hierarchical structure of many newsrooms can make it hard for reporters to communicate the stresses they are going through to the organization.

Signs of trauma

A critical first step journalists should take with regard to their mental health is to recognize and accept that they can be vulnerable, said Chhibber. Only then can they begin analyzing whether any of their behavior has changed.

People’s mental health depends on the following:

  • how they think about things,
  • how they feel about things, and
  • how they respond to things.

When people start getting irritable, angry, having outbursts, feeling anxious, nervous, or jittery, this can affect their ability to think rationally, or make them panic.  This may lead to lack of sleep and hunger, social withdrawal and isolation, and cause the afflicted to become overprotective of loved ones.

In other words, these are red flags that include symptoms affecting people’s social relationships, work life and how they take care of themselves. It’s important to seek help when these signs manifest.

Why online harassment happens

Though it can be difficult, journalists should try not to take online attacks personally or internalize them. The online harassment perpetrators carry out typically has no basis in fact, knowledge or genuine context.

For journalists facing harassment, they can consider logging off their accounts, and reaching out to someone they trust to let them handle their social media for a while. What journalists can control in these situations is how they respond.

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by Sayak Dasgupta, International Journalists’ Network

Photo by Towfiqu barbhuiya on Unsplash

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