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First Draft News
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Inside Storyful: Vicarious trauma and ensuring the well-being of the newsroom

Storyful journalist Derek Bowler discusses the important steps taken by the company to ensure the well-being of the newsroom, how companies need to support staff, and what to do if you feel you’ve been adversely affected by dramatic and graphic content

Journalists at Storyful witness some of the most graphic and disturbing content emerging from social media on a minute-by-minute basis. Though these journalists are not directly involved in the events they report, the repeated exposure to distressing images, and the need to analyse them closely for verification purposes, can have an emotional effect. This can manifest itself in a form of vicarious trauma.

Since the emergence of social media in the mid-2000s, journalists in the course of their work have become increasingly exposed to unfiltered and uncontextualized content. When Storyful was founded in 2010, journalists at the company witnessed a coming of age for social media reporting during the Arab Spring. As activists, rights campaigners, and local witnesses used their phones to share their stories of era-defining events, journalists at Storyful were presented with unmediated and graphic evidence of brutality, human rights abuses, and even alleged war crimes.

But what kind of trauma might a journalist experience, and how does it present itself?

“Vicarious traumatization (VT) is a transformation in the self of a trauma worker or helper that results from empathic engagement with traumatized clients and their reports of traumatic experiences.” (Courtois,1993).

According to the Dart Centre, writing in the context of journalists, trauma can cause a triad of disabling responses, including: recurring intrusive recollections; emotional numbing and constriction of life activity; and a physiological shift in the fear threshold, affecting sleep, concentration, and sense of security.

A study carried out by Eyewitness Media Hub found that individuals working with content of a graphic or distressing nature were most affected:

  • when they were not expecting to see something distressing
  • when they were repeatedly exposed to distressing content
  • when they were looking for or at distressing content which was then not subsequently used in news output, reporting or advocacy campaigns
  • when content reminded the individual of personal experiences or was in some way connected to them
  • when the audio in a video contained sounds of human suffering such as screaming or people begging for their lives

Based on these findings, the report recommends that the same duty of care taken with journalists in the field is taken with their office-based colleagues.

Knowing yourself

Symptoms of vicarious trauma can vary from person to person and they can present themselves in many different ways. Anxiousness, irritability, trouble sleeping, depression, lack of motivation, an over dependence on alcohol and medication and a withdrawal from social activities have all be recognized as possible tell-tale signs.

The Storyful Way

In conjunction with Abate Counselling and EAP Ltd, a counselling service based in Dublin, Storyful has introduced an Employee Assistance Program (EAP), a confidential service which offers journalists at the company help in dealing with problems that might impair their work performance, health and well-being. It is also a safe space for employees to get professional help to deal with trauma, workplace issues, or the impact of internal or external triggers of stress in their personal lives.

The service is available 24/7, and staff are given a code number to ensure confidentiality. No one at Storyful knows which individuals, if any, are availing of the service.

As well as the Employee Assistance Program, Storyful has taken several further approaches to ensuring the well-being of staff. These tips may help both you and your organization to do the same:

  • Encourage members to be vocal about their experiences in team meetings, story debriefs and in one-on-one meetings with line managers.
  • Don’t allow staffers to overburden themselves. They should take regular breaks and try and get out of the office when shifts finish.
  • If a staff member is not comfortable covering a story, they should feel encouraged to tell their manager(s). Staff should know saying “no” doesn’t make them a bad journalist or a weak link.
  • Editors should ensure they are monitoring staff for signs of trauma and fatigue. If they see the signs of stress or trauma, they should assign the journalist another task. Talk to them. See how they are doing. Asking if someone is OK can make a world of difference.
  • Vary the roster and don’t overexpose staff to graphic and distressing content over a prolonged period.
  • Seek professional help for physical and/or mental health problems.
  • Build a support network. Encourage team-building exercises and social events to bring the team closer together.
  • When staff are off work, they should truly be “off”. Journalists should try to limit access to work email and clients while out of the office.
  • Try and maintain a healthy lifestyle. Maintain social activities and commitments.
  • Connect with natural support systems (friends, family, etc).

What can I do if I see a colleague in distress? Listen, Support, Refer

  • Listen: Ask how they are and make sure you can spend sufficient time with them, simply listening. Let them do the talking.
  • Support: Advise them to talk to their line manager. Advise them to think about some everyday practical solutions that might help. One option might be to change shifts for a while so that they don’t have consecutive days looking at similar footage.
  • Refer: Advise them to consider using the Employee Assistance Program [EAP]

If you have been affected by any of the issues raised in this article, please seek help.

If you wish to share your stories of dealing with graphic imagery or vicarious trauma, email [email protected]

Useful resources

  • Eyewitness Media Hub’s Making Secondary Trauma a Primary Issue: A Study of Eyewitness Media and Vicarious Trauma on the Digital Frontline. View the full report here
  • The Poynter Institute’s webinars on journalists and trauma and Trauma Awareness: What Every Journalist Needs to Know
  • A playlist by Mandy Jenkins, Head of News at Storyful, of videos discussing journalism and the impact of vicarious trauma
  • A PTSD treatment program offered to journalists by The Traumatic Stress Clinic at the University of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia

See this Pack for more articles about Vicarious Trauma on First Draft News.

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