How Clinicians Can Help Journalists Cover Disaster

"If I asked you to fill in the following statement, 'Journalists are __,' what's the first thing that pops into your head?" Elana Newman, research director of the Dart Center, posed this question Monday as part of a webinar she co-hosted with Dart Center Executive Director Bruce Shapiro. In a disaster, when interviewing and reporting on victims is inevitable, the gap between a clinician's answer and a journalist's answer to this question can be the difference between stories that are both sensitive and effective and stories that are neither.

Clinicians — the main audience of this webinar, part of the Terrorism, Disaster and Children Speaker Series of the National Child Traumatic Stress Network Learning Center — often think journalists are fundamentally bad for victims. In fact, Newman said, "We really don't have good evidence one way or the other." 

Journalists, Shapiro said, generally see themselves as following a professional code, committed to the  truthful reporting that is essential to public safety, awareness and recovery. But they do their jobs to get and tell the story with all the stress and little of the training of other emergency responders."Most journalists have no training on how to cover traumatic events and yet are expected to do so from the second they land on the job."

This lack of training is where clinicians can help, by educating journalists who lack knowledge, skill or sensitivity in working with traumatized children. "No one expects a journalist to have the expertise of a trauma clinician," Shapiro pointed out. "But if we don't know who to call ... if we don't know who the expert sources are ... it's a lot more challenging."

The webinar explored disaster coverage in three phases:  before, during and after the event. For each phase, Newman and Shapiro explained journalism's function and provided strategies for clinicians to engage with them to improve and inform coverage, from inviting journalists to sit in on disaster planning exercises to sponsoring joint, post-disaster conferences on community response. "Clinicians," Shapiro said, "are going to be helping journalists make [difficult news] decisions ... are actually part of that first draft of history."

The audience of clinicians, participating online and by phone, seemed warm to the central message that building relationships with the media is mutually beneficial. The questions pressed for more concrete advice: How to deal with an overly aggressive reporter? 

How to use social networking? How to prepare for appearing on TV? 

For the answers to these questions and much, much more, the full presentation is available on the NCTSN website.

See our Clinicians page for more resources for clinicians.

And see our Tips and Tools pages for more on covering Disasters or Children and Trauma.