Vicarious Trauma In terms of protecting staff, there were real differences in the comments made between people who work with this content every day and those who don’t. Those who do social newsgathering regularly were very vocal about the specific trauma that can come as a result of working with eyewitness content day in and day out. As one journalist admitted, “I now purposefully avoid the most traumatic, dramatic content because I have been so affected by it. I know it’s my job, [but] it’s a difficult line to cross. I feel like it’s my responsibility… But at the same time I have to protect myself from it.” The interviewee went on to describe the impact UGC can have on a journalist: I was really upset all the time and I just felt helpless basically. I didn’t really sleep that well and I was anxious at work. Each morning, getting up and thinking, “My God, I know what the day has ahead for me—blood, children, death, whatever it is.” I just didn’t want to do it. It was a kind of constant anxiety. Some described the way wearing headphones heightened their reactions to disturbing content, and the tension caused by opening video files on You- Tube with no sense of what they would find. One experienced journalist was quite adamant that watching content via social networks was different than watching raw footage from the field: What they haven’t been looking at is video with headphones on of mothers crying as they’re burying small children. And if you’re listening to that all day, I’ve found it’s not necessarily the graphic stuff that gets you, it’s being in the world where you’re hearing everyone’s distress. And hearing that for an extended period of time is the bit that can get to you. So I disagree with the point that we’ve all been looking at this for a long time. No one has been immersed in quite the same way as journalists working with social media today.
For many, it was the scale of the violent videos that have been coming out of Syria for the past three years that has caused people problems, whether that was difficulty sleeping, recurring images popping into their minds, lack of concentration, or more serious emotional responses and depression. Others agreed with the journalist quoted above, saying they could cope with graphic images but struggled to “hear” constant audio of people in physical and emotional pain. Others said that Syrian content was not a problem, but had found that a news event like the Aurora movie theater shootings in Colorado in 2012 triggered a response because it mirrored their own life experiences. Those who don’t work with UGC often struggled to see how viewing it is different than viewing any type of rushes from the field. “I’ve been watching graphic footage since 1988. I don’t think there’s any difference,” said one senior editor. It must be noted that even people who felt that viewing UGC online was not any different from previous journalism jobs still work in newsrooms where there is counseling support for anyone who needs it. “As a senior manager it’s something you have got to take seriously. You’ve got a duty of care to your staff.” There were a range of responses on the issue, with some broadcasters having active policies about rotating staff on UGC desks, and actively reminding staff about counseling. Others didn’t have specific policies but agreed that if anyone demonstrated signs of vicarious trauma, they would be recommended to a counselor. The subject of vicarious trauma in relation to viewing UGC is starting to become one of psychological study. In a forthcoming article, soon to be published in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, Professor Anthony Feinstein and his two colleagues examined the potential impact of viewing UGC in a newsroom. One hundred and sixteen English-speaking journalists, who work frequently with UGC, provided the researchers with selfreported measures that they were able to share anonymously. The article’s authors discovered that “frequency of exposure to UGC independently and consistently predicted multiple indices of psychopathology, be they related to anxiety, depression, PTSD, or alcohol consumption.” The research also
demonstrated that frequency, rather than duration of exposure to images of graphic violence is more emotionally distressing to journalists working with user-generated content.38of its number of journalists working with UGC every day on the Hub, takes vicarious trauma very seriously. As its manager, Chris Hamilton, explained: It’s not that massive elaborate procedures need to be put in place. We just need to keep reminding the team when there have been big traumatic stories, that it’s okay to feel affected. It’s okay to say, “Can I work on something else today?” It’s about getting the people running the desk day to day to try to bear in mind, has someone been working on that story for multiple days? That’s one of the risk stories. It’s okay to be working on a traumatic story for one day, but on the second day that’s where the risk factor starts to rise. It’s just getting people to be aware of the little steps they need to take. Other newsrooms shared best practices with us. At the AP, for example, staff is told that they can find support materials on the Intranet, as well as book an appointment with a counselor; they don’t have to feel they will be judged if they ask for help. At ARD in Germany, there are regular lunchtime sessions where specific techniques for minimizing harm are shared, so all staff benefit, not just those who have asked for support. Other newsrooms have a policy of rotating people off certain stories, even if they ask to continue working on them. As well as these discussions about the impact of viewing distressing images, others talked about the impact of regularly talking with people who are traumatized. Those working on UGC desks are, by the very nature of their jobs, often dealing with people who have just witnessed something newsworthy— violent protest, a natural disaster, an explosion, or terrorist incident.
Talking to people who have just seen such events causes its own trauma. To counter this, some newsrooms have created support networks for journalists working in this space to share experiences and best practices. Training There is very little specific training regarding UGC. There might be social media training that teaches people to find content or, more commonly, how to use social media to promote it, but minimal specific training is dedicated to verification or copyright law. There are exceptions. The AP hosts a one-hour training course on verification processes. (This is mandatory for new starters and many other staff members have been through the training. The systems are also included in the AP Stylebook.) ABC Australia has something similar, which is mandatory for anyone working in roles where they regularly use content sourced from the social Web, but is available for people who want to do it. The organization also regularly circulates guidance notes to all staff, and there is a verification wiki on the Intranet with examples of best practice. The BBC is currently re-evaluating training needs in this area, with an acknowledgement that there are specific needs around social newsgathering, verification, and rights that might need to be included in a new training course. ARD offers regular workshops for staff with external experts to ensure their journalists are kept up to date with verification techniques. But these examples were the exception. The norm is on-the-job training. It was, however, noticeable that in most organizations where we interviewed staff, there was a shared desire for additional training around verification. One of the main issues we encountered was people in senior management positions for whom social media was not a prominent tool when they last worked on news desks. They didn’t know the specific skills necessary for journalists working with UGC, whether how to effectively search social platforms for content, verify that content, effectively seek permissions
publicly from people caught up in breaking news situations, or ensure rights have been cleared effectively for distribution to partners or via syndication deals. There are obvious barriers to this type of training, cost being a major one. Many newsrooms talked about a lack of money for offering training to staff. Another issue is the pace at which the social media landscape is shifting. As one journalist mentioned, “I’m not sure how useful set training pieces would be for us because everything is changing so quickly. I mean a lot of the stuff that we’re training people on is really focused on practical steps: ‘Do this and do this and do this.’ Those steps change so often that we kind of need to come up with a way that if there are resources, they need to be almost live.”