Tag Archives: Fergal Keane

On war reporting and trauma, then and now

PERUGIA, Italy–At the International Journalism Festival, the psychological toll of war reporting vies for attention with the role of fact checking in this record “Year Elections” and the fast-developing impacts of artificial intelligence. A few presentations here on conflict coverage provided contemporary perspectives on my work about early 20th century American journalists in revolutionary Ireland.

BBC journalist and author Fergal Keane, born in London and raised in Ireland, spoke about his latest book, The Madness: A Memoir of War, Fear, and PTSD. As described by the Guardian, “The book traces a line back through the alcoholism that killed his father to his ‘family history of hunger and war’ in Ireland: the famine of the 19th century and then the bloody fight for independence. His grandmother received an injured veteran’s pension for her role in a conflict as brutal as those Keane went on to cover.[1]Emma Graham-Harrison, “The Madness by Fergal Keane review–the BBC correspondent on conflict, fear and PTSD, The Guardian, Nov. 17, 2022.

At #IJF24, Keane described his decades of war coverage as the manifestation of an addictive personality. “There’s never such a feeling of being alive in places with such a close presence of death,” he said. And unlike other addictions, this one came with more praise and awards the longer he continued; unlike the alcoholic or drug addict who engenders growing disgust and disdain with each episode of bad behavior.

“A big war is the biggest story in the world,” Keane said. “It’s natural for a journalist to want to be there.”

Fergal Keane and BBC colleague Richard Colebourn seated opposite their images on the screen at the International Journalism Festival, Perugia, Italy, on April 19.

But by January 2020, recently named the BBC’s Africa chief, Keane experienced three breakdowns and landed in a locked psyche ward. “You don’t’ notice that your (mental) defenses have crumbled,” he said.

Writing The Madness became part of his “reckoning,” Keane said. He quoted the poet Robert Lowell, “Why not say what happened.”[2]Epilogue” from Day by Day, 1977. That’s also natural for journalists.

In his 2017 book Wounds: A Memoir of War and Love, Keane detailed how his grandmother, Hannah Purtill, her brother, Mick, and his friend Con Brosnan, in North Kerry took up arms against the British Army. The trauma she suffered manifest itself as depression he observed as a boy in the 1960s. Keane also described the revolutionary period as “a heroic myth.”

Not every war correspondent gets PTSD, Keane noted. He also was sympathetic to journalists, especially freelancers, who do not have access to the same high-level mental health care that he accessed through as a BBC employee. Keane praised the younger generation of correspondents as being more “emotionally literate” about such care, and he scoffed at the notion there was ever a “golden age” of war reporters.

At another #IJF24 war coverage panel, the BBC’s Jeremy Bowen, a veteran of 20 conflict zones, said he doesn’t care for the phrase war reporter. “I prefer journalist,” he said. “You are there to be accurate, fair, and empathetic. You are there to work out the truth.”

Jodie Ginsberg, CEO of the Committee to Protect Journalists, said domestic journalists in conflict zones, including the so-called “fixers” who assist visiting correspondents, usually have the toughest challenges during a war. “You are reporting on your family and friends, and you can’t go home.” She said social media reporting has made these domestic reporters more visible targets to hostile regimes or insurgents.

From left to right, Jeremy Bowen of the BBC; moderator Janie DiGiovanni of The Reckoning Project; photographer Ron Haviv; and Jodie Ginsberg of the Committee to Protect Journalists. Image on the screen is Haviv’s work from Bosnia.


1 Emma Graham-Harrison, “The Madness by Fergal Keane review–the BBC correspondent on conflict, fear and PTSD, The Guardian, Nov. 17, 2022.
2 Epilogue” from Day by Day, 1977.