What’s it like when your job involves wading through others’ suffering? I was left weeping and hopeless
If I had been told that my dream career could end up affecting my mental health, I might have thought twice about pursuing it. Or perhaps I wouldn’t have. After all, trauma is not new in journalism – “if it bleeds, it leads” is the adage.
But while crime and war correspondents know the risks they run, I fell into covering harrowing stories accidentally. I spent more than a decade on and off in the BBC newsroom, mostly in the user-generated content (UGC) hub team, dealing directly with the audience – finding case studies and trends, and tackling disinformation early by verifying stories before they were broadcast. Sometimes it was the best job ever, when the stories we covered could change people’s lives. Other times, the job meant scouring through racist and xenophobic missives, and exposure to pornography and graphic images of human remains. I would weep and feel hopeless about the world we inhabit, as we found ourselves mapping the geographies of murder, deconstructing images of beheadings, or cross-referencing atrocities on social media videos and open-source intelligence from far-flung places.
Increasingly, these tears were not isolated incidents. I couldn’t switch off after my 10-hour shifts and would keep tabs on stories that I was not on rota to cover – just wanting to help if I could, finding case studies in my “real life” and sending in tips. There was no balance. I kept checking social media in case I had missed something. When trolls messaged my team’s public WhatsApp number, I would reply to remind them there was a human behind that screen. I have always been sensitive: it is what made me good at the job. But it also made me more vulnerable. I lost weight because of the stress and sadness – what was the point in eating? In my head, I would keep replaying images of dead bodies, or stories of murdered children, wondering if anything could have been done.
I found I could no longer handle the tube at rush hour. I was no longer me – the girl who liked wolves and biscuits and was capable of finding light and ridiculous things to counterbalance the sad stuff. I felt so lonely and guilty, so disappointed that the world was such a broken place, and I no longer knew what I could do to help fix it. I wanted to stop feeling so much and so empty at the same time. It was this alien experience that made me seek professional help, which is how I first heard about vicarious trauma.
The word trauma derives from the Greek word traumatikos, meaning pertaining to a wound, while vicarious comes from Latin, and means to substitute. But it was clinical psychologists Lisa McCann and Laurie Anne Pearlman who coined the term vicarious traumatisation in 1990, while investigating how therapists were affected by what they were exposed to in the course of their work.
Vicarious trauma usually involves a cumulative effect. It is not just one event but many things that someone is exposed to over time, which lead to a cognitive shift in the way that person interacts with the world. Symptoms differ from person to person, but can involve flashbacks, intrusive thoughts and nightmares. Those affected can feel emotionally numb or hyper-aroused; they might engage in destructive and addictive behaviours, or feel as though they have lost a sense of meaning.
While the term was initially applied to therapists, it is widely recognised that people in a range of professions can be affected. There are studies looking at vicarious trauma and PTSD in drone operators, in healthcare professionals, in social work and among social media content moderators. Legal professionals run this risk, as do people in more informal situations, such as carers.
Stories about traumatised content moderators are emerging around TikTok and associated contractors globally, and in the US a class action federal court case is underway against it and parent company ByteDance. So far, the public statements issued by TikTok in response to various content moderators’ allegations have focused on the company’s trust and safety team and how it partners with third-party firms on the “critical work” of helping to protect the platform and community. Spokespeople have also said the company continues to develop ways to “help moderators feel supported mentally and emotionally”.
In the US, Facebook (now Meta) recently agreed a $52m settlement to moderators who were diagnosed with mental health disorders, including PTSD, following a class action lawsuit led by Selena Scola. Chris Gray, who is based in Dublin, is pursuing legal action against Facebook Ireland and contractors CPL over his PTSD. He has just published an account of his experiences, The Moderator: Inside Facebook’s Dirty Work in Ireland, and tells me it wasn’t just the graphic imagery that affected him, but also having to deal with complaints, generally without any context, where people would report bullying or arguments playing out on the platform. “It’s like ‘you’re a bad parent’, ‘you’re a junkie’, ‘you’re a slut’ and then somebody’s mother joins in and they are arguing about their sad, awful lives. And then somebody thinks to use the reporting tool as a weapon and they start reporting each other,” he says.
Yelena McCafferty, a Russian interpreter and translator from Lincolnshire, says her job working in public service settings with the police and in courtrooms means she often can’t talk to anyone about what she hears because the material, which can range from petty theft to child abuse, is confidential. “Sometimes you just want to unburden it on to someone, but you can’t,” she says. She has accepted that sometimes she will have flashbacks about certain cases, adding: “Interpreters are neutral. We are there to facilitate communication, but we are not robots. Everything that the person says physically goes through us and comes out in the first person.” Now, she says, there is a growing openness in her industry about the traumatic elements of the job, with training and webinars offered to raise awareness.
Pearlman, who is now partly retired, says her understanding and development of the concept of vicarious trauma emerged directly from her own personal experiences. Speaking to me from her home in Sarasota, Florida, she recalls a conversation one Christmas with McCann and other therapists about how she was not feeling her usual self. She knew it was not depression, but what was it? “We began to understand, in talking with our colleagues, that we were taking on the trauma experiences of our clients, and that we were feeling deeply affected in ways that changed our outlook on life and our experience of ourselves as people in the world, and also our ability to manage our feelings in a constructive way,” she says.
“I was always a very trusting person,” says Pearlman, “but I started to feel like questioning ‘What is that guy doing over there in that park with that young girl and is that a healthy relationship?’ and so on.”
How permanent such a shift can be is still unknown. It is something that my BBC journalist friend Alex Murray and I often discuss. As one-time colleagues in the UGC hub, we worked on many stories together, from the Arab spring to multiple terror attacks, school shootings, beheadings, war and more. But as Murray, who at one point was deeply immersed in the reporting of jihadi movements, says: “There was a group of us who were really good at it and we were really fast. And part of our vicarious trauma was that we felt because we were good at it and fast, it was easier for us to carry the burden and get it done quickly than watch other people, who found it more difficult, struggle with it.”
The work affected the two of us, but in different ways. I was afraid of the world, of building relationships, of trusting people in all aspects of my life. Murray says he stopped enjoying things that he used to find pleasurable – such as cycling – and he became irritable with his loved ones. When even his dog started to annoy him, he realised something was not right.
Elana Newman, a professor of psychology at the University of Tulsa, and research director for the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, has extensive experience of working with journalists and lawyers. She says it is important to remember that vicarious trauma can lead to positive as well as negative cognitive shifts. Practically speaking, for example: “If you work with people who were hurt in a fire, you’re looking for exit signs.” Or a person may become more aware of all the beauty and courage in the world around them. This is something that Murray and I understand well.
Both of us have used our experiences at the BBC to try to help others, including taking part in several studies – one a groundbreaking 2014 investigation into reporting on user-generated content, which revealed that frequency of exposure to images of graphic violence was a risk factor for psychological injuries.
And to be fair to the BBC, when some of us in the team who had been having quiet conversations with each other about our worsening moods and feelings of guilt and anger eventually raised our concerns, we were introduced to our amazing colleagues at BBC Monitoring, who had far more experience of dealing with horrific stories. They shared coping strategies with us, such as turning off audio while watching graphic material and taking time to watch joyful cartoons. However, it did take a few years for more formal protocols to be implemented, and a significant industry-wide cultural shift had to occur before our teams understood that we did not always have to be the person to watch or work on stories or videos emerging from terror attacks, natural disasters or anything that could cause additional distress. Being diagnosed with vicarious trauma was not a condition for such consideration, either. The intent was to protect people from being at risk in the first place.
I first came across Sam Dubberley, a former newsroom manager at the European Broadcasting Union, when he, together with Haluk Mert Bal and Liz Griffin, was researching the effects of vicarious trauma on journalists, humanitarians and human rights workers. He is now managing director of the digital investigations lab at Human Rights Watch. He speaks regularly to his team about what they feel comfortable with investigating, and focuses on reducing the risk of vicarious trauma before it happens. He is especially concerned to include everyone who might be exposed to distressing material on a cumulative basis, such as receptionists responsible for monitoring an email address, archivists, video producers or IT support.
Newman says it is important to remember that being moved or upset by interacting with someone who is experiencing something terrible is part of “being a healthy functional person”. She stresses that there is a significant difference between having an emotional response that is “adaptive, proactive and socially and morally responsible” and having a psychological disorder. But if such a disorder occurs, it is important to act. Pearlman says connection with others, and deliberately building a sense of community, can be helpful. During the pandemic, and even now, she regularly has a group of other clinicians she checks in with. Eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing (a trauma therapy for reducing distress caused by memories) and cognitive behavioural therapy can help some people.
McCafferty says she visualises a waterfall whenever she needs to build a bit of distance between herself and a case she is working on. Like me and Murray, Chris Gray has written and speaks widely about his experiences at Facebook Ireland. We have all discovered that the global community that has built up around the awareness of vicarious trauma is very welcoming.
As for me, I eventually left the BBC Newsroom to re-find that curious soul who loved sharing tales of the wild and wonderful. I know I can no longer cover certain stories, but I am hopeful about what the future will bring.