BBC editor steps back from role after PTSD diagnosis

Former BBC News Africa Editor Fergal Keane. (Photo: BBC World News)

Fergal Keane has stepped down as the lead editor for BBC News’ Africa coverage after several decades reporting in conflict zones around the continent.

That coverage led to Keane being diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), something the journalist has been suffering from for years, the BBC said in a statement on Friday.

“He has been supported throughout this time by friends and colleagues [at BBC News], as well as receiving professional medical advice,” the statement written by BBC News head of newsgathering Jonathan Munro said.

As part of his recovery, Keane “feels he needs to change his role…it’s both brave and welcome that he is ready to be open about PTSD,” Munro said.

Keane is expected to remain with the company in a different capacity, and BBC News is exploring “a new role…that will enable him to continue to provide original and compelling journalism” on both television and other platforms.

Keane joined the British-based news organization in 1989, initially serving as BBC’s Northern Ireland correspondent. He later moved to a role that saw him covering conflict and other matters in South Africa and Asia; he won an Amnesty television award in 1994 for his coverage that took a deep dive into the genocide in Rwanda.

Keane is not the first BBC reporter to speak openly about a PTSD diagnosis: His colleague Jeremy Bowen, who served as the organization’s Middle East editor, told the Radio Times in 2017 he was suffering from bouts of depression linked to PTSD. In May 2000, a driver assigned to Bowen was killed by Israeli forces while covering that country’s withdrawal from Lebanon.

BBC Middle East editor Jeremy Bowen. (Photograph: Good Morning Britain/ITV)

“It was a really, really awful event, Abed’s death and its repercussions,” Bowen told the newspaper. “His wife died not long after, sadly; she had cancer and I’m sure it was related to the grief. Some of his kids went off the rails for a while…they were teenage boys and suddenly they didn’t have a dad.”

Studies have shown that journalists who cover traumatic events, including war, are more likely to develop symptoms associated with post traumatic stress, depression and other mental and behavioral ailments.

A 2002 study cited by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) revealed journalists who covered traumatic events were more likely to consume high amounts of alcohol and suffer from post traumatic stress compared to other journalists. The lifetime prevalence rate of post traumatic stress was nearly 29 percent while the lifetime prevalence of depression was 21 percent — rates higher than those found in the general population. The study found conflict journalists were “no more likely” to seek mental health treatment than their peers who did not cover war.

Another study found 6 percent of photojournalists who covered traumatic events were more likely to suffer from post traumatic stress, with photographers who regularly cover things like war and conflict suffering from those same effects at a higher rate. The study found “only 11 percent of the photojournalists reported that they were advised by their employers of the potential impact of the job,” and only one in four photographers were offered counseling through their employer.

“Although most journalists do not report chronic distress associated with their jobs, several recent studies have documented increased rates of psychological distress for some journalists, especially those, such as war correspondents, whose assignments involve life threat and witnessing death, dying, and human suffering,” the VA said in a note on the matter. “These studies highlight that journalism can be a profession bearing some risk of physical harm and long-term emotional distress and that the greater the level of exposure, the greater the risk of distress. Yet, the literature also indicates that few employers of photojournalists recognize the stress and negative impact on mental health that is associated with some assignments. Even fewer employers offer counseling services and education about PTSD symptoms.”