Newsrooms Grapple With PTSD As Graphic Footage Becomes More Common

Matt Vespa
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Posted: Feb 21, 2015 8:00 PM
Newsrooms Grapple With PTSD As Graphic Footage Becomes More Common

If you haven’t seen the recent execution of Jordanian pilot Moath al-Kasasbeh by ISIS, you’re lucky. It’s absolutely horrifying. In the video, ISIS burned to death al-Kasasbeh, who was captured on December 24. It ends with them dropping concrete debris on his charred body, destroying the cage they kept him in as he burned alive.

This video, along with the beheadings of James Foley, Steven Sotloff, Peter Kassig, and other nationals captured by ISIS, has newsrooms grappling with a potentially serious problem within their work environments: mental health issues. The rise in graphic footage is often left to younger social media editors, who might not be able to handle the horrific scenes of brutality. As a result, the chances of these staffers becoming afflicted with post-traumatic stress rises dramatically (via Poynter):

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.

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?”