A Decade of Journalistic Innovation

Mike Walter, Kate Bramson, Phil Williams, Bruce Shapiro, David Loyn, Melissa Manware Treadaway and Lori Grinker at the Dart Society reunion.


This past weekend I flew out to Indianapolis for a birthday party: the 10th anniversary of the Dart Center’s Ochberg Fellows program. The Dart Society — made up of alumni of the fellowship along with winners of the Dart Award — organized an extraordinary reunion for the occasion, alongside the annual Society for Professional Journalists conference.  About half of all the Ochberg Fellows from the last decade made it to Indianapolis, and the Dart Society organized food, talk, sharing of ideas; a generous array of public panels for SPJ; and awards, including the emotional presentation of this year’s Mimi Award for exemplary editorial leadership.

 The Ochberg Fellows program launched in 1999 with a simple idea: Let’s have an annual seminar program for journalists, enriching their understanding of the science and psychology of trauma and the ethics of covering victims of violence. We’ll include local and international journalists, storytellers and picture-makers alike. We’ll hold it in partnership with the International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies, the leading academic organization of trauma specialists, so fellows can have access to the world’s top clinicians and researchers.
The first class had six fellows. Now there are 78, plus the just-announced 2009 Ochberg Fellows who will assemble in November.

The idea may have been simple but from the beginning, the fellowship program has also reflected an ambitious, not-so-hidden agenda: to change journalism itself, empowering a network of reformers who would set a new standard in compassionate reporting, who would challenge outdated practices and mentor colleagues.

Have the Ochberg Fellowships succeeded? A few weeks ago I spent two days in the newsroom of the Wailbingener Zeitung in Germany, not far from Stuttgart.  In April, at a school in the nearby town of Winnenden, a former pupil shot fifteen students, teachers and bystanders to death.  The local newspaper’s staff — some of whose children were classmates of victims — sought the Dart Center’s advice in charting a roadmap for their coverage over the next year.  Sitting in their newsroom, I found myself remembering specific conversations with a dozen fellows.  I was able to pass along to this keen German news team the lessons Fellows had shared after covering Columbine, Oklahoma City, Belfast, Port Arthur, New York City and the Pentagon, Virginia Tech, New Orleans, Tbilisi.

(See the Dart Center’s multimedia package on how to cover school shootings.)

A decade ago it was radical to talk about reforming reporters’ approach to victims, and unheard of to consider occupational trauma among journalists. But following that very first seminar, Ochberg Fellows took the initiative, spreading ideas and expertise through water-cooler conversation with colleagues and by authoring guidebooks, tip sheets, workshops, web pages, videos.  A few fellows have collaborated with scholars in pioneering academic research, and others have developed curricula with journalism instructors — indeed some are now journalism professors themselves. 

In Indianapolis last weekend, it was a little surprising to feel something like optimism as I looked around the room. Journalism needs innovation right now, and that is what, after ten years, the Ochberg Fellowship program and Dart Society continue to be about: A network of compassionate, imaginative journalistic innovators, breaking new ground in reporting, in storytelling, in the mission of journalism itself.

Image of (right to left) Mike Walter, Kate Bramson, Philip Williams, Bruce Shapiro, David Loyn, Melissa Manware Treadaway and Lori Grinker at the Dart Society reunion, courtesy of the Dart Society.