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Making Secondary Trauma a Primary Issue: A Study of Eyewitness Media and Vicarious Trauma on the Digital Frontline

AFP/Ozan Kose

This report presents the findings of an in-depth study into the impact that viewing traumatic eyewitness media has upon the mental health of staff working for news, human rights and humanitarian organisations.

By Sam Dubberley, Elizabeth Griffin and Haluk Mert Bal


This report presents the findings of an in-depth study into the impact that viewing traumatic eyewitness media has upon the mental health of staff working for news, human rights and humanitarian organisations.


I see blood every day. I see bleeding bodies every day and I cannot think about this clinically or scientifically. I cannot look at cut off limbs without thinking ‘Oh my God’.

One may be forgiven for thinking that this quote is from a journalist who is speaking about their experiences reporting from the frontline of a war zone or the scene of a manmade or natural disaster. This is not, however, the case. This journalist has never worked outside of the European headquarters of their organisation. The experience that they describe refers solely to the horrific content that regularly explodes onto their computer screen via social media. Viewing disturbing imagery all day, every day and seeing unexpectedly violent and distressing images is now a common task assigned to staff working in the headquarters of the large news, human rights and humanitarian organisations located thousands of miles away from where the actual horrors occurs.

Since the advent of social media, the work of a sub-section of journalists, humanitarian and human rights professionals is to seek out, verify and edit the most disturbing and traumatic raw images captured by non professionals and posted online. This workflow involves sifting through massive volumes of eyewitness media images and videos and looking at, or watching footage over and over again, to verify its veracity and edit out images that are deemed too extreme for the general public.

The incredible and rapid growth of eyewitness media (also known as user-generated content or UGC) has meant that symptoms associated with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) – which were previously only observed in professionals deployed in the field – are now evident amongst staff working in headquarters who use eyewitness media to improve their reporting, operations, storytelling, investigations, prosecutions and advocacy. Whether it is a broadcaster, publisher, human rights or humanitarian organisation, PTSD is now a real and serious issues for office bound staff.

Global news organisations publish eyewitness media content every day. News agencies gather eyewitness media content to cover stories where professional cameras were, or are not present. Usually this means that either in the immediate aftermath of breaking news or when covering events in locations that journalists are unable to access eyewitness media is the key resource that will document a story. Many organisations have created and developed dedicated teams or hired specialised journalists to work with eyewitness media. The impact of viewing large volumes of traumatic and disturbing content is an area that has not, thus far, been given much attention by academic researchers and the managers of news, human rights and humanitarian organisations. Wardle et al refer to the impact upon staff of viewing distressing images in their 2014 study of the use of eyewitness media content across broadcast news organisations. In 2014, Feinstein et al are amongst the first to conclude that viewing eyewitness media can lead journalists to experience symptoms of PTSD.

The term PTSD was first used in studies of Vietnam War veterans. These studies: “Revealed that a specific pattern of psychological and physical symptoms could emerge from the experience of an extremely traumatic or stressful event. PTSD occurs as a result of events which are “outside the realm of normal human experience and cause intense feelings of horror and helplessness” such as “witnessing a murder, being raped, or being a prisoner of war” and “shootings, witnessing death, or any incident involving a child in trouble. PTSD develops as a response to experiencing these kinds of traumatic events. In 2004, Feinstein suggested that PTSD wasn’t just impacting soldiers. He demonstrated that war reporters can also show “symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), major depression and general psychological distress.

The most recent edition of its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V), the American Psychiatric Association has been updated and now concludes that PTSD can be brought on vicariously through the viewing of video or images of a traumatic event if this viewing is work related. DSM-V now states: “Experiencing repeated or extreme exposure to aversive details of the traumatic event(s)” can lead to PTSD or PTSD-related symptoms. This “does not apply to exposure through electronic media, television, movies, or pictures, unless this exposure is work related. Vicarious trauma can lead to PTSD.

Feinstein et al. in 2014 build upon this conclusion, noting that: “Frequency of exposure to UGC independently and consistently predict[s] multiple indices of psychopathology, be they related to anxiety, depression, PTSD or alcohol consumption. While no such study into the impact of eyewitness media exists for workers in human rights or humanitarian professions, recent research by the Guardian newspaper suggests that there is “a trauma crisis among aid workers.

The recent acknowledgement that vicarious trauma – that is, work-related exposure to the extreme details of a traumatic event – is a pathway that can lead to PTSD is the starting point of our research.

In this report, we examine the extent and impact of vicarious trauma on professionals working in newsrooms, human rights and humanitarian organisations. We demonstrate that some organisations are, to a certain extent, recognising the impact of vicarious trauma on staff, whilst some are not. We examine how organisations are tackling the impact that eyewitness media has upon their organisations and staff.

Our research methodology included an anonymous online survey which resulted in 209 responses. We also undertook 38 in-depth interviews with professionals working in news, human rights and humanitarian organisations in addition to a comprehensive literature review.

The traumatic impact of viewing distressing eyewitness media was evident in staff working within all three sectors that are the focus of this report. We encountered several cases of workers being signed-off on long-term sick leave, staff who had themselves decided to undergo counselling to treat PTSD. We spoke to people who were at breaking point and wept whilst describing how their lives had been badly affected by viewing traumatic eyewitness media. Many reported having flashbacks, nightmares, paranoia and feelings of isolation, disassociation and a loss of faith in humanity. We talked to human rights investigators who had lost all faith in their management’s ability to help or care for them – for whom it was a battle to move desks to simply sit by a window. We spoke with a number of talented individuals who had abandoned successful careers because they simply could not cope with the trauma of watching horrific eyewitness media for organisations that gave them little or no support.

This study builds upon research by Feinstein et al noted above that proved that viewing distressing eyewitness media can lead to vicarious trauma and PTSD. Whether it is a broadcaster, publisher, human rights or humanitarian professional, symptoms associated with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) – which were previously only observed in professionals deployed in the field – are now evident amongst staff working in offices on the digital frontline.

But another core finding is that vicarious trauma is now being recognised more widely as a real and serious issue. We found that an increasing number of organisations are attempting to prevent, mitigate and address the effects of vicarious trauma experienced by desk-based workers who work with eyewitness media. We found that some organisations – most notably news organisations – are starting to take the issue of vicarious trauma more seriously and that they are trying to offer support to staff, albeit often in non-institutionalised ways. Sadly, however, we discovered an institutional culture of indifference or even denial of vicarious trauma was prevalent, within human rights and humanitarian organisations in particular.

This report contains seven distinct sections. We start by exploring the amount of traumatic eyewitness media that is being viewed by those whose jobs it is to do so. We illustrate that the frontline has expanded to encompass headquarters where horrific images are viewed every day. We then explore the kinds of imagery that professionals reported that they find to be traumatic. The report then turns to examine the impact that viewing traumatic eyewitness media has upon the individual. We follow this up with a discussion of both managerial best practices and failures to assist professionals who view distressing eyewitness media and who display clear symptoms of PTSD. We examine the failure on the part of both educational institutions and organisations to to warn and prepare professionals that they could be faced with distressing imagery before working with eyewitness media. Finally, we map the training that is available in organisations today. We conclude this report with recommendations for professionals, managers, human resource departments and universities.

Our hope is that this study will prompt organisations to recognise that they have a duty of care for their staff. This duty of care involves developing mandatory training to prepare staff and provide ongoing support for the evidently traumatic impact of working with eyewitness media. Field staff deployed in dangerous places, for example war zones, now undergo hostile environment training as a matter of course. Our findings illustrate that as the frontline has now expanded to headquarters, organisations must also provide meaningful preparation and ongoing support for staff that frequently view distressing eyewitness media on the ever expanding digital frontline.

– For the methodology, findings and conclusions, see

Download a PDF of the report