February 16, 2015

Tuesday, February 3, marked the first time Andy Carvin allowed himself to watch an ISIS execution video. The intensely disturbing footage, which showed a Jordanian pilot being burned alive, brought back a flood of memories and emotions for the journalist.

“The impact really hit me,” Carvin said. “I had avoided [ISIS videos] up until that point. It didn’t seem worth the burden.”

Carvin, known for his tireless tweeting of the Arab Spring and Syrian Revolution, shared his response to the video on the publishing platform Medium. He penned a nearly 2,700-word post, in which he recalled his 2012 decision to stop actively searching for and sharing graphic material with his Twitter followers.

“I sensed I was burning out, and feared my readers were, too. How many videos of war and suffering can a person handle in a day?” Carvin wrote.

Carvin can’t pinpoint a single event that led to those feelings; “I think it was the daily toll,” he said in a phone interview. “I was following way too many Syria YouTube channels than was healthy,” he said, recalling endless footage of gas attacks, bombings and executions.

“The nature of doing that requires looking at some really awful stuff.”

The ISIS video – one of several of the terror group’s propaganda films showing killings – prompted intense debate over whether or not news sites should publish such footage. In particular, Fox News received both ire and praise for its decision to post the video in full.

Not as common, though, were conversations about the journalists tasked with watching and vetting potentially upsetting user-generated content.

(Photo by Katie Hawkins-Gaar)

(Photo by Katie Hawkins-Gaar)

Bruce Shapiro, executive director of The Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, says the traumatic impact of viewing disturbing footage is something that newsrooms must address. War correspondents aren’t the only journalists at high risk for post traumatic stress disorder, he explained.

“It’s emerging as a newly significant issue,” Shapiro said. “There’s a flood of very graphic footage – the likes of which we’ve never seen before – coupled with the competition for clicks and eyeballs and increasing speed of journalism. Executives are concerned and confused about what to do.”

“There’s an association with handling a flood of graphic imagery and the risk for PTSD, we all know that,” said Shapiro, citing a 2014 study led by psychiatrist Anthony Feinstein. “What’s new is that the flood is constant.”

Shapiro notes that the journalists asked to verify potentially graphic footage are often less experienced than their colleagues. “Very often, the people watching this footage — social media editors, UGC editors — are young and not prepared to handle it. That’s a new challenge.”

It’s a challenge that social news agency Storyful is facing head on.

Storyful, which News Corp acquired for $25 million in December 2013, is a formidable verification outlet. Its team of journalists works around the clock discovering, verifying and obtaining rights to a wide variety of user-generated content. Global News Editor David Clinch says at any given time there are between 6 to 12 people assigned to finding and vetting UGC at Storyful.

According to Clinch, Storyful maintains a strict policy around staffers’ exposure to graphic footage. “We usually have a pretty clear idea of what we’re going to see. If it’s a video where we think there might be something gruesome, one of our senior editors will look at that. We don’t ask junior editors or new people to look at gruesome videos.”

“These are precious journalists – trained people,” said Clinch. “Why would we want them to get burnt out?”

(Photo by Katie Hawkins-Gaar)

(Photo by Katie Hawkins-Gaar)

Knowing how to identify and respond to the traumatic effects of graphic UGC is the responsibility of both individual journalists and managers, Shapiro said.

“As journalists, we have a responsibility for self-care. That’s our responsibility to ourselves, to our families, and to the mission of journalism.”

“That said, I do think that media companies have significant responsibilities for the psychological health of their staff,” Shapiro added.

“It should be treated as any other occupational health issue. We are way, way, way past companies being able to say that it’s solely a reporter’s responsibility.”

Storyful worked closely with The Dart Center when establishing their in-house support system. The news agency follows many of Dart’s traumatic imagery guidelines, including regular breaks and rotation among staff, and eliminating needless repeated exposure.

Managers at all levels have all received mental health training, and “we consistently remind people at internal meetings that there is support available,” said Clinch. “We benefit from learning in a collaborative way how others are dealing with it.”

Even then, the process isn’t perfect, Clinch admits. “Cumulatively, over months and years, no matter how careful you are, you wind up watching awful stuff.”

Carvin, now editor-in-chief of journalism aggregation startup reported.ly, points to Storyful as an example of a model to follow.

“Storyful is very attentive to their staff. They had the luxury of building up a start-up from scratch, and made support for staff a priority from the beginning,” he said.

And while he acknowledges that other newsrooms may not have as robust support systems in place, Carvin encourages fellow journalists to speak up when they are suffering from too much exposure to upsetting UGC.

“You’re advocating for yourself, but also advocating for your peers. Talking about the impact is huge,” he said.

Shapiro echoed that sentiment. “As a journalist, you need to understand that psychological injury isn’t just a matter of how individual people are affected. It affects how people in a newsroom interact with each other. Collaboration is undermined by the amount of unspoken distress in the air.”

“This is a newsroom-wide issue,” he explained.

Shapiro is quick to point out that this isn’t entirely new territory for journalists. “What I’m seeing play out on the video desks is a version of where war correspondents were a decade ago. People’s fear is that if they speak up they may not get assignments and it may hurt their career — there’s shame involved.”

Fortunately, he’s witnessed great progress over the years. “War correspondents have really shifted from stigma. There’s a robust discussion among correspondents today on ideas like PTSD.”

Shapiro says that preliminary discourse around the effects of graphic UGC is taking place in several newsrooms. It’s a trend he expects will continue.

“I’m having this conversation everywhere, from small local newsrooms to the highest levels of big media companies,” Shapiro said. “I am encouraged by the concern that we’re showing as a community for this challenge.”

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Katie Hawkins-Gaar was Poynter's digital innovation faculty member. She ran the Leadership Academy for Women in Digital Media and was one half of the duo…
Katie Hawkins-Gaar

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