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Box 9.2: Tips for Coping With Traumatic Imagery

Gavin Rees, a journalist and filmmaker, is the director of the Dart Centre Europe. The Dart Centre is a project of the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University in New York and is dedicated to promoting ethical and innovative approaches to the coverage of trauma and violence. Prior to that, Gavin produced business and political news for US, British and Japanese news channels, and has worked on drama and documentary films for the BBC, Channel 4 and independent film companies. Gavin is also a visiting research fellow at Bournemouth University and is a board member of the European Society of Traumatic Stress Studies and UK Psychological Trauma Society.

Images from war zones, crimes scenes and natural disasters are often gruesome and distressing. When the imagery is traumatic, events that are happening far away can feel like they are seeping into one’s personal headspace. Negative reactions, such as disgust, anxiety and helplessness, are not unusual for journalists and forensic analysts working with such material.

We know from research that media workers are a highly resilient group: Exposure to limited amounts of traumatic imagery is unlikely to cause more than passing distress in most cases. Nevertheless, the dangers of what psychologists call secondary or vicarious traumatization become significant in situations where the exposure is repeated, the so-called slow drip effect. The same is true when there is a personal connection to the events — if, for example, it involves injury to someone you know.

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

  1. Understand what you’re dealing with. The first line of any defense is to know the enemy: Think of traumatic imagery as akin to 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 minimize unnecessary exposure.
  2. Eliminate needless repeat exposure. Review your sorting and tagging procedures, and how you organize digital files and folders, among other procedures, to reduce unnecessary viewing. When verifying footage by cross-referencing images from different sources, taking written notes of distinctive features may help to minimize how often you need to recheck against an original image.
  3. Try adjusting the viewing environment. Reducing the size of the window, and adjusting the screen’s brightness and resolution, can lessen the perceived impact. And try turning the sound off when you can — it is often the most affecting part.
  4. Experiment with different ways of building 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 point of death imagery, or use it very sparingly.
  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.
  6. Develop a deliberate self-care plan. It can be tempting to work twice, three times, four times as hard on an urgent story or project. But it’s important to preserve a breathing space for yourself outside of work. People who are highly resistant to trauma are more likely to exercise regularly, maintain outside interests in activities they love, and to invest time in their social connections, when challenged by trauma-related stress.

Some additional tips for editors and other managers:

  1. 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 recognize when they or their colleagues need to practice more active self-care.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.


Published on: 28 January 2014
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