Making Secondary Trauma a Primary Issue

Eyewitness Media Hub is embarking on a cross-industry study into the impact of traumatic footage — and we need your help


Eyewitness Media Hub, with the support of the Open Society Foundation, is conducting a cross-industry study into the impact of vicarious trauma on journalists, human rights investigators and humanitarian aid workers who frequently search for eyewitness media in their work. Sam Dubberley — who makes up the research team along with Pete Brown — explains why this is so important and what the study aims to achieve.

“It was in September 2004 that I had my first experience of what turned out to be vicarious trauma. It was the height of the insurgency in Iraq following the invasion that had toppled Saddam Hussein over a year earlier. I had colleagues in Baghdad. I, on the other hand, was sitting in a newsroom in Geneva. On September 20th, Eugene Armstrong, an American engineer, was beheaded. The main television news agencies discovered and distributed the video showing his murder. For reasons that I do not understand to this day, I was the one who volunteered in my Geneva office to watch it. Bravado? An attempt to prove myself? Career advancement? Aged 27, it was probably a bit of all of those. One thing I know for sure, though, is that whatever compelled me to watch the video of the death of Eugene Armstrong on a rainy, late summer afternoon in Geneva, I wish to this day that I hadn’t.

When Eugene Armstrong was murdered, the official launch of YouTube was just over a year away. The video of his execution was posted on the internet, but skills were required to find it. Roll on just over a decade and all of that has of course changed. In 2004 we’d see the aftermath of car bombs in Baghdad when professional camera operators got to the scene. Today, we see the explosion itself. And the videos are not hard to discover. I never watched the video of the murder of James Foley. I didn’t need to. Just the picture of him in an orange jump suit took me right back to September 2004.

Today, sourcing eyewitness media is mainstream in many industries. Newsrooms have dedicated teams searching for exclusive eyewitness media to tell the stories that their competitors don’t have, human rights investigations are done from offices in Brooklyn and humanitarian agencies use it as a tool for advocacy in the fight for funding.

There has been debate over whether vicarious trauma actually exists. Thankfully, that debate seems to have been put to bed following studies by Anthony Feinstein of the University of Toronto, work by the Dart Center at Columbia University and the experience of news organisations such as Storyful and Reportedly. The Huffington Post’s recent series documenting trauma in the newsroom goes in depth on the phenomenon. However, it was only back early last year, while we were doing our research into how broadcast news uses eyewitness media in its output, that senior newsroom managers would make comments such as “I’ve been watching graphic footage since 1988. I don’t think there’s any difference”.

In the eighteen months since those interviews were conducted, we’ve noticed a real shift. During an event that Eyewitness Media Hub held in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo shootings of January this year, for example, there was a real concern from some editors about how to ensure staff were not traumatised by what they saw as they scoured YouTube, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter for content. However, this is still not universal. Some newsrooms are tackling this issue head on, others aren’t really thinking about it.

The same applies to human rights and humanitarian organisations. Collecting eyewitness media of war crimes, of humanitarian disasters, of migrants crossing oceans has become part of the job. Those doing it are facing the same problems as those working in newsrooms.

This is what our research project — in partnership with Open Society Foundation — hopes to address. Over the next six months, we aim to conduct a global survey of attitudes amongst staff and managers to better understand the vicarious trauma impacting journalists, human rights investigators and humanitarian workers who use eyewitness media in their daily work. The goal of this is to acknowledge the prevalence of vicarious trauma, understand how it is being tackled, pinpoint which best practices can be shared across industries and identify areas that still need to be addressed.

We are starting the research now, and aim to share our findings by the end of 2015. Our goal is to then build industry-wide coalitions through 2016 to ensure that current best practices become universal and part of the training of everyone working in this field.

If you are interested in talking to us, in full confidentiality, about your experiences of vicarious trauma, or would like to nominate yourself or your organisation for inclusion in the survey, we would love to hear from you. We can be contacted at sam@emhub.co or pete@emhub.co.”