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war crimes self-care journalist
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Investigating War Crimes: Self-Care for Covering Traumatic Events

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The last thing war criminals want is for journalists to take good care of themselves. Far better to be pursued by investigators who are emotionally overwhelmed, burnt out, becoming sloppy in their record keeping, and losing sight of why the work matters.

Being resilient is not about being unaffected by distress, it is about knowing how to work with it.

Following through systematically on one’s personal self care and encouraging colleagues to do the same is an integral part of pushing back against human cruelty.

Vicarious Trauma

Sometimes, the risks come from being in locations where violence is unfolding. But more often the issues arise from more indirect routes, which involve repeated immersion in traumatic detail. These include:

  • Close involvement with trauma-exposed sources (interviewing).
  • Viewing graphic images of violence.
  • Processing disturbing testimony (transcripts and direct recordings).

With vicarious trauma, one doesn’t need to be the direct target of abuse or violence to be affected by it. (Trolling attacks and other threatening communications are distinct but connected problems.)

Reactions and Responses

First, some good news. There are certain features built into the work itself that are protective. Having a strong sense of personal mission, professional detachment, knowing how to see issues from different perspectives, and working in supportive teams all contribute to journalist’s personal resilience.

Nevertheless, the following negatives may accompany high levels of vicarious trauma exposure:

  • Concentration difficulties
  • Irritability
  • Physiological disturbances (muscle tension, sleep and digestion issues, impaired immunity, etc.)
  • Lower mood with an increased predisposition towards negative thinking
  • Themes from work content seeping into one’s own life and worldview
  • Difficulty trusting and connecting to others
  • Guilt or shame
  • Deep exhaustion

Contrary to common mythology, these kinds of distress reactions don’t by themselves imply anyone has a longer-term emotional injury of any kind.

All the issues listed above are natural (albeit unwanted and unpleasant) by-products of essential survival reactions that happen when our bodies anticipate the possibility of violence.

Usually, tricky reactions to trauma resolve naturally, once exposure to the threat is removed (that could be high volumes of disturbing material) and the mind-body connection has the breathing space it needs to relax back into a lower level of arousal. This may take days or several weeks.

It is important to note that during an ongoing crisis — such as living and working in a war zone — reactions are likely to stay higher for longer, while the conflict continues or if constantly seeing reminders of the conflict when it is over.

Taking the current situation of Russia’s war of aggression in Ukraine as an example, a journalist who has been reporting near the frontlines may experience their stress load reducing after coming back to a safer part of the country. But it is unlikely to reset back down to peacetime levels while the general situation of the war is continuing.

war crimes self-care trauma Cameraman filming a broken destroyed house in Ukraine after Russian missile strike. The news agency is broadcasting live from scene of explosion. City Dnipro. Russia war against Ukraine

Cameraman filming a destroyed house in Dnipro, Ukraine after a Russian missile strike. Even after leaving the front lines and returning to a safer location, journalists covering war can still experience higher-than-normal levels of stress. Image: Shutterstock

Just because some level of impact is natural and expected, doesn’t mean it doesn’t need attention and active management. The reactions listed above interfere with work and life, and can, if ignored, lead to more persistent difficulties.

The first things that make a difference here are awareness (psychoeducation or understanding what is going on), social support, and self-care.

In some situations, the question of whether or not to seek outside clinical support might arise. Some journalists find psychotherapy helpful for personal or work-related issues. The point at which seeking outside help becomes advisable (rather than optional) depends on the context.

In a war situation as discussed above, reaction levels are likely to be higher than usual, periods of living on edge, feeling numb etc, are far from uncommon. Individual clinical support is recommended when a journalist or team member is in crisis and has significant problems with daily coping and being able to manage emotions and otherwise simple tasks. (An approach called psychological first aid may be useful if you are in touch with a colleague who is struggling.)

The situation is different once a war has ended, or a journalist has left a war zone and returned back to a country that is at peace. Then, unusual difficulties that persist for long periods of time and don’t respond to self-care, such as overwhelming sadness, incapacity to feel, or persistent anger might well mean that the help of a specialist therapist is something to explore. Burnout, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are possible consequences of heavy loadings of continuing vicarious trauma exposure.

Most people recover from traumatic experiences given time. It is not that losses are forgotten, more that they become easier to manage.

There is no single formula for well-being and mental health. If you are struggling and worried about how you are coping, it is important to seek out help.

Being in Other Peoples’ Pain

Some journalists discount personal impact because it seems so trivial in comparison to what their sources are going through. That is understandable but a fundamental misreading of what’s at stake.

Effective interviewing depends on empathy — the ability to see things from other peoples’ perspectives. Being in someone else’s emotions in this way also opens up the possibility that aspects of those preoccupations can come back across the bridge of connection. A journalist can start taking on some of their interviewees’ helplessness, guilt or shame, without being fully aware of it.

Over time these fractional impacts may build up. One potential consequence is becoming jaded and intolerant of others’ distress — a clear problem when interviewing vulnerable people. This is sometimes called compassion fatigue but empathy fatigue would be a more accurate term.

There is only so much time one can spend working with visceral traumatic imagery or seeing traumatic events through someone else’s eyes. We need the capacity to detach as well as to connect.

Things That Help

1. Watch Exposure Levels

Think of empathy as like a muscle: it is essential for meaningful work, but only becomes stronger with adequate recovery. On top of that, investigations are more often marathons than sprints.

And so:

  • Space interviews out. Don’t pack too many into a single time period.
  • Work with the worst material when you are feeling freshest — containing distress is harder when tired.
  • Avoid unnecessary repeat exposure. A Dart Center guide has more specific tactics for working with traumatic imagery⁠ that can also be applied to working with written accounts.
  • Build in frequent breaks. From time to time, try and shift your perspective onto less charged aspects of the story or unrelated matters. (If you are stuck in a chair, best to get up and move.)
  • Spend time away from devices. Don’t be “on” 24/7: media professionals get plenty of news exposure during working hours. Reminders of work can add to background stress levels and play havoc with sleep.
2. Know Your Signs

Each of us will have a tell-tale indication that we are becoming run down. It could be muscle tightness, a sore throat, unusual irritability, or sudden bouts of self-criticism. Whatever yours is, it is a cue for tapping into something restorative.

An effective journalist is a well-rested one.

3. Aim for Tolerance Rather Than Elimination of Distress

This may sound counterintuitive, but managing distress is not about trying to banish uncomfortable thoughts and feelings. That is not realistic in daily life — let alone when investigating war crimes.

Instead, aim to turn their volume down, so that they have less power to crowd out the positives that still apply in life. Identifying what is going on can help loosen distress and open up space for a greater sense of control. Fighting with discomfort can intensify it.

4. Follow Through on Self-Care

We all have a pretty good idea of what recharges our internal batteries. The challenge is doing it on a regular basis, especially when projects are urgent and engrossing.

Be aware that high volumes of negative content itself can squeeze out more positive ways of thinking, intensifying a drift into overworking, and making it harder to connect to restorative activities.

Constructing mini-rituals can help. Think small and easily achievable: 10 minutes of exercise a day will be more valuable than two hours every other weekend.

You might also find some kind of personal checklist helpful. The following schema uses the simple mnemonic device BodyMind — Spirit to create three headline check-in questions one can return to regularly (every day, if useful).

Body: How am I looking after my physical wellbeing?

Start here. The body is where tension originates. Exercise, adequate hydration, eating a nutritious diet, and good-quality sleep all help down-regulate stress. Note:

  • Even light exercise (stretching, walking, dancing, etc.) can help shift mood and restore equilibrium.
  • Consider mastering a rapid stress-regulation technique, such as deep diaphragmatic breathing or progressive muscle relaxation. (These are now routinely taught to soldiers and emergency workers operating in high-stress environments.)
  • Sleep is important. You may want to google “sleep hygiene.” (Sadly, alcohol is not a sleep aid — it impairs sleep quality even in small amounts.)

Mind: How am I approaching things in my head?

The lenses we apply to the problems we face make a significant difference. When working with trauma, it is helpful to cultivate the ability to purposefully detach so that one is half in and half out of the material — and not hooked on fixed ideas. (Some people find mindfulness helpful for this.) You might find these questions useful from time to time:

    • Am I taking on more than I can realistically achieve?
    • Am I blaming myself for something that is really beyond my control?
    • Am I identifying with a particular contributor in a way that feels unusually intense?

If you score a yes on any of these three questions, you might want to stop and unpack why that is. Talking things through with a friend or trusted colleague can help. The same goes for ethical dilemmas or feeling stuck on a story approach. Journaling and more creative forms of writing can also help with this kind of processing.

self-care coping journaling

Journaling and other forms of creative writing can be an effective way to deal with stress and process trauma. Image: Shutterstock

Spirit: What am I doing to connect to things that feel bigger than me?

Spirit, soul, transcendence. It doesn’t matter how one labels this dimension. When working with trauma, horizons often contract, making it easy to lose connection to other, deep aspects of our values and relationships.

This third level is about doing things that keep us plugged into life’s wider possibilities and meanings.

A substantial body of research shows that engagement with people we care about and an attachment to values and a sense of purpose that takes us beyond a narrower sense of ourselves is closely associated with personal resilience.

For journalists, some of these benefits come from the work itself, from a commitment to journalistic mission, and professional ethics. But that is best balanced with outlets outside of work. Here are some examples of activities that offer these benefits:

      • Spending time in nature
      • Attending events that bring a feeling of awe (concerts, sporting events, religious or spiritual events, etc.)
      • Creativity (art, music making, gardening, etc.)
      • Practicing small acts of kindness to strangers
      • Charity work and volunteering
      • Nurturing personal attachments and friendships
5. Embrace the Collective

As the last section suggests, this discussion is not just about self-care, it is also about collective concern, and colleagues watching out for each other. We are all more likely to do what is needed to look after ourselves if those around us support that enterprise — and are doing the same.

Remember, trauma exposure may leave individuals feeling isolated and fragment our sense of connectedness in news teams. So this is a dynamic process, requiring constant monitoring and effort. Managers and editors need to lead this, but every journalist has a role to play in making sure colleagues feel supported. Strong team solidarity is also a powerful way of pushing back against outside intimidation.

Other Resources

First Draft’s Guide to Handling Vicarious Trauma

Approaches to Vicarious Trauma from Different Professions: Medical Staff, Human Rights Lawyers, and People Working with Victims of Crime

Gavin Rees is Senior Advisor for Training and Innovation at the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, an organization which is dedicated to promoting ethical approaches to the coverage of trauma and violence. With a previous background in broadcast journalism and documentary filmmaking, Gavin has been working since 2008 as a trainer and consultant to news organizations, film production companies and media support organizations in more than 25 countries. He was a leading producer on the BBC film “Hiroshima,” which won an International Emmy in 2006. He is a board member of the UK Psychological Trauma Society, and was on the board of the European Society for Traumatic Stress Studies for more than ten years.

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