There are many ways to die. Most of us hope for somewhere quiet with people we love nearby. Sadly many people in times and places of conflict don’t have that option.
Of those many ways to die, myself and a lot of my friends and colleagues would bear witness to death and injury using tools that newer technologies have opened up for us.
When the folks who wrote the first video codecs of YouTube were publishing their service on the Internet, I wonder if they had any inkling that it would play host to a million funny animals, and a thousand bloody deaths. I doubt anyone would reasonably have this in mind while creating an emerging technology.
Recently a report was published about the effects of monitoring user generated content (UGC) on those who watch hours of footage professionally or for other reasons like activism or a sense of responsibility. They are watching this footage online.
Anthony Feinstein and his colleagues surveyed 116 journalists from various organisations and questioned them about how often they viewed violent imagery, for how many hours at a time and how traumatic they found this to be.
If you work in this field, or you are interested in this work, I recommend that you read the report. You can find it here. It’s the first psych report I have seen in this area while working with violent UGC for a number of years.
I’m pleased that someone took time to pay attention to this professionally and I am even more pleased that it was Anthony given his extraordinary work looking into the minds of journalists and their work around war coverage. Please do also take a look at his books to bring a richer context.
I can’t speak for the people who took that survey. I also filled it in. I thought about what I had been doing.
A little context here. I’ve been a journalist for more than two decades. I’m not in that line of work now, but I still write and report here and there. My personal skill set was based around finding people online and verification skills.
Verification is incredibly important now. News organisations are a system where journalists can get paid and work together. They are supported by their organisations and by each other.
But the news is no longer consumed as a dispatch from very few places. It’s everywhere online, fragmented and available to those who have access to the Internet. But be clear, access is not learning and access is not knowledge, it’s just access.
Because of this, we are at liberty online to consume as we please. If you don’t like a point of view or a presentation, you don’t have to switch off and drop out, you can simply find the angle that suits you, the one you agree with most and get your news there. If that’s what you like.
Stepping back to the twentieth century, war coverage came to us printed in newspapers early on. Iconic images of war. You might have seen Don McCullin’s ‘Shell shocked soldier’, or the execution of Nguyễn Văn Lém. Maybe you remember Phan Thị Kim Phúc, the little girl in the road running from napalm. They still tell us a lot about pain and war today.
Today, though, the images are immediate. People in perilous situations add risk to their actions by recording what happens around them. Under many regimes, the punishment for this would be ultimate, but they still record and bear witness to let the rest of us know what is taking place in the hope that something will change. I wonder at what we did not see of past conflicts. And if we had seen, what could have been done.
The expansion of social media gave me and people like me, tools to find and verify. The images we saw, we remembered, and we learned. I have maps of towns I may never visit and certainly have never been to, burned into my mind. Is the car park there? Is the sun high in the sky? Where is the church, the mosque or the temple? Have I seen this scene before?
Beyond the news outlets I have worked for and the global brands you will recognise, there are volunteers online aggregating and verifying with the same skills and without the same support system. They may be remotely connected to one another online, chatting in IRC, talking over video systems, but not often in the same room.
They swap and trade clips and images, learning from each other, translating language and context. Together alone. From the bloodied streets right into our homes.
What we see is raw footage of conflict. It is bloody and violent sometimes, it is tense and distressing, it is tender and sometimes it is hopeful. We see hours and hours and hours of this material, we even know which days are going to be worse than others.
Along with conflict, there are natural disasters, executions and accidents. Sometimes people are outside, sometimes they’re indoors, some in the field hospital, some in the morgue. Some, not even that.
I want to be very clear at this point that I have always had agency over my actions. Yes, this was a part of my work, but at no time did I feel that I was made to watch against my will or that I was not allowed or even encouraged to take a break or even stop. I have colleagues who stated clearly that they wanted no part of this style of journalism and I respect them.
I respect them because I also have never had the inclination to be a war reporter. War frightens me. Conflict scares me. I hope not to be caught in one and I hope those I love are never in those places. There’s no shame in choosing work that does not frighten you and good work cannot be done well in distress.
That clarified, I worked professionally on this and also as a volunteer. So, after ten or so hours monitoring for one role, I came home, made a sandwich, logged on and watched, logged and verified for maybe six more at home.
The Internet can bring conflict into our homes. Not action movie violence, but witnessing real death, mourning and fear. There’s a reason beyond murder that snuff movies are illegal.
The people I saw day into night were people like you and me, just elsewhere. Men, women and children. They marched, protested, cried, ran to and away from gunfire. They bled and some died.
At one point I could not close my eyes without seeing one particular woman die behind my eyelids. I saw the video of her passing so many times that I can recall it exactly today. The same for an elderly man carrying a dead boy, the same for children in patterned clothing who drowned in a flood. The same…for a lot of people. I don’t know their names. I don’t know what they did for a living, if they could read, what they liked to eat. All I know is in the video clips and those clips were often at the end of things.
The raw footage we monitored online was edited so that it could be used to reach a wider audience. The fact of the matter is that warnography does not always have the greatest impact. Atrocities in full can make as many people turn away as look closer. Today, those who look for more can find it with little trouble.
Raw footage appears online via many platforms. There are more video platforms besides youtube and more networks outside of Facebook and Twitter, some provide context and others not so much. It’s down to the platform policy makers to decide which footage plays and which is taken down. It is often also down to a community to provide flags and notices for the footage that is harder to watch.
So what is the impact? Again I cannot speak for others. I have spoken with them of course and each has their own particular reaction over time.
One thing that was common among conversations with contacts was a detachment from the day to day. To illustrate – imagine going to the pub at the end of your day. Chatting with folks about what they did, ambitions, what to eat, a broken photocopier, a funny thing. What did you do today? You watched 25 people die and you currently feel a pull to go home and watch more. A weird sense of responsibility to monitor what others took risks to record. But yeah, commuters and hot weather amirite?
Anecdotally others told me about relationships breaking down. The inability to connect with others intimately. Some were frequently angry for no particular reason.
One specific incident blind sided me to the point where I had trouble making eye contact for a week or so. When I was out and about I just couldn’t look people in the face and I needed very badly to be away from crowds of people. Many volunteers and professionals have similar experiences.
So what now? You might still be working in this area. You might be thinking some of these things, or not, it’s different for all of us. I don’t monitor nearly as much as I used to, certainly not up to eighteen hours a day.
I have mixed feelings. There’s some guilt that I should still witness. There’s relief that I don’t watch all day and dream it at night. There’s a lot of clarity though too, space to consider what I was seeing and what it meant in terms of news, conflict and journalism.
Mostly I am glad that I did see. Not that I saw awful things or that awful things happened, but that I noticed that change in the way we were working, in the way people communicated with the news and the way the news was created.
Moreover, I am glad that Anthony and his colleagues saw fit to also look at what we are doing. At its worst it seems that this activity can lead to symptoms of PTSD, depression and anxiety.
The report states – ‘good journalism depends on healthy journalists’. I couldn’t agree more. From research like this, I know that some newsrooms are already changing their role in caring for their staff and this is great news.
For those I know who work in volunteer roles under similar pressures, I can only advise that you self monitor as much as you monitor activity online. Check yourself.
Though the violent and dramatic raw images of warnography are addictive, only a clear break will give you the clarity and sense to do your job well and to verify accurately. Take a day off. Better still, a week or a month. Report on something else.
The Internet will still be there and sadly, so will the conflict.