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

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.2 Whether it is a broadcaster, publisher, human rights or humanitarian organisation, PTSD is now a real and serious issues for office bound staff.3

Sam Dubberley, Elizabeth Griffin, & Haluk Mert Bal | 2015
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