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It’s OK to take care of yourself: What fact-checkers need to know about online trauma

This is the second in a series of blog posts exploring this topic, culminating later this year with a guide for fact-checkers on mental health and well-being. Learn more about the program here.


By Emma Thomasson, Training Manager of the program Mental Health Leadership for Fact-Checkers.

Our second training session was led by Naseem Miller, senior health editor at The Journalist’s Resource, a project of the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard Kennedy School. Here’s what we learned.

1. There are a few key terms that are important to understand: vicarious trauma, moral injury and online harassment

We started with key terms to understand this topic, to help get us on the same page.

Vicarious trauma

Journalists can experience vicarious trauma from witnessing and reporting on traumatic events, even if they do not directly experience the traumatic event themselves.  It can be a pathway to psychological injury, including social withdrawal, anxiety and PTSD.

Here are some key points about vicarious trauma:

  • Images on a screen can take on a life-like quality in the brain.
  • Viewers feel shame: “How can I be distressed? I’m not reporting from the field.”
  • Images might be a reminder of personal experience, which risks retraumatization.
  • Compared to reporters on the ground, viewers don’t know the full story. There is no context for the images they see online, nor a natural beginning or end.
  • It is a different route to PTSD, not a different condition.
  • Journalists of color and LGBTQ+ journalists are at higher risk (particularly if they report on communities they belong to).
Moral injury

Fact-checkers might be exposed to moral injury, defined as perpetrating, failing to prevent, bearing witness to, or learning about acts that deeply transgress our moral/ethical values. This is distinct from vicarious trauma, but might also result from watching traumatic events online.

That can be compounded by the sense of a betrayal of what’s right by someone who holds authority in a high-stakes situation, such as a manager in a news organization. 

Moral injury may prompt feelings of shame, guilt, outrage, sorrow, disgust and despair.

Online harassment

Fact-checkers are also at risk of online harassment, which ranges from nasty comments to severe bullying to explicit sexual and death threats via emails, social media and text messages.  They might face organized attacks from state-sponsored trolls.

At particular risk of online harassment are: women, people of color, ethnic minorities and people from the LGBTQ+ communities. This is prompting some professionals to leave social media or even quit their jobs.

2. Fact-checkers are at risk, but may be too ashamed to ask for help

Viewing distressing content online can carry some of the same risks as reporting from the field, but people who are affected might not seek help because they feel shame that they are not putting themselves at the same physical risk as reporters or protagonists on the ground.

Katarina Subasic, editor in AFP’s fact-checking team for Europe, put it this way: “Who are we to feel bad? We are not the ones who are suffering.”

She added: “If they say they are affected, people are worried they won’t get the big assignment.

But Naseem Miller stressed: “We need to break the selfless-activist mindset. It’s OK to care about yourself.”

3. Organizations and managers can help with vicarious trauma by noticing the signs and symptoms, and then taking action

There are warning signs of problems that colleagues can look for.  These include the following:

  • Colleague is irritable/snappy/emotional
  • Appears overwhelmed by work, unable to focus, withdrawn.
  • Performance slips.
  • Frequently off sick/fatigued.
  • Shows little care in appearance.
  • Reduced motivation, changes routine (stops participation in sport, social activities).
  • Appears to be excessively drinking/taking drugs.

In response, organizations and managers can take action in the following ways: 

  • Check-in on staff regularly: managing vicarious trauma and moral injury is a conversation that never stops. Keep having that conversation.
  • Create support networks of colleagues.
  • Create a debrief process for people working on potentially triggering stories.
  • Encourage colleagues not to check videos on WhatsApp or outside of work. Only look at it on computers/laptops: don’t take it to bed with you!
  • Put in a rotation system so that not only one fact-checker/editor is working on triggering stories.
  • Put videos on mute unless you have to listen.

There may be times to seek access to professional help. However, in some places, seeking therapy is still taboo, or there are few therapists available or their help is very expensive:  “In my culture, we don’t go to therapists,” one participant said.

4. Organizations need policies to prevent and respond to online abuse

Online abuse is often seen as an occupational hazard for journalists and fact-checkers, but as trolls have become more organized and vicious, responding has become a matter of media freedom. Here are some steps organizations can take to protect their reporters:  

  • Use safety assessment procedures to decide whether a story is worth the risk.
  • Know your trolls: are they local, global, campaign-specific, any patterns?
  • Are your systems blocking as much abuse as possible?
  • Clear guidelines on how staff use social media and share personal data.
  • Offer tools to delete old/embarrassing tweets and posts.
  • Is there a need for training on managing online abuse?
  • Communicate what support is available to staff who suffer abuse.
  • If a colleague is under attack, help them to get off the platform and shut down the account: don’t engage with trolls.
  • Provide legal support.

However, policies can only go so far, especially as fact-checkers feel a conflict between the pressure to build an online community and brand, and the need to protect online safety: “I do share pictures of food and exercise, but that’s as personal as I get,” one fact-checker said.

Also, there is the danger of the Streisand effect, when an attempt to hide or remove personal information backfires by increasing public awareness of it. It is named after  American singer and actress Barbra Streisand, who tried to suppress a photograph showing coastal erosion near her clifftop residence in California but that effort drew far greater attention to the previously obscure photograph. (Source: Wikipedia)

Sometimes fact-checkers and their managers have to accept that online abuse and potential trauma are the unavoidable price they pay for their jobs. What’s crucial is entering with open eyes and preparing a plan of action for supporting yourself and your colleagues before an event occurs.

5. There are many ways to care for oneself

During the workshop, our participants discussed other self-care tips, which included:

  • Have a ritual to signal to your body and mind that your working day is over (especially when working remotely): light a candle, read a book (pretend you are commuting on a train), change your clothes.
  • Focus on what you can control
  • Hang on to hope (for example, actively seek out solutions/constructive stories).
  • Find hobbies and activities that bring you joy.
  • Try a mindfulness or spirituality app like Spiri or Calm

 Naseem shared a poem during the workshop that we wanted to close with:

“O Me! O Life!” by Walt Whitman:

“The question, O me! so sad, recurring—What good amid these, O me, O life?


That you are here—that life exists and identity,

That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.

You just read the lessons learnt by our English-speaking cohort. If you speak Spanish and want to read some learnings of the Spanish-cohort, click here.
The feature image has been AI-generated.
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