Journalistic Trauma:Vicarious and Direct

Recently, the online video clearing house “Storyful” published a video of its employees expressing feelings of revulsion and repugnance about horrific scenes of violence they must watch in the course of their jobs. Storyful, headquartered in Ireland, gathers video from a multitude of sources around the world, including other social news organizations as well as eyewitnesses to events, and verifies their authenticity before making them available to news outlets and advertising agencies. Robert Thompson, CEO of News Corp, Storyful’s parent company says in a news release, “Storyful has become the village square for valuable video, using journalistic sensibility, integrity and creativity to find, authenticate and commercialize user-generated content.” In this day and age of terrorism, violent video is a daily bill of fare.

Not everything the screeners at Storyful see is graphic and distressing. But, much of it is.  Bombings, beheadings, mass murder, torture, natural and man-made disasters. One screener says “We witness things every day that are disturbing.” Another says, “We were just being bombarded by endless videos of civilians in difficulty, children suffering, terribly brutal content.”  Prolonged exposure to those hideously atrocious scenes, they say, can be draining. One young man offers, “Its that point where you’ve been sifting through information all day and its been coming from all points of the world. And you sit back and you sort of go, oh my God, everything is so messed up.”  Those images can not be easily unseen. One of the women in the Storyful video who watched hours of images from the massacre in Paris says,  “It is something that has tended to rear its head when I’m at home.”

What they are seeing, day after day, has a name. “Vicarious Trauma.” Sometimes called “Compassion Fatigue,” Vicarious Trauma, according to the American Counseling Association, is “the latest term that describes the phenomenon generally associated with the cost of caring for others.” It is usually equated with counselors who “become witnesses to the pain, fear, and terror that trauma survivors have endured.”

Of course, the screeners at Storyful do not come in direct contact with trauma victims. While the videos they see are horrific, their experiences are somewhat sanitized by virtue of the computer screens they use to do their jobs.  Some of them understand that. Says one, “No matter what I feel, its nothing compared to what people on the ground see everyday, and live every moment. ”

It is a point some journalists who have spent years “on the ground,” in the line of fire, have made in response to the Storyful video. They do not necessarily dismiss Vicarious Trauma. Rather, for them, the difference is a point of reference. Call it Direct Trauma. Or as John Keats, the 19th century English poet wrote, “Nothing ever becomes real ’til it is experienced.”

One veteran news cameraman puts it this way, “The CLAP of a shell nearby, nasal burning stench of days old corpses as oppose to still burning dead flesh, 35 degrees celsius (95 degrees fahrenheit), walking by dozens of  dead bodies on the ground with ice blocks on their blackened chests, the “click” of an unlocking AK, pepper gas burning your neck/forehead and you are wearing a mask, THUDS of 50 cals, an Adidas with a foot in it, half a baby, legs in the air in the rubble, silhouette of a person sitting arms out, shaking, burned flesh falling onto hospital bed……..does not translate well onto a 16:9 monitor frame with 4″ speaker.” Another journalist who has also been there says, “Its not the sights you see, but the odors you smell that make you gag.”

For me, it was the sights and the odors. And the sounds. The screams. The ravenous flys. The mess of blood, brains and body parts. It was all that and more. There were many frightful scenes I witnessed in my years as a radio and TV journalist. But the one that stands out, the one that still returns, unbidden, to my memory nearly  35 years later was in Sabra and Shatila, Lebanon.

Sabra and Shatila were Palestinian refugee camps in West Beirut. In August of 1982, I had been sent by ABC News to Beirut to cover the long running Lebanese Civil War and the resulting conflicts involving Syria and Israel. In mid-September, our Beirut Bureau got word that something important and deadly was happening in Sabra and Shatila. The reports, at the time, were sketchy. Facts were few. I was in the midst of filing live reports for our broadcasts back in New York, so we asked cameraman Brian Kelly to go check things out.

I will never forget the look on Brian’s face when he returned to the Bureau sometime later. His face was ghostly white, his eyes wide and he kept repeating, “They’re dead! They’re all dead! They’ve all been killed!” We asked him who was dead. Brian said, “All of them. All of the people in the refugee camps. They’re all dead!”

From September 16 to September 18, 1982 between 450 and 800 Palestinian men, women and children were victims of a massacre blamed on the Lebanese Christian Phalange Militia, allies of the Israeli Defense Force. The massacre was said to be in retaliation for the assassination of newly elected Lebanese President Bashir Gemayel.

Recently, Brian Kelly recalled the horror he had witnessed. “I was sitting at my desk (years later) looking at pictures of my girls and the photo morphed into images of the bloated children’s bodies I had filmed at the edge of the camp. I had climbed onto what I thought was rubble to take my shots. It was rubble mixed up with bodies. There was a bloated and burnt body of a child maybe one year old in a sitting position. I was crying and shaking so much when I filmed, it was identified as amateur footage in a 20/20 program about the massacre.”

Accompanied by another film crew, I went out to the camps to find every thing Brian had said was true, and worse. There were bodies, bloated and bloodied, virtually everywhere. There were bodies in the streets, bodies in the homes, bodies in cars, some bodies with their hands tied together, some bodies missing limbs, some bodies unrecognizable. Some victims had clearly been lined up against walls and executed. Others appeared to have been shot down running for their lives. The most wrenching scenes of all were of the bodies of parents lying  on top of bodies of their small children, as if still hoping to protect them in death as they obviously had tried to do as they died.

It is hot in Lebanon in September and by the time news of the massacre spread most of  the victims had been lying in the bright, blazing sun for two days. The smell of massive death is unlike any other odor on earth. It, alone, makes it difficult to breath. The rivers of blood in the streets and gutters had begun to congeal. The flys, thick and determined, were relentless. To say it was a nightmare is a gross understatement.

The best way to deal with trauma, the experts say, whether vicarious or direct, is to talk about it. Perhaps writing about it helps, too.













Published by J. Paul Hickey

Author, Bass Player, Retired National Correspondent for ABC News - 32 years with the network - Retired in 2012. Narrates Audiobooks. Volunteer at Fort Sumter National Park. Holder of two university Honorary Doctorate Degrees, Distinguished Eagle Scout, former SCUBA diver.

One thought on “Journalistic Trauma:Vicarious and Direct

  1. My daughter will be teaching Syrian refugee elementary age children in the Detroit area this year.

    Will there be a word ascribed to their associated trauma?

    Will my daughter’s heart be able to rest evenings outside her classroom in order to regain the empathic composure required for the next day, and the next, and the following?

    Apprx 180 days of school with class size averaging 16-18 students.

    Do the math for stories shared.

    There can be no adequate calculation, nor words for the untold story of even one 8-10 year old refugee.

    Not in my book.

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