IF THERE IS ONE CONFESSION a journalist never wants to make, it’s that she can’t handle the truth. Many of us got into the business for the express purpose of truth-telling, and for journalists growing up in the post-9/11 dawn of the 24-hour news cycle and the war in Iraq, the challenge to tell it boldly and well is our guiding star.
The nights are awfully cloudy these days.
When Syrian refugee children washed ashore in Libya in 2015, the images were indelible in their lonely, awful stillness—our decade’s “vulture and the little girl,” our “Falling Man.” Editorial rooms around the country debated whether splashing images of drowned babies across our platforms was truly in the public interest. Can pressing on exposed nerves yield anything but a howl?
Many outlets—including Sojourners—decided against publishing the photos. Everyone saw them on social media anyway.
“I had a 2-year-old,” said Amy Sullivan, former senior editor for Yahoo! News and Time. “I had to be on Twitter, but I couldn’t be on Twitter. I couldn’t look at the photo out of the corner of my eye without seeing my son’s body there.”
Wading into digital battlefields
It hasn’t gotten easier for those of us on social media—which, these days, is most of us. After an 18-month series of ISIS beheadings and police shootings, the hot summer of 2016 brought Philando Castile’s death, broadcast by his girlfriend on Facebook Live, and videos of young black Americans being pushed, shoved, and punched at campaign rallies. As reporters and editors parsed through a meteor shower of fake news, they found themselves dealing with a presidential campaign that openly dismissed eyewitness accounts of journalist harassment and intimidation. To many journalists, particularly women, religious minorities, and journalists of color, the election season gave rise to increasingly vicious anti-media imagery and abuse.
In this atmosphere, decision fatigue has become a staple: There are simply too many distressing stories to cover. And how to choose which stories matter unless you watch? In the dusk of 2016, self-care was a matter of holding one’s breath until the brightest burning tragedy had passed.
Then Trump won.
When Sullivan left her job at Yahoo! in early 2017, she heard something new from colleagues: jealousy. “A lot of people told me, ‘You have no idea how many times I think about this every day, just—leaving,’” Sullivan said. “I’d never heard people say that in journalism before.”
In the last several months, I’ve begun to hear it, too. To be an online journalist in the United States right now is to live on the front lines of a social newsfeed in twilight, wading into digital battlefields of traumatic images and hurtful words hurled across our screens. Like those living and working in conflict zones, we are facing repeated exposure to violence—and are required to engage it, prioritizing which images to fact check and share and which to try to ignore. For religion journalists, the stories of faith and belief are elevated enough to command passionate readership and communal enough to wade into each injustice. Yet despite this—or maybe because of it—many “God beat” reporters sense that this is exactly the kind of moment for which our work is required. Because if religion journalists can’t bear to continue looking clear-eyed at the truth, who will?
Tragedy goes viral
The first time justice and human rights reporter Bruce Shapiro received footage of a fellow journalist’s death, he watched it. The journalist was Daniel Pearl, beheaded by Pakistani terrorists. Later, Shapiro found the images stayed with him in a way he found “really, really intrusive.” Unbeknownst to him, Shapiro, now the executive director of the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, was experiencing early tremors of what social media editors, digital journalists, and 24-hour newscasters now know as part of their daily work: an infinite loop of disturbing stories and images.
Shortly after 9/11, psychologists introduced data suggesting frontline war journalists were at increased risk for developing post-traumatic stress disorder. Proximity to physical danger was a reasonable and understood predictor of threat perception. But in 2013, a study out of UCLA on the lasting effects of trauma after the Boston Marathon bombing uncovered something striking: People engaged with six or more hours of media exposure in the week following the marathon were nine times more likely to report high acute stress—more than those present at the bombing themselves.
There is currently no medical consensus that online exposure to tragedy can directly cause PTSD. But in 2014, a study of “frequent and prolonged exposure to deeply disturbing images” published in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine found that the frequency with which a journalist watches violent content correlates with the journalist’s likelihood of having anxiety, depression, PTSD, or alcoholism. Nearly half of the journalists in the study reported at least weekly exposure to violent images.
In both studies, skyrocketing rates of anxiety and depression were prompted by a sense of collective trauma. The advent of “user-generated content”—tweets and live video streaming, shared to the world in real time—has enabled violent and graphic content to spread directly from the scene to mass audiences, often with no content warning or curation. The world hurts everywhere, including in our social media feeds.
“The pace of change means all journalists need to process graphic imagery and user-generated content,” Shapiro said. “More people are doing it more often, and it’s touching more hands. Anecdotally, I’m hearing a lot more distress.”
“I couldn’t write at all”
The season of Lent has become a popular time for U.S. Christians to take “social media fasts,” to get away from anger and tragedy, as a form of self- and soul-care. But for Christians who are journalists, that isn’t an option. “There’s a crisis in journalism right now—people not having the space to care for themselves and to think through what they do in terms of vocation,” Sullivan said.
“Over the summer, this [tension] was coming to a head [for me]—after the election, the balance I’d been trying to walk just fell apart,” she said. “I was assigned the obvious question, ‘What happened with white evangelicals?’ I couldn’t write at all. It grieved me as a person of faith, as much as it interested me. I needed to figure out what happened so I could do something about it, not so I could describe it.” After 15 years in journalism, Sullivan said she’s now working on a book and is discerning how best to focus on these questions. She’s not alone.
“We talk about this all the time,” said Daniel Burke, CNN’s religion editor. Burke said frequent conversations with other journalists on the religion beat—especially those, like himself, raising young children—has helped him process the online load.
Engaging with online trauma has one very different element than experiencing a scenario in real time: Watching from a distance gives us no agency to intervene. The effect is psychologically, and physically, disempowering.
Dr. Bessel Van Der Kolk, psychologist and founder of the Trauma Center at the Justice Resource Institute, studies the effects of PTSD on the body and warns we too often neglect the physical dimensions of mental health. “Western culture is astoundingly disembodied,” Van Der Kolk told On Being host Krista Tippett. Trauma is body memory. Your body has been “reset to interpret the world as a terrifying place, and yourself as being unsafe,” Van Der Kolk explained.
To Van Der Kolk, sensory engagement with spirit and mind is a necessary discharge for trauma and perception of threat—something many in the media don’t get in their work.
“Right after the election—this is a crazy thing for a journalist—I just did not watch or look at the news for a good two or three weeks,” said Dawn Araujo-Hawkins, staff writer for the Global Sisters Report. “The divisiveness of the general culture—I couldn’t deal with it 24 hours a day.”
For women journalists, Jewish or Muslim journalists, and journalists of color, seeing traumatic images is not just a risk—it’s increasingly a likelihood.
Aysha Khan, social media editor for Religion News Service, says she’s been sent photos of people with their head cut off and images of pigs. The hateful images are attempts to intimidate Khan, a Muslim woman. “It’s very hard to avoid things you don’t want to deal with,” Khan said. “As social media person, you have to read everything.”
Even on the religion beat, characterized by a friendly camaraderie, journalists are feeling the beleaguering effects of sustained work in a hostile time. “I think I’m definitely more nervous,” said Araujo-Hawkins. “Access [to journalists] is so much easier, and comments are so much nastier, that you do worry—you publish something and think, ‘What’s going to happen, do I actually need to be afraid?’”
Like Sullivan and Burke, Araujo-Hawkins says reporting objectively on trauma and stories of abuse was on her mind long before the election. But despite her new anxiety, she has no plans to stop. “Being objective means something different in an age when there’s so much hatred toward certain groups of people,” she said. “I think about that all the time when we’re talking about Muslims or ISIS—they’re not the same thing, and there are so many people who want them to be the same thing, and you have to parse that out, every single time. You have to do more to support the truth. It is my moral responsibility, and my professional responsibility, to report on race issues, on gender issues. I go out of my way to do it now.”
Our own devices
Publications are beginning to address the effects of sustained engagement with violent and traumatic images. Burke said CNN has offered counseling in the past. And Shapiro’s work with the Dart Center includes training major news publications to deal with traumatic news and images.
But in the meantime, it’s still largely up to individual journalists to address their own self-care. For Sullivan, being in the steady presence of her church congregation on Sundays has been integral for embodied connection. And while she’s stepping back from her top editorial role for now, she’s keeping in touch with her journalism peers. “I find my religion and politics colleagues very nourishing. I wouldn’t want to log off completely,” she said.
Burke said he frequently reads short- story writer and essayist George Saunders—a kind chronicler of surreal worlds not too far from our own. “Also, I get sick all the time,” he says. For Khan, it’s personal advocacy. “What I do find fulfilling is to make the donations to groups I feel are doing things I believe in and advocate for causes that I personally believe in ... [and] spending time at activist circles that [I] find necessary, not as a journalist but as a person who is affected by the same policies, the same legislation.”
In the course of reporting this story, journalists unfailingly expressed concern for the well-being of other colleagues and friends in the media. The instinct reveals deep kindness, but also an undeniable sense of isolation: Each of us on our personal devices, viewing awful things, worried others are taking it worse. I wonder whether in acknowledging the pain of others we’re also eschewing the trauma of our own experience, to prove we can still muscle up in our own lives. It’s worth asking: at what cost?
“Religion asks us: What are our obligations to people who are suffering?” Burke said. “And emotions tell us something—we should care about those people.”
Tips for Digital Self-Care
WITH NEARLY 7 in 10 Americans using some form of social media, journalists aren’t the only ones wrestling with the images and videos that flood their newsfeeds without warning. Here’s what to do next time you find yourself confronted with traumatic content online.
Hit “pause.” Don’t view traumatic material without a procedure in mind. Take a moment to stare out a window or at an indoor plant. This disrupts the tendency to cruise-ahead on autopilot.
Ask: Do I need to see this? If you know this material is old or is of no real relevance to your objectives, it is best not to engage.
Ask: Do I need to see this now? It is best not to view violent material when you are tired. If you decide to continue viewing ...
Make the viewing window on your computer smaller. This disrupts the narrative flow of the material and builds in distance.
Steel yourself. Put on imaginary protective clothing of some kind, such as a raincoat, or visualize that bulletproof glass exists between oneself and the screen—techniques used by forensic investigators.
Lower the sound, or turn it off altogether. Sound is often the most affecting part of a video. You can always turn it back on later if you need to.
Scrub through. Drag your cursor through the timeline to locate aversive sections. If you don’t need to look at those parts in detail, don’t.
Adapted from the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma