Meedan designs and develops digital solutions for journalists, fact-checkers and activists. We are also concerned about the impact the viewing digital content, some of which can be graphic and violent, on journalists, content moderators, activists and fact-checkers. As with any project involving the open web, Check Message tiplines may contain a variety of types of images, ranging from disturbing imagery to hate speech to harassment. The purpose of this document is to provide a series of structured steps to help you design a personalized workflow for handling graphic and disturbing content. It is adapted from a series of documents prepared by the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma at Columbia Journalism Schoool. You might want to discuss this with your Program Manager or Reporting Manager before adapting it to your workflow.
Nature of Fact-checking
As part of the fact-checking work that you conduct, you have the opportunity to respond to images, links and claims that are shared with you by wide communities, answering a number of questions relevant to verifying a piece of content.
The nature of the content that you read is material that you might encounter in your everyday social media feeds. Some of this information may not be accurate or reliable. In addition, you are likely to encounter articles which may contain any of the following: emotionally triggering, objectionable or offensive content (including text, images, and/or video); hate speech, violent language and content, sexually offensive content and low quality or false information.
Dealing with repeated exposure to difficult content
Repeated exposure to troubling or difficult content may result in stressful psychological or emotional impact. Here are six practical things you can do to reduce the trauma load:
Understand what you are dealing with.
Think of traumatic imagery as if it is radiation, a toxic substance that has a dose-dependent effect. Journalists and humanitarian workers, like nuclear workers, have a job to do; at the same time, they should take sensible steps to minimise unnecessary exposure. Frequency of viewing may be more of an issue than overall volume, so think about pacing your trauma-image load and ensuring down time.
Eliminate needless repeat exposure.
Review your sorting and tagging procedures, and how you organise digital files and folders, among other procedures, to reduce unnecessary viewing. When verifying footage by cross-referencing images from a wide variety of sources, taking written notes of distinctive features may help to minimise how often you need to recheck against an original image. (And never pass the material onto a co-worker without some warning as to what the files contain.)
Experiment with different ways of building some distance into how you view images.
Some people find concentrating on certain details, for instance clothes, and avoiding others (such as faces) helps. Consider applying a temporary matte/mask to distressing areas of the image. Film editors should avoid using the loop play function when trimming footage of violent attacks and point of death imagery; or use it very sparingly. Develop your own workarounds.
Try adjusting the viewing environment.
Reducing the size of the window or adjusting the screen’s brightness or resolution can lessen the perceived impact. Try turning the sound off when you can - it is often the most affecting part. Don't lessen visibility so much that you have to squint, concentrate on it more, or look at it longer to discern important details.
Take frequent screen breaks.
Look at something pleasing, walk around, stretch or seek out contact with nature (such as greenery and fresh air etc.). All of these can all help dampen the body’s distress responses. In particular, avoid working with distressing images just before going to sleep. It is more likely to populate your mental space. (And be careful with alcohol - it disrupts sleep and makes nightmares worse)
Craft your own self-care plan.
It can be tempting to work twice, three times, four times as hard when working on a story with big implications. But it’s important to preserve a breathing space for you outside of work. Research shows that highly resilient individuals are more likely to exercise regularly, maintain outside interests and enthusiasms, and to invest time in their social connections, when challenged by trauma-related stress. (Journalists who incapacitate themselves through overwork are only undermining their own mission.)
Mitigating personal impacts of objectionable content
It is natural to feel stress when exposed to objectionable content. Humans are not machines, and everyone has their own limits of what is acceptable both in terms of exposure as well as impact on personal life.
We believe the best mitigation strategy is awareness, self-monitoring, and open communication.
Additionally, to help build personal resilience, we encourage you to employ mitigation techniques such as the following:
- Take more frequent breaks or breaks of longer duration (especially away from computer screens);
- Set your monitor to black and white during work sessions (may reduce eye strain and emotional impact of visual elements);
- Skip or pass articles which you find too objectionable or triggering to annotate;
- Reward yourself after work sessions by doing something you enjoy;
- Talk about especially challenging or objectionable content with a trusted friend or advisor;
- Ask your project manager for help at any time.
Additional resources for thinking about resiliency include this post by the Human Rights Center at UC Berkeley’s School of Law.