Ochberg Fellowship Program
By now, having completed this module, you should know what traumatic stress is; what PTSD, ASD and secondary traumatic stress effects are; what the effects of traumatic stress are; why it is important for journalists to know about these effects; how to interview people who have experienced a traumatic event; how journalists can deal with a stressful work life; and where to get more information for continued learning.
Interviewing trauma victims, as would be the case with any difficult interpersonal task, should improve with practice. In journalism school, sometimes students practice these interviews using role-playing and interactive drama. (See the Resources section for more information.)
Conceivably, media organizations could arrange for similar training for their employees, perhaps working with a local journalism program.
Generally speaking, the rules for interviewing trauma victims resemble the rules for being a good friend. Be respectful. Tell the truth. Be empathetic. Be responsive. Be accurate and fair.
Families often clip and save news articles about a murdered or injured loved one. It is disturbing to them if a name is misspelled or a statement of fact is inaccurate. Remember that after someone has died, artifacts that remind the survivors of their deceased loved one take on much greater significance. Treat photographs with special care if a survivor entrusts you with them. Keep in mind that news stories about the deceased person may become part of an important body of memorabilia for the family.
When approaching the parent of a murdered child, journalists should avoid asking banal questions like, "How do you feel?" or even "I know how you feel" (even if they think they do). A better way of starting interaction might be to say, "I'm very sorry about what happened to your daughter." Also, journalists should be wary of asking questions that might sound unintentionally accusatory.
Victims of violence and their loved ones have had the shock of human cruelty inflicted upon them. One of the goals of the Dart Center is to help train journalists not to add any further trauma to the lives of people who have already suffered enough.
Journalists can also suffer from extended coverage of traumatic events and need to be aware of the effects that such work may have on them mentally and physically. It is neither in the best interest of the journalist nor his or her subject for the journalist to be completely desensitized to other people's suffering. On the other hand, too much empathy can be debilitating. Like good news stories, balance is key.
Human cruelty is a sad fact of life and occurs both where you expect it and don't expect it. Sharing stories of trauma and tragedy can be helpful to those who are victimized as well as to society as a whole. The Dart Center attempts to help journalists tell these important stories with sensitivity and professionalism.
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.