From the digital frontline: guarding investigators' mental health

The value as well as potential dangers of digital content

There can be significant information value in digital material coming from war and conflict zones, e.g. content shared on social networks. This is especially the case when access to such areas is limited or even impossible, and there are no journalists on the ground. In such cases, reporting journalists have to rely on digital content, coming from eyewitnesses or others who share respective materials. 

Despite having information value at times, digital materials - especially content from war and conflict zones - can also be highly disturbing and potentially traumatizing. This is especially so with digital content coming from e.g. the war in Ukraine, Syria or other places. Particularly disturbing at times: images and videos that show injury, pain, destruction and suffering in various forms and guises.

The danger of secondary trauma

Going through digital material in the process of respective analysis, verification and subsequent reporting can take its toll on the mental well-being of journalists and digital investigators. It can even cause secondary or vicarious trauma, meaning trauma not caused from direct physical encounter or exposure, but relayed via another party or medium.

Source: Unsplash

It is important that both investigators and media managers are aware of potential dangers and do whatever necessary and possible to avoid vicarious trauma, or at least keep negative consequences for mental well-being as low as possible. That is also why appropriate handling and coping mechanisms should be known and in place before anyone is placed in front of a computer screen as an investigator.

Some advice and techniques for dealing with potentially traumatizing digital content

Below is some advice for journalists and investigators who have to deal with digital audiovisual material coming in particular from war and conflict zones. However, it can also be considered as general advice for almost anyone who moves online frequently and is at risk of encountering potentially traumatizing imagery.

  • Try and always be mentally prepared when scrolling a news feed or digital material, especially when the content is coming from a war or conflict zone as it may contain potentially disturbing imagery. “Up your guards” accordingly and be prepared to encounter something shocking any moment.
  • Avoid especially what “triggers” you, if at all possible. This will be different things for different people and may be the result of personal (past) experiences. 
  • If you are personally involved or connected to a topic under investigation or something you are likely to come across (e.g. if you are doing a shift in the newsroom and you have family in Ukraine while the war is still ongoing) be particularly cautious as this may add to the potential difficulties you may experience. Consider to ask your bosses to be placed on different shifts / duties.
  • Turn off the audio on your device during investigations as a default setting. Only turn it on when it is needed. Think about using transcription services in certain cases in order to read what is being said. Try not to listen to scenes of pain or torture over and over again. All this is very important as the sound of horrific incidents can have significant negative effects on your psyche (often worse than visual material), hence it must be taken very serious.
  • Reduce the size of videos from the war and disable autoplay when you work with video or have to view moving images. You are the one who should decide when a video is played, not the respective platform.
  • Have post-its at hand to be able to quickly cover bits of the screen,  or when you have to do a longer investigations, e.g. an in-depth investigation of a war scene video to determine a location or other.
  • Take regular breaks away from the screen and your work. Do things that are nice and comforting, also while at work (chat to a colleague, have a hot chocolate, and such like). Don’t forget to treat and look after yourself.
  • If you have to send a video or audio with potentially disturbing content to colleagues or others, let them know in advance what type of content it is so they can prepare mentally for what they are about to view. Do not let anyone else “stumble across” potentially disturbing content accidentally or without being prepared.  
  • Label everything that you share / post / send / archive / publish appropriately (e.g. with a sign “WARNING – graphic imagery”), or use blurring techniques (if your system at use allows for it). Again, make sure nobody comes across gruesome material accidentally or unprepared.
  • If you are working in an organisation: talk to your managers if something is not right. Insist on not having to do too many shifts dealing with potentially harmful material. Consult with others in the organisation if your direct superiors won't listen or show no understanding. 
  • Try to disconnect from work tools and tasks as well as exposure to gruesome material when you are not working.
  • Whenever you notice that something “isn’t right”, talk to friends or colleagues. If things persist and really trouble you over longer periods, seek professional help. Do not feel ashamed about such matters getting at you!
Helping handsSource: Unsplash

Further reading

What has been listed above is just some basic advice. It also partly depends on how you work where (e.g. freelance on your own vs. in an organisation's newsroom and respective structures). If you want to dive deeper, the resources provided below are recommended for further reading.

Above all: try and stay healthy, guard your mental well-being, do not take these matters lightly and - if you are negatively affected - do not feel ashamed of it but speak up and seek help.

Author: Jochen Spangenberg (DW). is co-funded by the European Commission under grant agreement ID 101070093, and the UK and Swiss authorities. This website reflects the views of the consortium and respective contributors. The EU cannot be held responsible for any use which may be made of the information contained herein.