The phenomenon of such large amounts of user-generated content being shared on social networks means that newsrooms face a number of new types of responsibilities. These can include consideration for the health and safety of people who are not trained journalists but are sometimes putting their lives in danger to capture pictures, or consideration for the welfare of their own journalists who are watching this content for long periods of time. As one former journalist wrote, everyone now has access to these images, and we don’t know what the consequences might be: I know from sitting on a night shift, taking in pictures from plane crashes and bombs and things, I cannot forget what I saw; horrible things and the sounds of cameramen being sick and awful, awful sights that are seared in my memory. And I remember my son saying he’d looked at something on Twitter and said, “Mum, I can’t bleach my brain. I can’t get that out of my head now. It’s just too horrible. And he’s not young. But for young people who could come across this stuff, the emotional blunting of trauma is not to be underestimated. And then it just becomes normal, seeing horrific beheadings being shared on Facebook and thinking that’s normal. So I worry that the psychological trauma is underestimated, and who knows what kind of an insidious effect it’s going to have long-term on people.” There is certainly a great deal of discussion taking place within newsrooms around these issues, and there are initiatives such as the Social Newsgathering group within the Online News Association considering these topics. Academic research is demonstrating empirically what people have suspected for a while in terms of vicarious trauma. Awareness is being raised, which can only be a good thing. Deborah Rayner of CNN raised one particularly interesting point, however, along a similar vein: the impact of trauma on the overall news agenda. She argued, “I think actually the bigger worry is that when you see more horror and gore… people are desensitized. You start to lack empathy, and as a journalist or editor you don’t support a story just because [you] don’t understand the real human impact of it, because [you’ve] just seen it so often.”
When you see news desks and audiences struggling with the complexity of the Syrian conflict, it makes you wonder whether the fatigue people are experiencing is actually caused by a form of desensitization.