In Pennsylvania, a Trauma Journalism Movement is Taking its First Steps

Toward the end of the day, Frank Ochberg was thinking out loud: Maybe, he told a group of journalists, we’re starting a trauma journalism movement here in Pennsylvania.

More than 20 journalists — from eastern and western Pennsylvania and from newsrooms large and small — had gathered July 30 in Harrisburg, Pa. for a trauma journalism seminar put on by the Pennsylvania Newsmedia Association.

Ochberg, trauma psychiatrist and founder of the Dart Center, was a featured speaker along with author Dave Cullen. Ochberg told the group that many of his professional colleagues don’t understand the journalist’s role in bringing true and deep stories about trauma to the general public.

The seminar was about ways journalists can do that work better, and about ways they can support colleagues who might be affected by covering such stories.

He said those at the seminar have a chance to “create something that hasn’t been there before — to have a movement. Have something better than what has existed before.”

Journalism, he said, is behind other professions, such as law enforcement, in using behavioral science to help protect the mental and physical health of its practitioners.

Cullen told the group about his experience covering Columbine — both at the scene and in the years afterward as he worked on his book. One thing he didn’t realize, he said, was “how much it was messing with me.” The feeling of finishing his project, he said, “was crucial.”

Cullen also talked about lessons learned at Columbine, such as keys to interviewing trauma survivors.

“It really is how you go about it. They really want to tell you this stuff,” he said of survivors telling their stories. “The thing I was most nervous asking about, they usually want to tell, but it’s a matter of how to get there.”

Open-ended questions, he said, can help. If a survivor wants to talk about a particular subject, he or she might take such a question as an invitation to tell a story.

Jason Plotkin / York Daily Record: Dr. Frank Ochberg, psychiatrist and trauma specialist, and author Dave Cullen share a lighthearted moment during a trauma journalism seminar July 30 at the Pennsylvania Newsmedia Association.

At the York Daily Record (YDR), we’ve been working to help create that movement Ochberg was talking about. We worked with the PNA to help bring Ochberg and Cullen to the seminar (with the vital help of the PNA Foundation). YDR visual journalist Jason Plotkin, Trentonian editor John Berry and I presented at the seminar on the Digital First Media peer-support program that we created for DFM’s East Coast properties. (That program was created in partnership with the Dart Center).

Now that the YDR is owned by Gannett, we hope to propose the program to its properties (and we hope to be a resource for any other organizations on these issues).

And the movement might be going beyond that. After the seminar, Pat Bywater, executive editor of The Meadville Tribune, wrote:

“I am going to put this information together and get it further upstream to see if we can’t implement a peer support plan companywide. That would touch more than 100 newsrooms.”

That’s pretty much exactly the kind of thing Ochberg — and the rest of us — have in mind.


A version of this blog was originally published by the York Daily Record.