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12 tips for covering traumatic stories remotely

8 1 0
11.03.2022

In the week since Russia's invasion of Ukraine, I have seen and heard increasing numbers of journalism colleagues struggling with the effects of covering the conflict and news remotely.

It is different from the experience of those on the ground, of course, who face direct threats to their physical, psychological and digital safety, but the potential for vicarious trauma is significant.

After two exhausting and unprecedented years of a global pandemic, in which many of us have experienced anxiety, uncertainty, personal and professional stresses, it is important to know how to manage our mental health, even when we are physically far from a rapidly changing and traumatic story.

Vicarious trauma is the idea that people can become affected by experiences they are not directly exposed to. I remember working in a London newsroom in 2003, during the US-led invasion of Iraq and being asked to watch the live agency feed of the bombing of Baghdad. I was 25 years old, less than five years into my career.

On that March night, no senior journalists warned me about the horrors I would see, or advised me to limit my exposure, turn down the volume of the video and take regular breaks. Nobody offered to speak with me afterwards or warned me of the nightmares I would have, or how the only way I would briefly forget what I heard and saw was by drinking myself into oblivion. I know these reactions were my way of coping with vicarious trauma and I wish I had been better prepared to manage my mental health.

Exposure to such images does not automatically mean we are going to develop vicarious trauma. We may react with anger or sadness in the moment, but it is important to recognise the potential of a longer-term impact on our wellbeing.

It was not until almost a decade after my experiences that the term vicarious trauma started being used in newsrooms. As the growth of social media coincided with revolutions........

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