Harvard journalism magazine Nieman Reports has a brief 2004 article (pdf) by psychiatrist Anthony Feinstein on how war journalists respond to what they witness and why they return to cover traumatic situations.
The article briefly summarises some of Feinstein’s research on war journalists, and also notes the results on an interesting study that looked at differences between final year journalism students who wanted to become war journalists, and those who did not.
Given the dangers confronted, the high mortality, and increased risk of developing PTSD and depression, what motivates journalists to return repeatedly to war zones?
The journalists in my study spent, on average, 15 years covering war. Those I interviewed spoke of factors such as the importance of bearing witness, keeping the public informed of important events, having a ringside seat as history unfolded, and personal ambition. Yet there seems to be another pivotal factor that may override all of these. There is evidence that individuals who are attracted to risky and dangerous professions are to a high degree biologically primed for this type of activity…
Preliminary data from a recently completed study in my laboratory demonstrate that final year Canadian journalism students who propose following a career in foreign lands not only have a fundamentally different personality profile from their peers who wish to remain at home, but also possess different cognitive attributes. This last point refers to a certain pattern of thinking and approach to problem solving that correlates with well-defined neural networks.
Feinstein has written a book on the subject called Dangerous Lives that apparently explains his work in more detail.
pdf of ‘The Psychological Hazards of War Journalism’.