Trauma Study

Protecting yourself from trauma on the digital frontline

Editors note: Guest contribution by Sam Dubberley from the Eyewitness Media Hub about their new study on the risk of secondary trauma when working with citizen media. The study is based on an online survey of 209 professionals in the journalism, human rights and humanitarian field, in addition to 38 in-depth interviews and a review of relevant literature. 

I work on the Digital Frontline – how should I protect myself from the traumatic content I’m seeing?

We at Eyewitness Media Hub have just completed a research project entitled Making Secondary Trauma a Primary Issue: A Study of Eyewitness Media and Vicarious Trauma on the Digital Frontline. In this research, we report on how human rights organizations and their managers need to start taking the issue of vicarious trauma seriously when asking researchers and investigators at headquarters to use eyewitness media or user-generated content (eyewitness media or UGC refers to photographs or videos captured by people around the world on their smartphones and used by, for example, human rights, humanitarian or news organizations) to investigate potential human rights violations.  Our research shows that human rights organizations are failing in their duty of care to professionals working with this content, and that these professionals are scared about admitting to their managers that they are having a hard time dealing with some of the more distressing images they are seeing day in day out.

We’ve now published the full findings of the report – which is available online here.  In the report we call on the management of human rights organizations to provide training as a matter of course – in the same way that they now provide hostile environments training.  

Why do we make this call?  Because the results show just how much traumatic content human rights professionals working with social media are seeing.   Over half of the human rights professionals surveyed are viewing distressing eyewitness media several times a week.  

Frequency of exposure to traumatic eyewitness media Percentage of Human Rights / Humanitarian Workers
Daily 24%
Several times a week 33%
Once per week 8%
Several times a month 17%
Once per month 8%
Less than once per month 11%

In our interviews, those human rights professionals who worked at organizations that did acknowledge that viewing distressing imagery at headquarters was an issue for their staff spoke more highly of their organization.  Those working for organizations that did not see it as an issue spoke of colleagues who had been signed off sick through stress or who had even resigned from successful careers.  Not acknowledging this is becoming a human resources issue.

Changing organizations is a big challenge. It’s an issue we’ll be working on at Eyewitness Media Hub as we take this issue forward. Our goal is to build coalitions of organizations who care about this issue to share best practices and build awareness.  It’s one of our biggest goals of 2016.

Here, however, we want to focus on some of the tips that we gleaned from talking to journalists and human rights workers who work regularly with eyewitness media and view traumatic content, and answer the question of: “I work on the digital frontline, I’ve just seen a lot of distressing content, how can I protect myself?”

1.Limit your exposure to sound

One social media professional told us that: “Sound makes the impact more real.” This was an issue we heard again and again when speaking to journalists working on the digital frontline.  People spoke of the horrific imagery they’d seen, but noted that hearing violence or people screaming in agony or to save their lives made distress they experienced more acute.  

“Usually I watch the video without sound after I hear it once because then I know if there’s anything relevant in there or not and then I always turn it off for that specific reason that it always makes it rougher to watch,” one person told us. Another emphasized how: “When I click on some links, I have the headphones off my ears, I have the audio on low.”  

Tip: When viewing eyewitness media that you think could be traumatic or distressing, consider only listening to the audio if it’s truly necessary.

2. Surprise makes viewing horrific imagery more traumatic

“Definitely unexpected things – it makes it harder. If you know what to expect, blood, killings, it’s not easy to watch of course, but if you know what’s coming it makes it a bit better.”  Frequently human rights professionals told us about the difficulty of viewing traumatic content that they weren’t ready to see.  This problem is exacerbated as contemporary workflows mean that each and every person working in an office or newsroom has access to each and every picture.  Conducting investigations through social media means that somebody is going to see distressing images that they weren’t prepared to see – but then workflows and consideration should mean that the surprise doesn’t spread from there.

Tip: Ensure graphic content when put on a server is labelled as such, and if you’re sharing content with colleagues, tell them before they see it that they may find it distressing

3. Managers, make your workplace culture one in which people feel comfortable speaking about viewing distressing images

Our research illustrated that people who have been distressed by seeing traumatic content are less likely to say they would talk about it with their peers or managers than those who have not. 

Do not feel affected by viewing

distressing content

Feel affected by viewing

distressing content

n=209 Personally Professionally Personally Professionally
Percentage of those surveyed who would feel comfortable speaking about their feelings about traumatic eyewitness media with their manager 54% 51% 38% 32%

Of those we surveyed, 38 percent who felt they had been affected in their personal lives by viewing distressing content said they would feel comfortable talking about it to their manager.  This rose to 54 percent for those who did not feel that they had been affected.

In our interviews, those who worked in organizations where their managers and workplace culture were conducive to speaking about the traumatic impact of viewing distressing content spoke more highly of their organization.  One manager summed up their approach to leading a team who looked frequently at traumatic imagery. “I blub by example, as it were. If you think if somebody realizes you’re impacted by it, it might make you feel more approachable.”

Tip: Work on building a workplace culture where people feel comfortable in speaking about the effect of viewing traumatic imagery.

4. Only ask social media specialists to verify or look for content that could well be traumatic if it’s going to be used.

Verification is a long manual process that can mean going through a video frame by frame. This can be particularly burdensome and distressing if this is a video that shows a traumatic event.  As another journalist told us: “I feel more depressed when I go through a lot of UGC and it is not used.”

Tip: Only ask a social media specialist to find or verify content of a traumatic event if it’s actually going to be used.

5. Different people have different coping mechanisms to mitigate the effect of viewing distressing images.

Interviewees raised the varied mechanisms they used to cope after viewing distressing eyewitness media. While in the office, these included: “Keeping open a window showing a Tumblr feeds of cute dogs”, “Checking out Taylor Swift’s Instagram feed”, “Getting out of the office for a walk and a chat to a friend”.  The coping mechanisms were varied – but worked for the individual interviewee.  

Tip: Different coping mechanisms work for different people. Social media professionals should think about what works for them and managers should understand and support them.

We’re sure that others have other tips that work for them when using distressing eyewitness media.  Share them with us.

The views expressed are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the positions of Amnesty International