An experienced journalism educator shares her teaching points for accurate, emotionally conscious stories and images.
The University of Washington's program "Covering Traumatic Incidents: A Curriculum for Training Student Reporters" has become a core element of the Advanced Reporting course. Educator Migael Scherer explains that the program's three two-hour sessions are designed to progressively prepare student journalists to sensitively interview trauma victims and to craft responsible coverage. Here, Scherer shares her teaching points for accurate, emotionally conscious stories and images. The text used for all sessions is Covering Violence: A Guide to Ethical Reporting About Victims & Traumaby Roger Simpson and William Coté (Columbia University Press, 2006).
Session 1: Knowledge and Understanding
Explain the value of trauma education: Reporters often need to cover traumatic incidents such as natural disasters, murder and war. When journalists understand the effects of trauma, their coverage of violent incidents improves, better serving readers and viewers. Point out how reporters fit into the circle of trauma along with police officers, firefighters and other first-responders. Learning about trauma helps journalists prepare for covering such stories.
Define and explain the following trauma-related terms (refer to Chapter 1):
post-traumatic stress disorder
Provide examples of defined terms, again referring to Chapter 1. Explain how news coverage re-traumatizes when it causes disabling responses to emerge. Cover the interviewing tools cited in Chapter 5.
Next, have students watch a video in which two reporters interview victims of trauma. Ask students to identify what helped and what harmed the victims. What could the reporter have done differently?
Following the discussion, briefly describe the next session's interactive interview scenario: Actors will portray victims; Every student will have a chance to interview; All will observe; Discussion will follow each interview. Explain that the experience will build confidence for on-the-job interviewing. Encourage students to re-read Chapters 4 and 5.
Ask students to write down thoughts, feelings and questions elicited during the session. This helps students learn to turn their reporting skills inward and process the lessons. Collect the responses.
Session 2: Application and Analysis
Students will be anxious for the interview scenario. First, focus their attention with a variety of closure responses. Review lessons from Session I. Thank students for their written responses. Share the range of their submissions.
Again, explain the interview scenario: Actors will portray victims; Students will take turns as reporters during five-minute interviews; A three-minute discussion will follow each interview; Remind students that the interactive scenario will prepare them for on-the-job interviewing.
Divide the class into four groups, each with four to five students and one instructor ("coach"). Remind the students to stay with the role for the full five minutes; Encourage them to keep interacting and keep trying.
Describe the traumatic incident and the role of the "reporter."
Actors enter the room, and the scenario begins. At the completion of each interview, concentrate on helping students identify what they did well as much as what they did wrong. Encourage group members to learn from each other. Try to catch students doing right. Ask the group:
Which verbal and non-verbal techniques were helpful?
Which were harmful?
Be prepared for a variety of responses. The exercise may trigger traumatic memories, eliciting strong emotions from students. You must be ready to support them.
The scenario is complete. Introduce the actors. Ask them to describe what worked and what was harmful in the interview. Students can ask questions. If time remains, students should again write down thoughts, feelings and questions.
Now, instead of simply applying definitions and examples as they did in Session I, students should be able to analyze their actions and those of their peers. Ask them, "What advice would you now give about reporting on traumatic incidents?"
Session 3: Application, Analysis and Evaluation
Discuss Session 2
Ask students what they did after Session 2. How did they feel? How did they clear their minds? This helps students identify methods of self-care. Give them an outlet to share their thoughts.
Provide examples of real headlines, stories and photos of traumatic events. Encourage students to identify strengths and weaknesses of each example within the context of their learning. Ask them, "How can words and photos help or harm?" Discuss the importance of creating an accurate account (under deadline pressure) of how violence affects a community.
This final step depends largely on the time and resources available, as well as your creativity. Basically, have students create something. It could be an editorial assignment, complete with relevant sources, based on their experience. You might assign a next-day story with a length requirement and a deadline. Or you might simply provide more scenarios and ask students to apply their learning to write headlines and leads. Give students an opportunity to explore how they can incorporate the program's lessons into their own writing and photography.
A teacher and consultant to the Journalism and Trauma Program, Scherer has spoken on television, radio talk shows, and at workshops and conferences on the subject of trauma, victims and the media. She is the author of Still Loved by the Sun: A Rape Survivor's Journal.