@DFRLab’s Andy Carvin on the real-world consequences of viewing graphic imagery
Waking up this morning to the horrifying details of the white nationalist attack against two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, I’ve seen my social media feeds flooded with discussion of the video live-streamed by one of the attackers. Given the nature of my work, some of these discussions came from colleagues of mine who work in journalism and human rights, tracking hate groups, counterterrorism, and the like. In other cases, the posts I’ve seen online are perhaps best described as the social-media equivalent of rubbernecking after a traffic accident: the morbid curiosity of understanding a violent event through the act of viewing it.
As someone who has spent much of the last decade covering how the internet is used during times of war and terrorist attacks, my plea to those of you tempted to watch or share the video is simple:
This is not something I suggest casually. During my years as senior strategist and social-media editor at National Public Radio (NPR), and later as editor-and-chief of reported.ly, I spent countless days observing social media in real time, covering events like the Columbine shooting and the Boston Marathon bombing, and long-term conflicts like the civil wars in Libya and Syria. In each of these cases — and unlike my peers from the newsroom who bravely worked as war correspondents in the field — I was perfectly safe, working far away from the hot zones in the cozy confines of my office. On most days, literally thousands of miles separated me from the acts of violence I reported on. My window into these events came through my laptop or iPhone. I could actively participate in the core journalistic mission of bearing witness for the world, all without direct threat to my physical safety.
Then one day I saw a piece of cauliflower on the side of the road.
Down the street from NPR’s headquarters, I grabbed lunch at a local buffet and step outside, where I noticed a piece of cauliflower that someone had dropped while throwing away their lunch plate in a trash can. The cauliflower had been run over by a car.
I immediately thought I was having a heart attack.
My head began to race, my breathing turned to hyperventilation. My chest pounded like I was going to die. Somehow, I managed to pause and catch my breath; within a few minutes the incident passed. It was the first time of many that I experienced a panic attack — in this case apparently triggered by memories of online footage showing battle wounds, including someone whose skull had been smashed open by heavy weapons fire.
Over time, the panic attacks were complemented by nightmares and intrusive imagery. I imagined seeing my kids playing at home, then suddenly caught in a war zone or terrorist attack. The imagery would pop into my head during meetings, at dinner, hanging out with friends, taking out the trash. There was no obvious way for me to mitigate them. Eventually, I began to feel a fight-or-flight response when out in public, especially with my family. On one occasion we attended a July 4th parade, and I found myself scrutinizing cars parked across the road. For some reason, I was making a mental note of which direction they faced in case there was a mass shooting and we needed to duck behind a car’s engine block for safety.
At the suggestion of friends and family, I reached out to therapists to discuss my experience. Eventually, I was diagnosed with PTSD. I had never been to a war zone and had never covered violence in person. And yet, here I was, finally understanding why I felt so haunted: I had experienced what psychiatrists refer to as vicarious trauma and was now paying the price for it.
Years later I would read the book The Evil Hours by David J. Morris, which perhaps captures the experience of PTSD better than anything else I’ve ever read:
Trauma destroys the fabric of time. In normal time you move from one moment to the next, sunrise to sunset, birth to death. After trauma, you may move in circles, find yourself being sucked backwards into an eddy or bouncing like a rubber ball from now to then to back again. … In the traumatic universe the basic laws of matter are suspended: ceiling fans can be helicopters, car exhaust can be mustard gas.
And for me, at least, cauliflower can be brain tissue.
In the years since my diagnosis, I’ve dedicated myself to helping other journalists mitigate their own exposure to trauma, vicarious or otherwise. I founded the Journalism and Trauma Facebook page, where reporters from around the world can share their experiences and methods for combatting trauma. I’ve taught my staff and given lectures to newsrooms around the world on avoiding unnecessary exposure to trauma, relying on the tremendous work of Columbia University’s Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, which has developed a range of best practices to help journalists. Things as simple as limiting exposure time, turning the volume down, or changing the color contrast on the screen can help reporters or researchers whose work requires them to review graphic content. Editors and supervisors, meanwhile, can employ practices such as routinely rotating staff to non-traumatic assignments while developing their own guidelines to ensure the duty of care they have over both their staff and their audiences.
There’s no cure for vicarious trauma, but there are ways of mitigating it, and it all boils doing to limiting exposure whenever possible. As long as hatred and violence remain a public scourge, there will be journalists and researchers whose duty it is to bear witness and help the rest of us better understand why. In the meantime, it’s incumbent upon all of us to care for ourselves and make sure we’re not harming ourselves or others through unnecessary exposure to graphic imagery. It numbs our sensitivity, damages our psyche, and distorts our worldview in ways that helps no one except the people who want us to fall prey to online violence and violent propaganda.
So if you’re tempted to watch the video from Christchurch — or are tempted to share it — please don’t. Then please take the advice of Professor Amanda Rogers of Colgate University, a renowned expert on propaganda and violent imagery, and ask yourself an even tougher question: why are you even tempted to watch it in the first place?
Andy Carvin is a Senior Research Fellow with the Digital Forensic Research Lab (@DFRLab).
Follow along for more in-depth analysis from our #DigitalSherlocks.