The Horror of Covering War

CNN reporter Michael Ware’s struggle with post-traumatic stress is rekindling a debate about the emotional cost of covering conflicts. Ellen Knickmeyer on how long journalists can report from the front lines before they crack.

When CNN war correspondent Michael Ware told The New York Times that the network had denied him needed time off to deal with post-traumatic stress disorder, the blogosphere erupted with discussions about what could be the latest high-profile departure from the embattled network.

But for a small group of war reporters who have been covering “the war on terror,” Ware’s story ignited a different kind of discussion: What is the psychological cost for those who continue to cover the continuing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq?

“If you look at foreign correspondents, and you get everyone, to be honest, you find almost no one with an intact relationship, whether it’s parents or spouses or significant others,” said The New York Times’ Alissa Rubin.

For Ashley Gilbertson, a well-known photographer with the VII Network photo agency, that is a haunting question.

In November 2004, Gilbertson worked with New York Times reporter Dexter Filkins on a combat assignment in Iraq that would earn both men some of the top awards in journalism. This was the height of the battle of Fallujah, and Gilbertson was running with Filkins and a couple of Marines up the steps of a minaret so that he could photograph the body of a dead jihadist. At the top of the steps, a Marine pushed past Gilbertson, insisting on going first into the tower room. An armed insurgent waited inside, and shot the Marine point-blank.

Filkins later described Gilbertson crouched at the entry of the minaret as Marines got ready to storm the tower again to reclaim the body of the Marine. “ ‘My fault,’ he was saying, ‘my fault,' " Filkins wrote of Gilbertson. “There was blood and bits of white flesh on his face and on his flak jacket and on his camera lens. ‘My fault.' ”

For Gilbertson and others in the small corps of war reporters and photographers, at issue is the emotional cost of covering war, and the support journalists on the frontlines receive—or don’t receive—from their news organizations.

“How many times can you go to a car bomb and see severed limbs?” asked Gilbertson, 32, who now lives in New York. “Go out on a military offensive and become close” to a soldier “and then see them blown in half? How many times can you lose colleagues?...How many times can you do that before you flip out?”

Many in this group of men and women have been doing this since 2001, and because of the nature of the news business—journalists are expected to run toward the battle rather than away from it—some have seen more intense combat than many soldiers.

“If you look at foreign correspondents, and you get everyone, to be honest, you find almost no one with an intact relationship, whether it’s parents or spouses or significant others,” Alissa Rubin, The New York Times’ Kabul bureau chief and former Baghdad bureau chief, said by telephone from Afghanistan. The relationships “are held together with great difficulties—if they’re held together at all.”

Colleagues serve as the first responders for fellow journalists who show signs of stress, Rubin and other war correspondents said. But editors at home have a responsibility to make clear to their reporters that they are eligible for longer breaks and help with post-traumatic stress, said trauma experts, who stressed that journalists should not be penalized in their careers for seeking help.

Ware, an Australian-born veteran war correspondent who often flamboyantly fulfilled the hard-living stereotype of a combat reporter, had recently asked CNN for more time off to deal with post-traumatic stress. Ware said CNN denied the request and he assumed the news network had let him go, according to reports.

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However, a CNN spokesman denied this week that Ware had been fired. Ware “continues to be employed by CNN and is on an extended leave of absence,” spokesman Nigel Pritchard said. “We continue to support him during this time with all the appropriate resources that CNN has to offer. We hope that when he is ready and able, he will be back at doing what he does best.”

In a 2008 Men’s Journal profile, the journalist, who has survived bombings, shootings, and kidnapping attempts, appeared tormented, rolling out of bed at 4 p.m. and popping open many bottles of beer. “Will I get any better?” the magazine quoted Ware, in tears, as saying. “I honestly don’t know.”

Ware is far from alone. In 2002 and 2004, before the worst of the carnage in Iraq, studies led by psychiatry professor Anthony Feinstein of the University of Toronto found longtime war correspondents reported significantly more struggles with excessive drinking and depression and a rate of post-traumatic stress disorder that “approached those of front-line veterans,” Feinstein said by phone this week.

While the number of war correspondents has dwindled, making further studies impossible, according to Feinstein, the website, which he set up with the financial help of CNN to help journalists and others evaluate their symptoms of traumatic stress, receives 1,500-2,000 hits a month, with 15 to 50 people every month taking time to complete the self-evaluation.

The largest news organizations—including the BBC, CNN, Reuters, and AP—provide education and voluntary counseling. But the record for other news organizations is spotty. In some places, editors at home have received help with PTSD issues, while the journalists in the war zone have not been offered help. Others report that their organizations have no specialists on hand to deal with the issue or, even worse, find their requests for help written up in their evaluations. The growing number of freelance correspondents working overseas may not get any institutional support at all.

Trauma experts believe that most news organizations could do more to inform and train journalists about the issues of stress and trauma—topics that gets scant, if any, attention in the newsroom. Pritchard, the CNN spokesman, said the network offers that training in the first-aid session of hostile-environments training for journalists.

“I do think there’s been improvement,” said Bruce Shapiro, executive director of the New York-based Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma. “I also think there’s a long way to go.”

Gilbertson said colleagues at The New York Times were helpful and sensitive when he came back, but he also said he thought returning war correspondents should, as a matter of routine, get therapy debriefs. “If I was a publisher, if I had the power to force reporters to go into mandatory counseling after any trip, then I would absolutely” do that, he said.

Gilbertson said he felt guilty after the Marine was shot in front of him in Fallujah and, when he came back, struggled with “drinking way too much” and an “out-of-control” temper. For a while, he said, “I sort of snapped.”

Ellen Knickmeyer is a former Washington Post bureau chief in Baghdad and Cairo. Before coming to the Post, she was the West Africa bureau chief for The Associated Press. This year, she graduated from Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government.