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Writing about people’s pain and suffering doesn’t come easily to most journalists. It is not a subject that is typically taught in journalism schools, at least not extensively, even though emotional trauma will probably be an unavoidable component of many journalists’ future work. Murder, sexual assault, torture, war, terrorism, arson, domestic abuse and intimate partner violence – not to mention devastating natural disasters – are subjects that appear repeatedly in the news media and can occur almost anywhere in the world. Even something as seemingly routine as a car crash can provide journalists with their first glimpse of extreme suffering or tragic death. All of these experiences – especially when they involve human violence and malicious intent – can contribute to considerable psychological distress for victims, survivors, their loved ones, as well as the journalists who tell their stories.
How and where does one begin to learn how to write about violence and trauma?
The Dart Center for Journalism & Trauma – a global resource for journalists, journalism students and health professionals dedicated to improving media coverage of trauma, tragedy and conflict – has produced this practical guide for writing about trauma using 12 years of Dart Award winners as models of journalistic excellence. It is intended for journalists and journalism students who are untrained in trauma reporting (or who want to enhance their basic training) and is a complement to another Dart Center publication, a small guidebook called, Tragedies & Journalists: A Guide for More Effective Coverage.
Because the Dart Award is U.S.-based, many of the examples used in this guide are about news events that occurred in the United States. Trauma, however, does not recognize geographical boundaries. A case in point: the Detroit Free Press journalist and photojournalist who were part of the team that won the 2005 Dart Award for “Homicide in Detroit: Echoes of Violence,” wrote about violence in an American city. However, these same journalists also witnessed violence in Iraq when they were assigned there.
The tips offered in this guide are meant to apply to traumatic events wherever they occur.
Recognizing the importance of sharing knowledge about trauma reporting internationally, the Dart Center supports journalism and trauma programs in various parts of the world, including programs coordinated by Dart Centre Europe and Dart Center Australasia. The Dart Center web site also features content from or about Africa, Latin America, the Middle East, Europe, Australia, Asia and elsewhere. Mark Brayne, Director of Dart Centre Europe, served for 30 years as foreign correspondent and senior editor for Reuters and the BBC World Service. Now a transpersonal psychotherapist, he has developed and implemented trauma training and support for journalists at the BBC and produced Traumatic Stress: A Training & Support Handbook. A key message Brayne offers in the handbook is:
People react differently to trauma and traumatic stress. Some cope without trouble. Many will find trauma distressing, but get over it fairly quickly – usually within a couple of months. A minority however – journalists and programme-makers included – will experience more serious physical and psychological distress. It is vital that this is recognized, understood and accepted.
Trauma reporters would be wise to embrace this insight from a psychotherapist and fellow journalist. Wishing you good writing – as well as good mental and physical health – as you embark on this rewarding and often challenging work.
Your contributions help the Dart Center nurture informed, innovative and ethical news reporting on violence, conflict and tragedy worldwide.
The Dart Center is a project of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.