Klas Backholm awarded for his research on the post-traumatic reactions of journalists

Assistant Professor Klas Backholm of the Swedish School of Social Science has received the 2016 Frank Ochberg Award, one of the most distinguished awards for psycho-traumatology and journalism, for his research on media and trauma.

The International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies (ISTSS) grants the annual Frank Ochberg Award for Media and Trauma Study for significant contributions to research on media and trauma. Klas Backholm accepted the award on 12 November 2016 in Dallas, Texas, USA, during an international conference organised by the ISTSS.

“It’s one of the few awards in the world to focus on media and crisis psychology, so I was happy to receive it,” Backholm says.

Backholm’s research explores post-traumatic stress in the aftermath of crises, particularly the reactions of journalists who have worked in a crisis situation. The crises he studies are not necessarily major events, such as wars or natural disasters; they may just as well be car accidents covered by local reporters. Professional journalists may occasionally find themselves working in a crisis situation, but it is not something they do every day. This is significant in terms of being prepared to work in a crisis. For example, police officers who deal with crises on a daily basis are better prepared to handle them.

“I look at different psychological conditions, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and anxiety, and also at job-specific factors that increase the risk of trauma arising from a crisis,” Backholm explains.

His research shows that the risk of post-traumatic stress is higher among journalists who have experienced an ethical dilemma while working in a crisis situation. This may occur when a reporter is asked to interview people and collect information during a crisis, but feels empathy with those involved and does not wish to disturb them or make the situation worse for them. Journalists who have experienced such a dilemma during an assignment and afterwards feel guilty about what they have done in their professional role have an increased risk of post-traumatic symptoms. This was apparent among the journalists who reported on the Norwegian terror attack on Utøya, as demonstrated by Backholm’s research. He has also previously investigated the post-traumatic symptoms of journalists after Finnish school shootings.

Journalists can try to prevent ethical dilemmas by making it clear to themselves and to their supervisors and editors what their professional role requires. Editors must discuss their practices for crisis journalism and make sure that all contributors are informed.

“The Swedish School of Social Science strives to prevent ethical dilemmas by trying to instil an appropriate mindset in all journalism students,” Backholm states.

Klas Backholm took up office as assistant professor of media and communication studies at the Swedish School of Social Science, University of Helsinki, in August 2016. His position is the School’s first tenure-track position for researchers who aim to progress to a full professorship. At present, Backholm is involved in a research project that shifts the focus from how journalists react to major crises to how they respond to threats in their daily lives and what they encounter when they log into their social media accounts. He also works in a project that analyses how journalists should handle large amounts of information spread across social media during crises. The aim is to develop a simple web-based tool that collects information from various social media.

More information:

Assistant Professor Klas Backholm, phone +358 44 592 5954, email: klas.backholm@helsinki.fi