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Published March 27th 2019

Analyst Problems: Practical Tips For Dealing With Sensitive Topics

Often, analysts will see things that are upsetting, gross, or depressing. In roles that require a lot of brain power but also exposure to harrowing content, how can we protect our mental health?

It’s no secret that nasty things exist on social media.

While my personal timeline tends to be pretty free of NSFW text and imagery, I see a whole lot of it when I’m trawling through mentions for the analyses I do – especially when I’m studying trolling and the like.

I’m not alone. Many researchers who work with unfiltered social media data can find themselves feeling vulnerable or stressed by what they see.

Edward Crook is Brandwatch’s Global VP, Research. He’s well aware of the broad range of public content the analysts on his team are exposed to.

“We have a duty of care for each of our team members, and that presents itself in two main facets,” he says.

“Firstly, we have a global policy that safeguards wellbeing. This is baked into project work flows, including internal reviews and mid-point check-in meetings. We also ensure the right to reallocate projects due to personal or ethical concerns.”

“Secondly, we have an open team culture. I am privileged to work with some brilliant analytical minds who question things for a living. We bring this questioning mindset in house, constantly seeking ways to improve and adapt. We empower team members to speak up when they have concerns and ensure they are heard.”

In the Strategy and Insights team’s regular global meet ups, analysts often bring along new methodologies or project ideas to discuss with their peers.

Jhanidya Bermeo is a research analyst based in Brandwatch’s Berlin office. She recently presented on the impact working on sensitive topics can have on researchers, and the practical steps they can take to minimize negative effects.

“I noticed that as a team we were attacking subjects that can be difficult for people, especially as social media continues to get more extreme. It’s not always taboo subjects – often analysts will tackle projects that are close to them, perhaps around health.”

All her tips were based on studying academic literature and written accounts of experiences in researching sensitive topics. Researchers working in difficult fields, perhaps with cancer patients or prisoners, often experience negative effects like feelings of guilt, stress, or desensitization.

It seems like there’s an abundance of literature on the effects of researchers doing face to face or ethnographic studies in emotionally-charged territories. Despite this, the reading available for those studying online environments with similarly sensitive subject matters is relatively thin. It’s surprising given the coverage of the plight of front line moderators in the press – they may not be interacting face-to-face with subjects, but emotionally-charged territories can often be found on screens as well as in the physical world.

“Academia can take a couple of years to catch up,” says Jhanidya, who’s helpfully translated some of the takeaways from studies on in-the-field research into tips for social analysts.

Practical steps for analysts researching sensitive issues

1. Debriefing and supervision

Jhanidya says that it’s important for researchers to have access to networks of colleagues and friends they can talk to throughout the research they’re doing for guidance and emotional support.

“We do this a lot in my team at Brandwatch, regularly talking about the difficult things we’re seeing and going through,” she says.

When I asked senior research consultant Ben Ellis about the subject, he totally agreed.

“It is OK to turn down or pass a request for analysis if the subject is personally triggering. Some topics might be personally sensitive, and if you’re in a team of analysts, it’s OK to voice this as a concern.”

2. Journaling

Journaling is mentioned a lot in the articles Jhanidya examined when looking for practical tips for analysts.

Emma Sherry’s writing on “the vulnerable researcher” opens with a journal entry and excerpts from her journal are used throughout the piece to illustrate the way researchers can be personally affected by the subjects they study:

“Whilst re-reading my notes during the analysis phase, as I waded my way through years of interview transcripts, observations, and journal entries, I was struck by the intense nature of these interactions, and their impact on me as both a researcher and a person. Key moments, or turning points, in my research journey leapt out from the page, when the reality of my participants’ lives started to take a personal toll.”

Particularly when researchers are working alone, and not part of a team, journaling can work as a kind of self-debriefing method that allows them to explore their own thoughts and feelings and the impact. Writing things down and keeping an honest record can help track mood over time, allowing researchers to be mindful of the emotional toll of their work and to seek help or advice where necessary.

3. Taking breaks, placing boundaries, and finding balance.

It’s easy to get sucked into a research project, particularly when you’re emotionally invested in it. That said, it’s important to schedule breaks and to be wary of spending extended periods of time immersed in hostile or difficult digital environments.

Meanwhile, especially with the help of journaling and your support network, being aware of your state of mind and recognizing when you’ve hit a limit or are feeling uncomfortable is so important for protecting your overall mental health.

Countering difficult research with rest, socializing, travel, hobbies, and exercise might seem like an obvious step, but it’s also the most crucial for decompressing.

Thanks to Ed, Jhanidya, and Ben for taking the time to contribute to this post.

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