Violent news: Psychological trauma a new risk in digital age

APTOPIX Iraq Mosul
Violent and distressing news video and images pose mental health risks for journalists in newsrooms — a new phenomenon. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana)


09 July 2017 | | The Conversation

“…A new phenomenon is the stress posed to some journalists by user-generated content (UGC). This refers to images and video material, often violent, transmitted to newsrooms from the man in the street.

Citizens in the world’s most dangerous places — such as Syria, Afghanistan, Somalia and Yemen — can now easily send live images of atrocities to Western news outlets.

Imagery akin to this Associated Press photo of a family in Mosul, Iraq on July 2, increasingly enters newsrooms via social media. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana)

The same phenomenon is taking place with events closer to home: Terrorist attacks in the United Kingdom, Europe and North America have generated a vast amount of local media coverage from ordinary citizens, which has also made its way to news organizations.

Such is the volume of imagery now received by the media that journalists are being employed specifically to screen the material — much of it too violent for viewers. This raises the question: How are journalists who screen such material faring psychologically? I recently addressed this potential problem in the linked study whose results were published in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine Open. Two big Western news organizations took part. More than 100 journalists working with user-generated content were assessed on an array of indices that measure psychological well-being.

No safe place

The results of the study showed that most journalists who work with this material are emotionally well. However, there remains a minority who struggle to leave these images of violence behind them at the end of the day.

There are journalists who continue to experience unwanted, intrusive recollections of what they have witnessed on a monitor in the safe confines of an office. These images can intrude into dreams. Flashbacks can occur. These experiences can prove deeply upsetting to journalists and lead to difficulty falling asleep, irritability, poor concentration and a sense of personal insecurity.

In response to these feelings, journalists may make a conscious effort to push away recollections of the traumatic image. A journalist’s emotions may become blunted by witnessing a visual diet of endless atrocities. This emotional disconnection, viewed as a defence, may have negative consequences for personal relationships.

While the study showed journalists working with user-generated content can be emotionally affected by their work, it’s important to keep a sense of perspective. The level of distress in journalists sitting in a safe office doing this work is, on average, well below that seen in journalists on the front lines of a war zone. Nevertheless, the basic symptoms are similar.

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