Occupational Distress in Factual TV

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This report is the first to map in detail the risks that traumatic stress and moral injury pose to those working in documentary and factual TV. In releasing it, the Dart Centre is calling for informed policies around the management of traumatic content, greater awareness of mental health, and more attention on ethical and emotional challenges of working with vulnerable contributors. 

I’ve been on projects where I felt like people haven’t been treated correctly or they’re vulnerable contributors and I’ve worked with them and it’s been really bad.  And then afterwards, I felt like a massive amount of guilt that I used their experience to then put [that] on television. I walked away with a big pay cheque and the credit and they have walked away with nothing… And that’s made me feel ashamed of the film… I don’t tell people when it’s on television. The only thing I want from it at that point is just to say to someone this is what I did, and so can you just give me another job?

 - Experienced current-affairs documentarian

TV production staff routinely encounter contributors’ trauma, deprivation and mental health issues in the course of their work. But what impact does close and routine contact with vulnerable people have on filmmakers themselves? And do TV companies equip their employees with the skills and support that working with challenging material and vulnerable people requires?  

In a new report supported by Wellcome – the first of its kind – the Dart Centre has sought to answer these questions by laying out the factors and situations that generate occupational distress in the UK’s factual TV sector.

The Dart Centre’s research, based on interviews with 22 media professionals working across the spectrum of factual TV production, from high-end medical documentaries to Reality TV programmes, reveals that trauma-related hazards are considerably more prevalent than the industry generally recognises, and can occur in any programme format.

Alongside the exposure of staff themselves to directly threatening or traumatic situations, the report identifies the impact of vicarious trauma and uncertainty over producers’ ethical responsibilities to vulnerable contributors as significant drivers of staff distress. That impact is often compounded by encounters with bullying, harassment, poor management and other abusive behaviour within the industry.

The research, completed prior to the high-profile suicide of a contributor on the Jeremy Kyle show, focuses primarily on staff impact. However, Dart Centre Europe also finds significant shortcomings in “psych testing,” or arrangements for vetting vulnerable contributors prior to filming. The report suggests that blanket faith in the use of psych-testing is misplaced, and that at a minimum, new steps of due-diligence are required to protect vulnerable contributors from exploitation.

Worryingly, the Dart Centre also reveals a culture of silence in which junior producers and freelancers, in particular, feel constrained in calling out dubious or unethical behaviour towards contributors. Interviewees suggested that this in turn has a potential impact on staff mental health and morale, in some cases leading to burn out and early career exit. 

In releasing the report, the Dart Centre is calling for TV channels and other media bodies to establish cross-industry guidance on trauma management policy and mental health awareness. Key to this will be more relevant training and a willingness to rethink pre-conceived notions around duty of care towards vulnerable contributors.

Summary: Key Findings

Trauma exposure and psychological injury risks: Production staff across all genres of factual TV come into frequent contact with violence and suffering, both directly and indirectly. The exposures are especially high in a category we call “human-impact TV” – peak-time TV series shot in emergency settings, current-affairs documentaries filmed in hostile environments, and films that centre on the lives of trauma-affected contributors, including victims of crime, the bereaved, and those living with terminal illnesses. A significant minority of interviewees reported trauma-related distress from direct witnessing of events, or threat/attack aimed at them or their teams. A larger group reported distress related to vicarious traumatisation – prolonged immersion in the aversive details of stories, the tragedies in contributors' lives or in disturbing images.

All producers we interviewed – 100 percent – mentioned significant strains associated with working with vulnerable contributors. These challenges were encountered not just in overtly trauma-related contexts, but in all genres, including lighter reality-TV formats. Junior producers working on dating and talent shows and general factual programmes often encountered vulnerable members of the public with prior histories of suicide, self-harm and depression. The challenges of navigating such histories in the make-or-break environment of TV were described as considerable, and can increase risks for moral injury, burnout and other difficulties. 

Contributor care and ethical distress: Dilemmas involving highly vulnerable contributors extend across genres, including moral doubt about informed consent, manipulation of contributors and concerns about abuse of psychological testing of contributors. Nearly one-third of interviewees volunteered, without prompting, that they had been forced at one time or another to act against their conscience.

Nearly all producers identified a lack of training or preparation in how to build appropriately-bounded relationships with contributors, minimise harm during interviews, and understand contributors' reactions.

The flaws of psychological testing: Interviewees expressed particular ethical doubt about the use of “psych testing” to screen vulnerable contributors. There are no commonly agreed-upon standards on how psychological testing is carried out, whether or not it is required, and whether the psychologists in question have the relevant background and training to assess the vulnerability of contributors. Indeed, we found instances of abuse in which psychological profiling was used contrary to its ostensible purpose. In these instances, producers mined assessments to select individuals with underlying instabilities that make them self-aggrandising, impulsive and prone to conflict, despite having received explicit advice from the psychologists that these potential contributors should not be cast.

Bullying and harassment: Bullying within the industry as a whole was described as pervasive – 63 percent of our interviewees identified bullying as a significant danger. Victimisation through bullying can occur at any level of the industry, from runners to commissioning editors. Freelancers were thought to be most at risk, and least able to defend themselves.

Half of all interviewees described sexual harassment as a significant issue (even if most interviewees also reported progress in the last decade or more.) Freelancers, in particular, believed that they had little to no agency to question instructions from those senior to them. Freelancers felt this to be morally dubious and potentially harmful to the vulnerable contributors they were working with. This was a significant source of anxiety for many, and may be a contributing factor for people leaving the industry mid-career. The strong team culture of factual TV is a potential source of peer support and resilience, but our interviewees felt that both a sense of expendability for freelancers and a culture of silence limits the effectiveness of social support.  

A more general culture of long working hours and unreasonable demands was thought to add significantly to the overall pressures, and to limit or undercut resilience. 

Demand for training and support: Producers at all levels wanted appropriate training in how to work effectively on difficult assignments, including working with vulnerable contributors; self-care; managing the impact of contributor distress on production teams; and supporting colleagues. None of this training is routinely available. (The assumption that "people skills” are innate and a product of common sense rather than appropriate staff development was thought to be unhelpful here.) 

Producers also thought that training in how to “manage up” would help to prepare junior producers for the challenges of working with senior producers, commissioners and presenters. None of the independent TV companies whose staff we interviewed had comprehensive trauma management policies in place (although one had started to provide training). This contrasts sharply with the news industry, which over the last 15 years has adopted a wide range of trauma-awareness, manager-training and peer-support initiatives, including at such industry leaders as the BBC and Reuters.

Key Recommendations

Interviewees identified diverse measures that could help to mitigate the areas of concern identified in this report. These fall into three consistent areas:

  • Ensuring accountability for the ethical treatment of contributors, safety of professionals and potential abuses of power (bullying, sexual harassment, etc.), through audits, reviews, risk assessments and other consistent, transparent mechanisms.
  • Training in ethical engagement with contributors, self-care, and management of distress in peers, colleagues and team members.
  • Specific changes to working practices that can enhance resilience.

They also listed the following factors as important in helping people persevere in factual TV:

Challenging but not overwhelming; criticizing without blaming. Big challenges needed to be supported with good leadership that nurtured talent by giving junior staff incremental challenges that were beyond but not too far beyond their current abilities. In particular, it needed to take a positive, lessons-learned approach and avoid the blame-culture and fault finding.

Promoting agency and efficacy when working in distressing situations. Every producer we talked to who specialised in the high-impact genre of films that involve working on traumatic or otherwise sensitive themes, talked about the need for producers to be adequately briefed on what they might experience, be that the dilemma of feeling emotionally conflicted or (in the case of witnessing primary trauma) the vivid sensory impressions such as smells and visceral imagery they are likely to encounter. 

And the Dart Centre makes several wider recommendations:

Establish cross-Industry guidance on trauma management policy, protecting vulnerable contributors and mental health awareness. When it comes to mental health awareness and trauma management, every company in a diverse industry must find its own way. Nevertheless, policy formulation in this area is highly complex, and it is unrealistic to expect every company, particularly those that are small, to make these determinations without adequate external guidance. This suggests the need for an in-depth practical guide that identifies standards of practice and duty of care in the protection of vulnerable contributors, staff support, and trauma literacy. Ideally, it should contain leading voices from the industry and be a product of wider consultation.

Review psych-testing arrangements and processes. It is apparent from this study that contributor psychological testing in UK television is a practice that may be open to significant abuse, and at the very least is often used as a fig-leaf to mask a lack of appropriate contributor care. We recommend that a cross-industry working party be convened that consults widely and clarifies, in the form of written guidelines, the following:

  • The role and limitations of pre-production psychological screening.
  • Appropriate and inappropriate situations for use of such screening.
  • Minimum assessment standards and review processes.
  • How companies can use data collected on contributors and what safeguards need to be in place to prevent inappropriate use.
  • Appropriate training and background / qualifications for external assessors.

Develop systematic trauma literacy and at-risk-contributor training in UK Factual Television. Our research reflected growing interest in what some of our respondents called “psychological safety” - the idea that filmmakers have a duty to minimise harm or distress to contributors; and that an ethic of care is also inextricably bound together with what makes for a healthy professional environment for TV workers themselves.

  • We recommend development of industry-wide training to provide all producers with a basic skill set for responsible engagement with vulnerable or at-risk contributors, and for managing occupational distress, trauma and psychological injury within the factual TV sector.
  • We recommend adapting successful models from health services, journalism, education and other trauma-facing fields, including basic literacy in trauma and the impact of adverse experiences in childhood and adulthood; the training of managers; dissemination of self-care and peer-support strategies; and establishing sector-wide standards of care for at-risk contributors and affected production staff
  • We agree with interviewees who emphasised that that commissioners of factual TV have a key role to play in making sure that producers further down the line are not unnecessarily placed in situations that could cause moral injury.
  • Finally, as our research suggested, the breadth of engagement with vulnerable contributors means that the need for these skills goes far beyond those working on obviously trauma-intensive productions.

We recommend additional research within the factual TV sector, particularly regarding the prevalence of PTSD and other psychological injury; moral distress; and the interaction between workplace hierarchy, bullying culture, ethical violation and occupational distress.