On the ‘digital frontline,’ social media reporters and editors exposed to vicarious trauma

As part of her job as a social media editor for the Associated Press, Hannah Cushman had to watch a video over and over again of a 17-year-old killed by a Chicago police officer. How many times did she view the shooting? It’s hard for her to say. But she saw, and remembers clearly, frame by frame, what happened the night Officer Jason Van Dyke, now charged with murder, fired 16 shots at Laquan McDonald.

The dash cam video released to the media Nov. 24 under court order had no sound. When a new version with audio started to circulate a few hours later, Cushman, who is based in the AP’s Chicago bureau, had to listen carefully, repeatedly, trying to determine if it was real. AP and police experts later determined the audio was fake. But the experience of repeatedly watching a man about her age get shot on the street isn’t one that Cushman will easily forget.

“It’s really screwed up,” says Cushman, 23, who graduated from the University of Missouri-Columbia in 2014. “The fact that it is right here, too. It’s crazy when it happens right here.”

It is indeed screwed up. But we’re journalists and even though two decades separate me from Cushman, I get it. I watched my first beheading video in 2004 when American Nicholas Berg was killed in Iraq. Unlike the recent videos of the journalists beheaded by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, this one had sound. You could hear Berg scream. It didn’t cut away. You saw him die. It’s hard to watch someone die on video whether you’re in Chicago or Iraq.

Berg was my first beheading video, but not my last. For a while, my job in the Baghdad bureau of The Washington Post was to watch beheading videos to try to verify their authenticity and so that I could describe them as I wrote about them. I had completely forgotten about the videos until journalist James Foley was killed last year. It seems an odd thing to forget, but the Battle of Fallujah and countless car bombings ultimately replaced those videos in my memory.

The AP’s Cushman is part of a new breed of journalists who are increasingly required to view disturbing eyewitness video and images as part of their jobs. A study on vicarious trauma released this month by the UK-based non-profit Eyewitness Media Hub calls social media the new “digital frontline,” a place where journalists can be battered by repeated exposure to trauma even if they never have to put on a bulletproof vest.

“With social media newsgathering, we are often just throwing the youngest graduate in the deep end and saying, ‘You’re on barrel bombs in Syria today,’ ” says Sam Dubberley, one of the authors of the study, which calls for better preparation for social media reporters, something similar to the hostile environment training that many foreign correspondents go through before heading into a hot zone.

Like a correspondent in the field who witnesses horrific events, social media reporters and editors who view such content on their computers can end up feeling isolated or experience nightmares and flashbacks, typical symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. The only difference is that they are experiencing the trauma that causes PTSD vicariously, on a screen, while reporting on stories about conflict, disaster, and crime.

“The difference with vicarious trauma is that it doesn’t require a real-world stressor,” says Bruce Shapiro, executive director of the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma at Columbia University. “The images on the screen are the stressor.”

The study found that the biggest trauma trigger was sound, particularly the cries of children in distress. But the overarching challenge in the new digital landscape is the sheer volume of content. Some social media editors and reporters spend more than six hours a day raking through eyewitness accounts.

“To be honest, what affects me is not the incident,” says Marcus Gilmer, the West Coast assistant real-time news editor for Mashable. “What affects me is the stories of the victims afterwards.”

Mark Berman, a national reporter at The Washington Post, runs Post Nation, frequently the paper’s home for breaking news stories across the country. He is regularly involved in live coverage of horrific events and other big news stories.

How much content he has to view depends on the story. “If it’s a mass shooting or an attack like the Boston Marathon, there is obviously going to be a lot of imagery that is horrifying to behold,” he says. “It’s obviously not an easy or fun aspect of the job. It’s necessary to view, of course, to try to grasp the scope of what you’re covering to try and better convey what’s happening to audiences.”

Eventually, some reporters and editors reach a saturation point.

Buck Wolf, an executive editor at The Huffington Post, ran the website’s crime section from its launch in 2012 until this year, when he decided he’d had enough. “This has just been one of the most violent years,” he says. “This has been a year I wave the white flag to some extent.” He paused. “It’s slightly cathartic for me to say that to you.” He is now executive editor of lighter fare: trends and weird news.

In some cases, Lara Jakes, deputy managing editor for news at Foreign Policy, discourages her staff from watching horrific videos. “I’ve tried to make clear, in my opinion, it is not necessary to watch every detail of what essentially amounts to gore porn to grasp the brutality of the videos released by the Islamic State and other extremist groups,” says Jakes, who was a correspondent for AP in Baghdad from 2009 to 2012, the last year as bureau chief.

Like me, Jakes has troubling memories of watching the Berg beheading video. “At the time, I was a junior reporter at AP, only tangentially covering Berg’s disappearance in Iraq, and thought it was my journalistic duty to watch the video in its entirety so that I could understand and tell the story as accurately as possible,” Jakes says. “It was horrific, and I wept at my desk while watching it, and had nightmares for days afterward.”

Kim Murphy, the assistant managing editor of foreign and national news for the Los Angeles Times, said many of the reporters being asked to view and write about video images of graphic violence are the same reporters, based on regions of conflict, who also witness violence first-hand.

Is one more traumatizing than the other? That’s impossible to say, she says. “But speaking for myself, there is no comparison to watching something on a computer screen, and being present when horror and tragedy are unfolding around you.”

As the AP’s Cushman notes, it does seem to make a difference when reporters feel a connection to what they are watching. That is certainly the case for me when I have to watch eyewitness accounts from the Middle East, where I lived and worked for several years. Cushman is haunted by the Virginia reporter who was shot and killed on live TV. Alison Parker was 24, just a year older than Cushman. “That was a really hard day,” she says, quietly.

Yinka Adegoke, Africa editor for Quartz, says the hardest images for him to view show atrocities committed by Boko Haram in northeast Nigeria. “I have no close friends or family in that part of the country, but as a Nigerian, it naturally feels more personal,” he says.

For my part, although I no longer have PTSD, my memories of war return at the oddest moments. I nearly jumped out my skin during a scene of a bombing attack on a fictional show called Madam Secretary. I was so rattled that I thought about it all night, even though I knew it wasn’t real— it was TV, for God’s sake. Last week, I had one of the worst heart-thumping nightmares I’ve had in awhile, in part because I was forced to think about all of this again for the purpose of reporting this story.

As a former war reporter and a survivor of PTSD, an experience that in some ways was worse back home than what I went through in Iraq, I was relieved when Cushman, the young social media editor, told me that she doesn’t feel alone at the AP. Not only does her supervisor support her, but her peers know what it’s like to work with social media content. “People think we’re on Twitter all day,” she says, “but we’re in the seedy underbelly.”

A short time ago she started connecting with her counterparts in Bangkok and London, sharing what it was like to be so immersed in some of the worst of the internet. It’s made a difference, she says.

“When I first started here, I was fairly isolated,” says Cushman, who joined the AP in September, 2014. “It’s important to have teams working on this together. For me, having that, I wouldn’t call it a buffer, but having that peer support has been really invaluable.”

Jackie Spinner is CJR’s correspondent for Illinois and Indiana. She is an assistant journalism professor at Columbia College Chicago and a former staff writer for The Washington Post. Follow her on Twitter @jackiespinner.