Last week, millions of people got an intimate, horrifying view of the police killings of two black men, Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, via videos shared on social media.
This kind of mass spectacle has become common. Activists and victims are increasingly relying on eyewitness videos as evidence when alleging police brutality; the videos can be incredibly useful for both ensuring accountability and counteracting implicit bias.
But as raw footage of carnage is more widely generated and disseminated — albeit in the efforts to raise awareness or spur justice — many Americans, especially black Americans, are feeling a psychological toll.
What do these videos do to us? By watching and sharing them, are we actually helping to secure racial justice? Or are we just spreading the trauma around? We sought the counsel of some experts on vicarious trauma and racial trauma to get answers.
Trauma can be experienced vicariously. The more you’re exposed to traumatic images, the more you may feel it.
Graphic eyewitness videos and images are pretty ubiquitous these days, but it’s important to remember that it hasn’t always been that way. Advances in recording technology and the growth of social networks have made it possible to view violence and death half a world away at the click of a button.
Though there’s strong evidence that the world is actually becoming a safer place, the opposite can seem true when television screens and news feeds concentrate the most jarring global events on a regular basis.
While pretty much everyone with access to the internet can come into contact with distressing media, certain professionals are at greater risk of heavy exposure. For that reason, most of the studies conducted on the connection between eyewitness imagery and psychological distress have focused on journalists and social media managers— people who aggregate gore for a living.
Psychological research has shown that repeated exposure to disturbing eyewitness media can come at a high emotional cost. It's called vicarious trauma: When we see high quantities of violence against other people on computer and television screens, our brains can react similarly to if we had witnessed it in real life.
This distress can bring about symptoms of very serious psychological problems: nightmares, flashbacks, depression, even panic attacks.
In 2004, Sam Dubberley, co-founder of Eyewitness Media Hub, was a young journalist covering the Iraq War remotely from Geneva. As he followed the events, he regularly watched videos of the most brutal atrocities of the conflict: gunfire, bombings, and beheadings. "I remember being deeply affected," he says. "But I also remember not having the tools and vocabulary to understand what was happening to my colleagues and myself."
In order to better understand this type of emotional distress, Dubberley and Eyewitness Media Hub decided to conduct an independent study on the psychological effects of working on "the digital front line," viewing, collecting, and editing highly graphic media. They found that many of the subjects who dealt with disturbing eyewitness media displayed symptoms very closely associated with post-traumatic stress disorder.
"One of the big findings from our research from journalists both in the field and compiling social media content [was] you see a lot more violence and a lot more stressful imagery from social media than you actually saw in the field," he says. "I’m not saying one is worse; I’m just saying both have to be considered."
Dubberley’s team also found that vicarious emotional distress is highly subjective: What one person may find bearable, another might find completely disarming. The magnitude of a person’s response seemed to depend on the degree to which she could see herself reflected in the graphic imagery. People who had small children found it particularly hard to see children in distress. People with ties to specific geographical locations reported more traumatic impact when viewing media from those places.
So what happens to the rest of us when we see distressing images like Castile, heaving and bloodied, on our news feed? Dubberley defers to the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), the "bible" for categorizing psychological abnormalities. According to DSM-5, PTSD can be brought on through viewing disturbing digital media — but only when it’s work-related.
That delineation can sound a little arbitrary, but researchers argue that when it comes to vicarious trauma, it’s really the frequency of exposure that determines outcomes. The widespread consensus of the field is that people who watch disturbing media for a living see more of it than the rest of us and for that reason are more at risk for PTSD.
But some psychologists say the DSM-5’s definition of PTSD suffers from a glaring oversight: the psychological effects of racism.
Videos of race-related violence may cause racial trauma
Dr. Monnica Williams runs the University of Louisville’s Center for Mental Health Disparities. She’s one of the leading researchers in the nascent field of race-based traumatic stress injury.
"Traditionally, when we think about trauma, when we think about disorders like, say, PTSD, it’s often thought to be the result of a single, identifiable trauma," she says. "What we’re finding ... is that traumatization can happen from cumulative experiences of racism and discrimination."
The experiences of trauma can range from the historical to the cultural to the community level, Williams says.
A wide body of research supports this. One 2009 study found that the majority of black Americans report racism as a chronic stressor. In fact, that stress may be leading African Americans to age at a faster rate than whites: One study found that black women are biologically 7.5 years older than their white counterparts.
Some researchers argue that though disparities in health access and housing quality are part of what’s driving this trend, it’s also supplemented by the "wearing" effects of chronic racial discrimination.
Williams says eyewitness videos of police brutality really can bring about change. But she holds that repeated exposure to images and videos of brutalized black people can build on black communities’ preexisting experiences with racism.
"Seeing things that reinforce for people of color the idea that the world is not safe for us" can deepen a stressful worldview, she argues. "When you see someone on a video being shot and brutalized by police, you think to yourself, ‘That could be me.’ Or if not that, that it could be someone you love. So you feel it very deeply because it’s happening to a member of your community, someone who looks like you."
Williams cautions that the effects of racial trauma don’t have to amount to PTSD to cause real harm, nor do they all necessitate an intervention from a psychologist. "There’s a whole spectrum of responses that people can have," she says. "They don’t necessarily have to meet the DSM criteria of PTSD to be a real reaction that causes distress in people."
A simple, and often effective, coping mechanism is "finding a network of support, having conversations with family and friends, processing the feelings and making meaning out of them."
On this point, Dubberley agrees. "Emotional distress is a rainbow; it’s not like you’re broken or you’re not," he says. "PTSD is the far extreme, but there are degrees of distress that we should be thinking about with the goal of helping people avoid unnecessary distress."
Disturbing eyewitness recordings are here to stay. But we can learn to share them more responsibly.
We are likely to keep seeing a steady flow of distressing content that may trigger trauma, racially based or otherwise. And Dubberley and Williams say it’s critically important that people are given the choice of whether to engage with it.
In their study of digital front-line journalists, Dubberley’s team found that subjects regularly reported greater traumatic impact when they weren’t prepared to see disturbing content beforehand. According to Dubberley, things like autoplay on Facebook and Twitter and disturbing images shared without content warnings can take away that opportunity to mentally prepare oneself.
Some social media giants, including Facebook, have recently changed their sharing policies to include more content warnings. However, these mechanisms normally rely on users to report videos before the warnings take effect. Some critics argue that this approach takes too long and allows certain videos and images to fall through the cracks.
Williams says she’s particularly concerned about minimizing harm to kids exposed to this type of media.
"I worry about young people not knowing what to make of these media," she states. "It’s important for parents and teachers to have discussions with young people about these things and explain them in context so that young people of color don’t think that they’re just cannon fodder for police or for anyone who wants to victimize them. Just one way that we can share responsibly [is] to pair these videos with educational information and resources for help and support services."
Graphic eyewitness videos won’t lead to more justice unless they inspire action
Eyewitness recordings have done a lot to shift our national conversations on police brutality. But as Vox’s Dara Lind has argued, it’s not clear that they’ve actually led to greater police accountability. With progress on that front agonizingly slow and no apparent limit to the number of times videos of brutalized black people can be uploaded to the web, it can be increasingly difficult to identify the purpose the videos serve.
The chief danger at this juncture, Lind writes, is voyeurism: when the urge to bear witness becomes disconnected from political action and all we’re left with is the urge to just watch.
However, this voyeurism isn’t a victimless crime — when done irresponsibly, it fills the web with images of brutalized black people, hurting the same communities that eyewitness videos and body cameras are supposed to protect in the future.
Social justice isn’t just about punishing wrongdoing; it’s also about mitigating harm. Real advocacy means working creatively to stem that harm in addition to — and sometimes instead of — sharing videos on social media.
Without doing so, we risk supplanting one form of injury with another.