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New Guide Offers Dialogue and Guidance on Vicarious Trauma

Our third handbook is about the challenges posed by vicarious trauma, and provides practical tips and guidance to journalists, newsroom managers and universities.

Journalism and Vicarious Trauma Guide
Illustrations by Hannah Barrett

“Twenty years ago, we’d have maybe two edits from the Hungarian border because of the cost of doing feeds, and it would have been packaged on the ground, you’d get broadcastable packages. Now everything just comes in…that filter has disappeared.” As this agency journalist explains, the amount of graphic content journalists view every day on their computers has increased substantially. Furthermore research has shown that levels of vicarious trauma in newsroom staff is also on the rise. The sheer number of images and videos shot by eyewitnesses, but also the unfiltered nature of the content, has bought the realities of the field into the newsroom.

In our third handbook, “Journalism and Vicarious Trauma: A Guide for Journalists, Editors and News Organisations,” Sam Dubberley and Michele Grant have written about the challenges posed by vicarious trauma and provide practical tips and guidance. The guide is relevant for journalists at different stages of their newsroom careers as well as decision makers in the newsroom and human resources departments. The guide will also be useful for journalism professors who need to equip future journalists with the tools to cope with the new realities of the job.

Journalism and Vicarious TraumaWe define vicarious trauma in the guide as exposure to distressing images and videos that can cause similar emotional responses as when someone witnesses trauma firsthand in the field.  The risk of vicarious trauma is supported by research from Eyewitness Media Hub in its report, “Making Secondary Trauma a Primary Issue: A Study of Eyewitness Media and Vicarious Trauma on the Digital Frontline,” and argues that as well as geographic frontlines, we need to think about the digital frontline. Some people experience trauma by shutting down, being aggressive, using drugs or alcohol to escape, among many other signs that are outlined in this guide.

“When I was working at Storyful in 2012, we quickly learned the impact on social journalists who are regularly exposed to graphic eyewitness media as part of their jobs. Different types of content acted as different kinds of triggers and people were affected in different ways,” says First Draft Research Director Claire Wardle. “This Guide is an important addition to discussions about vicarious trauma, as it provides practical tips for spotting the impact on yourself and colleagues, and provides frameworks for managers and educators. I hope it becomes required reading within newsrooms and at J-Schools.”

The guide includes coping strategies like breathing techniques, meditation and the PEACE Formula:

  • Pace, ask yourself how fast am I going?
  • Energy, what are my energy patterns?
  • Accepting/adapting, how can I adapt to take account of my needs?
  • Choice, where can I choose to focus my attention?
  • Esteem, what kind of messages am I giving myself?

We’re glad to see that we’re not the only organization that is providing resources to journalists and newsrooms. Gavin Rees at the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma recently published a guide to developing individualized operating procedures for handling traumatic imagery.

“All of us working in newsrooms know the value of dramatic and powerful eyewitness material. But I don’t know if we’ve fully considered the impact that working first hand with distressing UGC can have on ourselves and on those in our teams,” says Hazel Baker, Global Head of UGC Newsgathering at Reuters.

Journalism and Vicarious Trauma

Those reporters who have been working at the front lines of social journalism for the past decade are increasingly vocal about the impact of viewing graphic imagery. As Malachy Browne, previously at Storyful and Reportedly, and now a Senior Story Producer at the New York Times explains, “The available research is important in creating awareness of the potential trauma that over-exposure to graphic content can cause and how symptoms can present. Hearing the experiences of other journalists and newsrooms are helpful in putting structures in place to minimize the adverse effects of this type of work.”

There is no “one size fits all” approach in the area of vicarious trauma or in mental health. Each individual, manager, organization, student or university is different, so the guide offers a variety of resources to those asking questions about the risks associated with journalists viewing traumatic content.

Guide co-writer Michele Grant, who runs specialized workshops on vicarious trauma says it’s too easy to ignore the signs of vicarious trauma until you’re dealing with a mental health crisis. “The more we are able to recognise the risks and signs of vicarious trauma, the better we are able to manage ourselves as well as noticing what’s happening to colleagues. Talking about VT and developing peer support are powerful ways to make a big difference in the modern news business.”

Download the new guide

Thanks to Sam and Michele for writing such an important and useful handbook. Be sure to check out our previous guides: “Guide on Working With Social Sources,” which answers 10 key questions you will face working with status updates on social networks and online platforms and “Guide to Copyright Law and Eyewitness Media, which gives an overview of eyewitness media and copyright law regimes in six countries.

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A project of the Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center, First Draft News is an open-access site that provides practical and ethical guidance in how to find, verify and publish content sourced from the social web.