Safer Viewing: A Study of Secondary Trauma Mitigation Techniques in Open Source Investigations

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Elise Baker, Eric Stover, Rohini Haar, Andrea Lampros, Alexa Koenig
Publication Date
June 18, 2020
Publication Type
Journal Article
Investigations Program, Open Source Investigations, Public Health


Human rights investigators often review graphic imagery of potential war crimes and human rights abuses while conducting open source investigations. As a result, they are at risk of developing secondary trauma, a condition that can produce a range of cognitive and behavioral consequences, including elevated anxiety and distress, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder. Human rights organizations have traditionally been slow to recognize the risk of secondary trauma. However, in recent years, several university programs offering students practical experience in open source human rights investigations have implemented training on secondary trauma mitigation. We administered a survey to students in these programs to determine whether they are implementing recommended mitigation techniques and to document what techniques they find helpful. From 33 responses, we identified six general practices as helping mitigate secondary trauma: processing graphic content, limiting exposure to graphic content, drawing boundaries between personal life and investigations, bringing positivity into investigations, learning from more experienced investigators, and employing a combination of techniques. We also identified recommendations for institutions to protect the right to health of investigators and to support secondary trauma mitigation, both through frequent training and through practices such as labeling graphic content and emphasizing self-care. The article concludes with areas for future research.