Breaking news, not breaking people: News outlets need to cooperate on vicarious trauma

'No organisation has truly found a way to solve the problem' of vicarious trauma caused by graphic images , says Eyewitness Media Hub's Sam Dubberley

News is traumatic. When there are enough smartphones and social media accounts for everyone on the planet, pictures of newsworthy images spread fast – posted to YouTube, to Twitter, to Facebook, Instagram and more. Footage of air strikes, war crimes, protests, plane crashes, police shootings, bombings and massacres need to be verified and filtered by journalists before they reach the public. This can affect journalists in different ways.

The majority of the many questions we received when we launched our research report highlighting the issue of vicarious trauma in newsrooms asked  “what can I do about it?”, “how do I make sure I look after myself?”. These are good questions. It pushed us to write tips on this site that emerged from the research. We listed some of the most common coping mechanisms we encountered. We hope they have been useful for social media journalists who view distressing eyewitness media in their work.

What we’ve realised, however, is there is a question far more important than “what can I do about it?”  The question that needs to be asked across the news industry by everyone who works with eyewitness media is: “How is my organisation set up to deal with eyewitness media and vicarious trauma?”

It’s hard for the social media producer sitting in a large newsroom to raise these questions, to go to their manager in the middle of a horrendous breaking news story and say “I’m not feeling well because of all these images”. Our research illustrated this. And, as they view much less content than the journalists, managers are not as likely to be aware of the issues that viewing traumatic imagery raise. But this managerial acknowledgement is the key to raising awareness and helping individuals cope with the volume of distressing imagery they view every week.

In our research, we highlighted the varied ways in which organisations deal with issues of vicarious trauma – from those who know there is a problem but don’t really know what to do about it, to those organisations that do not know there is a problem and, therefore, do nothing. No organisation has found ways to truly solve the problem.

Here are some of the biggest organisational challenges we found at news organisations:

  • News organisations are starting to recognise the impact on their staff of viewing traumatic content – however, the systems they have in place haven’t caught up to the reality of the volume of distressing imagery their social media journalists view on a weekly basis.
  • Many organisations treat the effect of viewing traumatic imagery as they would a physical injury. They treat their staff when they’re injured, but don’t do much to ensure they don’t get injured in the first place.
  • Junior journalists stated that they would be reluctant to raise issues around viewing distressing imagery with their managers as they perceive that doing so may have a negative impact upon their career. One junior social media producer at a large news agency stated that: “I would be a bit worried about my career progression if I did say I don’t want to work on a particular issue.”
  • The biggest challenge for senior managers who recognised vicarious trauma as an issue was to raise the same awareness among mid-level managers. This was iterated by a journalist we spoke to: “I know our line managers are aware of the issues, they say their doors are always open but as a journalist you don’t want to be the one to raise your hand to say ‘I can’t do the job’.” Breaking down this barrier is a key task of managers.

These findings are guiding us towards our next steps in our work on vicarious trauma. We have a vision to create a set of guidelines that can be easily implemented by any organisation – global or local, rich or poor – that uses content sourced from social media. To achieve this we will raise a coalition of news and human rights organisations involving staff members from every level of the organisation to share best practices, worst practices and experiences. As we build the guidelines and the resources to help with vicarious trauma we want coalition members to give us their feedback, to criticise, to help us build them. We’re working very closely with the Antares Foundation and the International Trauma Studies Program to do this contributing their expertise in trauma management and training to the project. It starts the coalition moving in the right direction.

Why a coalition?  Because we believe, in this sphere, some things are not competitive. Of course, when it comes to finding the pictures, to discovery, to verification – each organisation wants the scoop. It wants to find the pictures first. It wants to reach its audience first. However, it doesn’t have to be like that for issues of occupational health. Just like news crews in war zones create ad-hoc pools to minimise the risk to each other, this is one area where we can replace competition with cooperation. The health of their staff is one area where people at all levels of news organisations can truly help each other.

And why should news outlets want to do this? It’s about the culture of an organisation, and making it a satisfying place to work, improving output and, ultimately, improving social media storytelling. As one social media producer told us: “There is a culture here that encourages us to seek help from our managers and/or the helpline or counsellors should we need it. It was a very pleasant surprise; this is the nicest newsroom I have been in by a long way. The other organisations made us feel like it would be a sign of weakness to admit that you are not coping.”

We’ll be contacting organisations we know as we go forward with this project to ask them to join this coalition, to work towards building these guidelines, to helping us all work better with traumatic imagery and ensure that news organisations can do what they do best – using eyewitness media to tell better stories.  If you’d like to join us in this, please do contact us directly.

Update: This article has been updated to include the involvement of the Antares Foundation and International Trauma Studies Program.