Addressing the impact of ‘vicarious trauma’

In the last 18 months, as the volume of online visual horror from Syria and Iraq has increased, media managers are rethinking ways to address trauma as it affects journalists on the desk as something different to the kind of post-traumatic stress faced by reporters in the field.

Sam Dubberley, co-founder of Eyewitness Media, spoke to News Re:Wired in London last month about his research on “vicarious trauma” for journalists tracking violent user generated content (UGC) on social media. Their study found that 46% of those surveyed said that seeing traumatic content has had a negative impact on their personal life. Some raised fears that admitting trauma to managers could impact their career.

Dubberley thinks there is a “gap that needs to be bridged” between senior management and their journalists and reporters.  His report discovered a gap between managers and staff with more direct contact with the traumatic experience. “51% of journalists felt they could discuss their feelings about traumatic UGC with their managers, but not about how this content is affecting their personal life.”

The reports also cited a number of incidents where emotional responses were triggered by other connections to incidents of violence or death – particularly where the staffer felt a level of responsibility for the directly affected victim.

One audience member commented: “It’s not just an individual thing, it’s a management thing. From years of working with war correspondents, the most undermining thing is inconsistent leadership, unwarranted requests from managers.”

But Dubblerley is optimistic: “We’re in a place now where we can help protect journalists (behind the desks) like we protect correspondents going into war zones.”

Another speaker was Gavin Rees, director of the Dart Centre for Journalism & Trauma, providing information for media workers on how trauma impacts on working life. They deal with self-care, but also challenges like how to work with team members who have been bereaved or abused or witnessed bad things.

Rees says we should understand trauma in the same way as toxic radiation: that there’s a certain point where the dose levels become potentially dangerous, and another when it becomes actually so. He says that you may dilute the effect by limiting exposure or balancing it with less traumatising work. Rees says the phases of greatest vulnerability are at the beginning of careers, when you are not sufficiently stress-inoculated, and the end of careers, when you have been over-exposed.

But being exposed to trauma doesn´t necessarily make you ill. It´s to do with volume and vulnerability, says Rees. Desensitisation is complicated – it is an emotional response in itself. “The body’s defence mechanisms evolved millions of years before social media. If we’re watching information-rich media, your body doesn’t know you’re not in Syria, standing next to the person who’s just beheaded somebody.

When we expose ourselves to traumatic imagery, one of the impacts of distress is it hampers our ability to process complex information, he says. “Unspoken distress in the air in newsrooms can impact the way journalists collaborate with each other.

Somebody working immersively for a long period of time on sexual violence might start streaming in their heads the accounts they’ve been told by other people. “There is a primary importance – journalists have to take this seriously. We’ve been hampered by not understanding what distress is. Distress doesn’t make you psychologically ill.”

He advised people at risk from vicarious trauma to have a preventative self-help plan and for managers to pay attention to people in UGC teams with a disproportionate burden of trauma to address, such as Arabic language speakers vetting videos and directly talking to the directly affected. People need to learn from war correspondents, investigative reporters, Rees added. Knowledge sharing is the best way of pushing back and exercising control.

“The most upsetting thing is when sources stop communicating – and you know they’ve been killed,” said fellow speaker Fergus Bell, head of newsroom partnerships and innovation at SAM, the Canadian-based curation platform. The anticipation of possible loss was also hard, “especially communicating with people in Syria, where it’s been so many years now”.

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