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Aug. 4, 2015, 2:01 p.m.
Reporting & Production
LINK:  ➚   |   Posted by: Laura Hazard Owen   |   August 4, 2015

Journalists and human rights workers who work with troubling user-generated content as part of their jobs may experience vicarious trauma as a result of handling distressing content. A new research project aims to help by surveying and interviewing such workers and developing a set of best practices for news and humanitarian organizations.

Nonprofit think-tank Eyewitness Media Hub is running the project with backing from the Open Society Foundation. EMH was founded in 2014 by former Tow fellows Sam Dubberley, Pete Brown, and Claire Wardle, who had previously researched how broadcasters use user-generated content (UGC) in their news output, along with Jenni Sargent.

“A lot of research so far has [questioned whether] vicarious trauma is something that exists,” said Dubberley. “We’re starting from the premise that it does exist, and would like to understand what organizations are doing about it, and how people who are using it on a day-to-day basis feel about it.” As head of the Eurovision News Exchange, he said, “I had a team of 20 journalists sourcing content from Syria and the Arab Spring through YouTube and saw them being impacted by it, quite seriously.”

For the purposes of this study, user-generated content is defined as “photos, videos and audio captured by non­-professionals that is deemed useful to your organization’s work.”

In the team’s earlier research, it became clear that “there was a real disconnect between the people working every day with UGC and the more senior people who manage them,” said Brown. “Senior people at major news agencies were saying that they didn’t see any difference between the graphic content in UGC, and what they were dealing with in the ’80s, for example — that just because it was on the computer doesn’t make a difference.” But YouTube and, and the “volume of really horrendous images that people are encountering on a day-to-day basis,” have changed things.

ugc survey screenshot

“One person said it was very hard having headphones on and hearing mothers crying while burying children, and being kind of immersed in this world through the headphones,” he added. “That was something that impacted her very negatively.”

“Senior managers who cut their teeth in a different time, in different places, in Kosovo and Bosnia and Iraq, [may] feel that what they saw is so traumatic that nothing can be more traumatic, and they downplay the effects of UGC,” said Dubberley. “We’re not saying it’s worse, but we’re not saying it’s easier to deal with. We’re saying it’s different.”

Eyewitness Media Hub hopes to get a minimum of 200 respondents to its survey, which will be available online through September, and will then follow up with about 60 in-person interviews (30 with journalists, 30 with human rights workers). All surveys and interviews will be confidential and anonymous.

Brown outlined the project’s three focus areas:

1. Pre-engagement expectations: Did people go into these professions expecting and being prepared for handling distressing content?

2. Everyday experiences in the job: How frequently are people handling UGC, how does it affect them, and how do they feel about it?

3. Training and support: Are organizations proactive about educating their staff? Are people aware of available support, and do they feel comfortable opening up about the struggles of dealing with UGC?

A final report, published in December, will include best practices for newsrooms and humanitarian organizations whose workers deal with user-generated content.

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