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A normal, not unexpected reaction

WHAT is trauma, how can it affect journalists and what can be done to protect us against trauma? This was under discussion at LFB's October meeting.

Gavin Rees;Hazel Dunlop

Gavin Rees, director of the Dart Centre Europe

Speaking was Gavin Rees, director of the Dart Centre Europe - the European office of the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, which is a project of Columbia Journalism School. We also heard from Molly Clarke, communications officer from the Rory Peck Trust, which supports freelance journalists in need - see here for her talk.

What is this trauma stuff, asked Gavin. People "have a lot of apprehension in talking about this", as trauma is associated with "mental illness and pathology". There is stigma attached to trauma, but should you experience trauma it's important to realise "you are not going crazy - it's a normal, not unexpected reaction."

Part of the Dart Centre's mission, says Gavin, is having greater understanding of how our bodies and our minds respond in these situations. One important strand of their work is to educate journalists in "what it is to act responsibility with vulnerable people" (sources and contributors) in these situations.

Journalists need to be prepared to "absorb, digest make sense of these, bring order to the horrifying things that can happen to people". As journalists we "tend not to want to shine the light on ourselves", says Gavin. We don't like journalists who are "overly narcissistic" - these are seen as impeding our view of people in the story. But if we don't consider how this traumatic content has an effect on us, we are "likely to do our interviewees a disservice".

These two things - how we interact with traumatised people we come across in our work, and how we as journalists handle trauma ourselves, "are intimately connected": how we interact with those we interview affects our own resilience. Gavin says the Centre aims to "give journalists tools to look after themselves better", and "also to encourage the most accurate, insightful journalism".

A growing area of interest is "journalists who are working in newsrooms and having to verify traumatic content - particularly user-generated content". Having to deal with this flood of traumatic images is "a bit like radiation... washing through the newsroom... highly toxic... even 1600 miles away in Syria" it can still cause the same reaction as if you were there. The phenomenon is "beginning to have some sort of impact and health toll on these organisations".

Gavin suggested some strategies on how to process this material in a way that's most likely to mitigate its effects. (See the Dart Centre's Self-Care and Peer Support advice.)

One way to deal with traumatic imagery is to "reduce the dosage". One "vital act of self-care" that journalists can do is to "take time out from the material". Journalist should avoid working alone on this stuff, and "not at night" when you're "closer to sleep".

One journalist present at the meeting described how he'd previously done human rights casework, some of it at night. He'd read material that filled his dreams. Gavin reports that those doing such work might sometimes "start to imagine themselves being followed" - they are "painting the situation into their outside environment" as their "brain is trying to process this".

Gavin also warned "how addictive traumatic stuff can be". We can be "sucked into" these images. This is why ISIS/Daesh distributes beheading videos - they can have a subtle, compelling power over us.

When you have lots of traumatic material piling up, "do active things like, hit the space bar to stop video... get up walk around" - take regular breaks. Do things that put you in control. Don't pause the footage during the traumatic bits. There's also one thing you always still have control over: your breathing. (The military now teach deep diaphragmatic breathing - it counteracts "the adrenalising impact" of traumatic situations.)

Other actions you can take when viewing traumatic content include putting bits of cardboard over the images of "the dead bodies" when you have to rewind or fast forward through a clip to view it again. Or you can "play it with the sound off," change the size and shape of the video box, desaturate the colour. There's a range of actions you can take so that "you're controlling it, it's not controlling you."

It's inherently isolating - solidarity helps

Trauma is inherently isolating. Those who experience it "suddenly feel taken out of the social environment". So a "sense of connection and support" from your colleagues in the room is also important.

Another phenomenon described by Gavin is "damped down responses in dangerous environments - they can whoosh up again when you get back (home)". He gave an example of a photographer who'd worked in conflict zones, who then become a photo editor. They found it much harder when they come back to the UK and found themselves regularly looking at this stuff.

Dart have worked with dotcoms: Gavin has spoken at Facebook HQ in Dublin and to the Online News Association. Facebook and Twitter will become more active in taking action on violent images, Gavin predicts. Currently there's a "big case" in the US involving two employees who allegedly developed Post Traumatic Stress Disorder as a result of their work as Microsoft moderators removing child porn images from the web.

There are also more requests coming into the Dart Centre following the Grenfell Tower disaster in June and recent terror attacks in London, with news organisations "requesting intervention". Molly Clarke of the Rory Peck Trust also told LFB that "there is more awareness of trauma as a result of Grenfell and recent terror attacks."

The modern market economy that we freelances are in "is also very isolating," notes Gavin, so solidarity and connection is particularly important for us. Also vital is understanding and "celebrating the meaning and purpose" of what you do. On having to deal with traumatic content, Gavin commented, "there's no point in going through all this harrowing, shitty stuff, if it's pointless; people can put up with all kinds of extraordinary things if they feel their work has a meaning and value."

  • We clarified the final quote on 6 November 2017