From hate groups to real-life killers, television producers and researchers have to navigate frequent exposure to some truly disturbing content. Is it time to start talking about mental health?
Last fall, Matt Goerzen began dedicating eight hours a day, five days a week, to tracking down internet trolls, security researchers, media manipulators and hackers.
An associate producer and researcher for Viceland’s Cyberwar, Goerzen is tasked with investigating the dark ecosystem of cyberwarfare. Since joining the network, he’s pursued stories on tech developed to surveil activist communities, memetic warfare and malware that recruits unwitting devices for DDoS (distributed denial of service) attacks.
It’s a bleak, if fascinating, landscape to spend any amount of time in. For the episode on memetic warfare, the Cyberwar team closely perused white supremacist websites. The anti-immigrant Soldiers of Odin – classified as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center in 2016 — is another community with whom the series’ host, Ben Makuch, has spent a substantial amount of time, in the name of research.
“I knew what I was getting into,” Goerzen says of his job. But, he adds, “there have definitely been a couple of moments…where I can feel things were getting dark, and I kind of had to step back.”
On a recent episode of the podcast Unscripted and Unprepared, produced by Jimmy Fox in partnership with realscreen, Investigation Discovery EVP Jane Latman expressed a similar sentiment.
“It does affect me,” said Latman at the time, when asked about the darkness of ID’s true crime content. “I’ve always said that we laugh more than any other network on cable. We laugh all the time because I think we know that we’re dealing with such heavy, serious, dark things.”
Still, she confessed, “I have nightmares.”
Latman and Goerzen are among many in the industry working with content that could be described as psychologically difficult. Their accounts speak to a little-explored industry issue: consistent exposure to disturbing content and the toll that it takes on workers.
This is not an entirely new concern. In explicitly high-risk labor like that of human rights workers and first responders, stress and trauma stemming from overexposure are gaining recognition as occupational liabilities. This is partly due to institutional efforts to reconcile high turnover rates in these fields. In 2013, for instance, the American Psychiatric Association updated the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) to classify working with disturbing imagery as a pathway to post-traumatic stress disorder.
In other fields, discourse about work-related trauma is only starting to gain traction.
In journalism, for example, exposure to disturbing events or sources can be commonplace. Dialogue about its risks is certainly present, especially in relation to war correspondents or journalists covering explicitly violent topics. Following the State of Arkansas’ announcement in March that it was seeking to execute eight men over the course of 11 days, publications ranging from the Columbia Journalism Review to the Washington Post considered the emotional toll the events would take on the journalists permitted to cover it. In May, Steve Ladurantaye, managing editor with the CBC, tweeted about the training that the Canadian pubcaster provides journalists covering the dark net: a day-long course on how to cope with repeated exposure to triggering imagery.
In general, however, conversations about ethics in journalistic practice are oriented more around the responsibilities that journalists hold towards their subjects than the responsibilities that media outlets hold towards their journalists. That reporters will be exposed to disturbing events is assumed; the risk is inherent to the job. Meanwhile, discourse around the degree of ethical conduct owed to subjects of journalistic inquiry is consistently present, canonized in literature like Janet Malcolm’s classic 1989 study The Journalist and the Murderer and Gay Talese’s controversial 2016 The Voyeur’s Motel. Popular podcasts like Missing Richard Simmons and Serial have recently provoked similar conversations.
Negotiating between journalistic integrity — which prioritizes accurate reporting — and a considerate treatment of subjects gives rise to its own set of risks, though.
In television, production staff that pursue journalistic work know such risks well.
“We had one case of a child being murdered and assaulted,” says Ari Mark, co-founder of AMPLE, the production company behind A&E’s Cold Case Files reboot. “We’re speaking to the mother of the child. Speaking to her stepfather. We’re speaking to her brother.”
What’s difficult, he adds, is asking when to say “when.”
“You put this mother through a 12-hour interview…there’s a very fine line of ‘How far can you push the subject?’”
The issue is also prominent at Woodcut Media, a UK indie that holds a large focus in true crime, with credits including Murdered in the Line of Duty, Britain’s Most Evil Killers and World’s Most Evil Killers. According to executive producer Jinal Patel, a standard practice at the company is to contact the family members of spotlighted victims, to inform them that a program is being developed and, thus, to offset the shock of seeing their son, daughter, sibling or parent on television.
“One of our members of staff, she had to call [a] mother and the mother basically shouted, refused and said, ‘Just leave me alone, stop contacting me.’” The incident was a source of stress among Woodcut’s staff.
Harassment is another liability of this line of work. For Goerzen, the stakes are particularly salient, given the advanced technical skills of his subjects and their readiness to weaponize them. “One troll I was trying to interview — he wrote a very nasty email to me in response to one of my emails, and also screenshotted the email I sent him, and posted it on his blog. So all of his white nationalist friends could see it and ridicule me,” he says. “I was angry. My inclination would’ve been to raise the stakes and kind of fuck with him. But, of course, as someone who works at [Viceland], it wouldn’t have been professional, and it would’ve led to escalating it. And this guy is a hacker.”
Goerzen’s reluctance to engage was mirrored by all of the producers interviewed for this story. The overwhelming sentiment was to refrain from pushing back — if not necessarily against harassment, then against the opinions or questionable accounts related by subjects.
“Sometimes we talk to the killers,” says Kate Beal, co-founder of Woodcut. “The person who has to do that has to be non-judgmental, they have to be journalistic, they have to be professional,” she continues. “You can’t go in there with an agenda.”
Goerzen agrees that granting subjects the space to talk, and facilitating the conversation from a position of impartiality or even measured empathy, often results in better reporting. But it is a strategy that can lead to feelings of ambivalence, and even anxiety.
“In the moment, I just kind of try to ignore it, and keep the person talking,” says Goerzen of interviewing his subjects, many of whom verbalize explicitly racist views. He adds that seeing the subject talk with minimal intervention gives the viewer a better understanding of their character. “[But] there’s always this weird anxiety that by acting as if it’s totally normal to hear someone being virulently anti-semitic in a very casual manner — and not pushing back on that as someone talking to them — you have a weird anxiety that you’re also normalizing it.”
As production companies demonstrate a mounting readiness to tackle dark and difficult subjects, it bears posing the question: is it time to start a conversation about the mental health needs of production staff, much like the ones that have begun around first responders and journalists?
Some industry professionals feel a more productive way of pursuing this question might be to consider what production companies are actually capable of.
For Mark, accommodating the safety of his employees takes priority. But there’s a limit to what he can offer.
“We had an editor who looked at the footage [of a child being murdered]…He came up to me and said, ‘Look, I can’t edit this.’ We were like, ‘We get it, no problem. I wouldn’t edit it either.’” Mark reassigned the editor, but this isn’t always possible.
“It’s a freelance business, I think people understand this,” he says. “If it’s the only episode [we need to work on], it’s like, ‘Look — it’s this or nothing.’”
At present, moving employees or alternating them between difficult and more lighthearted content appears to be the most common course of action taken by production companies. Another policy for AMPLE is to be explicit with potential employees about the type of content they will be working with.
At Woodcut, a similar hiring practice is in place, in addition to monthly staff meetings.
“Every month I have a catch-up with our entire team for whatever production it is that we’re working on related to crime series,” says Patel.
“It’s a chance for the team to really express themselves and say if there are any issues that they’re struggling with. And they all know that they can come talk to myself or Kate (Beal) at any point, about anything that they’re struggling with.”
As for the future? “We are taking every challenge as it comes,” Beal says. “We’re trying to be a good employer that people want to work with and we want to attract the best talent to work with us.”
For Goerzen, cultivating an atmosphere of open dialogue is key.
“We talk,” he says of his colleagues on Cyberwar. “I think without that, it would get very dark. Having a colleague who empathizes and is experiencing the same thing is important. Otherwise it could get super, super dark. ‘Cause you just get consumed by this content.”