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Advice for journalists working with traumatic imagery

Advice for journalists working with traumatic imagery

Clothilde Goujard | April 11, 2017

Traumatic imagery has always been a part of journalism, but in today’s 24-hour news cycle, those who work in media are exposed to negative news like never before.

Gavin Rees of the Dart Centre Europe, an initiative dedicated to improving media coverage of trauma, said he’s seen firsthand how newsroom workers are increasingly exposed to intense images.   

“To some extent, this has all happened before — there was some pretty horrific imagery circulated during the first Iraq war and the genocide in Rwanda,” he told IJNet. “What’s different [now] is the intensity of the material: it’s shot in high definition, it’s user-generated and coming at the journalist.”

Journalists previously would be able to choose whether they wanted to go to conflict zones, but now they have less control over what images they’re exposed to.

“It used to be easier to say that you weren’t going to handle certain kinds of exposure, that you were going to avoid exposing yourself to traumatic material by choosing different kinds of assignments,” Rees said. “But now the material is coming into the office in a way that hasn’t been seen before.”

Many journalism schools still don’t teach students about how trauma coverage can impact both readers and reporters themselves. However, Reese said that newsrooms are getting better at dealing with traumatic imagery and its consequences on their staff.

“People are getting more aware,” he said. “We tend to play catch-up after problems have developed rather than before, and that’s tricky when it comes to people getting trauma trouble because it’s still heavily stigmatized and people don’t like to admit weakness."

Studies show journalists tend to be more resilient than the general population, as they tend to feel a sense of purpose and believe that their work is meaningful, which helps protect them during stressful situations, Rees said.

Nevertheless, journalists aren’t completely immune to suffering adverse effects from constant exposure to traumatic imagery. One concern is that journalists developing PTSD tend to delay reporting their symptoms, Rees said.

This is why reading guidelines produced by the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma — and getting a better understanding on how the mind and body react to traumatic stimuli — can help a journalist recognize if their feelings are the onset of PTSD symptoms. Exposure to traumatic imagery tends to make people feel emotional and numb, but these emotions are not necessarily abnormal. One sign that a journalist is beginning to suffer PTSD is if she begins to mistrust her co-workers, Rees said.

“Their brain is responding to the very violent situations in front of them. If you lose that sense of security in one domain, during the time you’re looking at these images, you’re more likely to feel insecure about other things as well, like [whether] you can trust colleagues or management,” he said.

It is also important for managers to be aware of these issues so their staff feels safer.

“The best managers we have come across lead by example,” said Rees. “They are open to the issues and not afraid to acknowledge their own reactions when coming across intense material.”

Media practices are evolving to better protect both news workers and the public from traumatic imagery. The development of technological innovations — which could automatically flag traumatic imagery — could help further shield viewers by warning them.

However, Rees thinks that many newsrooms still need to work on balancing their duty to inform the public, while protecting people (and themselves) from trauma.

“There are times for people to see what’s really happening in the world out there and that might mean showing images that are disturbing and distressing,” he said.

Main image CC-licensed by Flickr via Kimli.

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