Working with Traumatic Imagery

Photographs and video of horrifying, violent acts may provide essential documentation of human tragedy. But however compelling its news value, traumatic imagery needs to be handled with care, as it can place the wellbeing of those who work with it at risk. A French translation is available here.

Imagery from war zones, crimes scenes and natural disasters is often gruesome and distressing. The proliferation of high-definition cameras over the last decade has significantly increased the volume and graphic nature of material streaming into newsrooms, from traditional journalistic sources and social media alike. Even when the events depicted are far away, journalists and forensic analysts, deeply immersed in a flood of explicit, violent and disturbing photos and video, may feel that it is seeping into their own personal headspace. Reactions such as disgust, anxiety and helplessness are not unusual; and the content may re-surface outside of work in the form of intrusive thoughts and disrupted sleep

From research, we know exposure to limited amounts of traumatic imagery is unlikely to cause more than passing distress in most cases; media workers are a highly resilient group. [1] Nevertheless, the dangers of what psychologists call secondary or vicarious traumatisation become significant in situations where the exposure is repeated [2] - the slow drip effect. Risk also rises when a news professional has a personal connection to the events at the scene - if, for instance, it involves injury to someone the journalist knows. 

Exposure to gruesome imagery can be associated with distress. [3] In fact, in 2013, the American Psychiatric Association amended its guidelines on post-traumatic stress disorder to recognise that immersive work with traumatic imagery is a specific risk factor for journalists, police officers and others absording such images on a regular basis in their jobs. 

Here are six practical things media workers can do to reduce the trauma load:

  1. Understand what you are dealing with. Think of traumatic imagery as if it is radiation, a toxic substance that has a dose-dependent effect. Journalists and humanitarian workers, like nuclear workers, have a job to do; at the same time, they should take sensible steps to minimise unnecessary exposure. Frequency of viewing may be more of an issue than overall volume, so think about pacing your trauma-image load and ensuring down time.3
  2. Eliminate needless repeat exposure. Review your sorting and tagging procedures, and how you organise digital files and folders, among other procedures, to reduce unnecessary viewing. When verifying footage by cross-referencing images from a wide variety of sources, taking written notes of distinctive features may help to minimise how often you need to recheck against an original image. (And never pass the material onto a co-worker without some warning as to what the files contain.)
  3. Experiment with different ways of building some distance into how you view images. Some people find concentrating on certain details, for instance clothes, and avoiding others (such as faces) helps. Consider applying a temporary matte/mask to distressing areas of the image. Film editors should avoid using the loop play function when trimming footage of violent attacks and point of death imagery; or use it very sparingly.  Develop your own workarounds. 
  4. Try adjusting the viewing environment. Reducing the size of the window or adjusting the screen’s brightness or resolution can lessen the perceived impact. Try turning the sound off when you can - it is often the most affecting part. 
  5. Take frequent screen breaks. Look at something pleasing, walk around, stretch or seek out contact with nature (such as greenery and fresh air etc.). All of these can all help dampen the body’s distress responses. In particular, avoid working with distressing images just before going to sleep. It is more likely to populate your mental space. (And be careful with alcohol - it disrupts sleep and makes nightmares worse.) 
  6. Craft your own self-care plan.  It can be tempting to work twice, three times, four times as hard when working on a story with big implications. But it’s important to preserve a breathing space for you outside of work. Research shows that highly resilient individuals are more likely to exercise regularly [4], maintain outside interests and enthusiasms, and to invest time in their social connections [5], when challenged by trauma-related stress.  (Journalists who incapacitate themselves through overwork are only undermining their own mission.) 

Some additional tips for news editors and other managers: 

  • Every member of a team should be briefed on normal responses to trauma. Team members should understand that different people cope differently, how the impact can accumulate over time, and how to recognise when they or their colleagues need to practice more active self-care. This applies to all workers including support and technical staff. 
  • Have clear guidelines on how graphic material is stored and distributed. Feeds, files and internal communications related to traumatic imagery should be clearly signposted and distributed only to those who need the material. Nobody should be forced to watch video images that will never be broadcast. 
  • The environment matters. If possible, workplaces that deal with violent imagery should have windows with a view of the outside; bringing in plants and other natural elements can also help to build in some separation from the violence in source footage.  

1 Newman, E., Simpson, R., & Handschuh, D. (2003). Trauma Exposure and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder Among Photojournalists. News Photographer, 58(1), 4.

2 Cohen, K., & Collens, P. (2013). The impact of trauma work on trauma workers: A metasynthesis on vicarious trauma and vicarious posttraumatic growth. Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, And Policy, 5(6), 570-580. doi:10.1037/a003038

3 Feinstein, A., Audet, B., Waknine, E. (2014). Witnessing images of extreme violence: a psychological study of journalists in the newsroom. JRSM Open, 5(8) 1-7. doi: 10.1177/2054270414533323

4 Childs, E., & de Wit, H. (2014). Regular exercise is associated with emotional resilience to acute stress in healthy adults. Frontiers In Physiology, 5161. doi:10.3389/fphys.2014.00161

5 Eriksson, C. B., Lopes Cardozo, B., Foy, D. W., Sabin, M., Ager, A., Snider, L., & ... Simon, W. (2013). Predeployment mental health and trauma exposure of expatriate humanitarian aid workers: Risk and resilience factors. Traumatology, 19(1), 41-48. doi:10.1177/1534765612441978