Best Practices in Trauma Reporting

Articles about violence and trauma vary in their propinquity (or nearness in time) to the traumatic event being written about. Sometimes the news story is written soon after the news event (e.g., the next day or a few days later); other times the news story is written months, years, or even decades later (as in the case of “Malignant Memories,” 1994).

One way to begin a simple classification of news stories about trauma is by conceptualizing them as a series of “Acts,” a term used in live theater to divide a long performance into parts. The movement from one subdivision in the play to another tends to denote the passage of time as well as the development of plot and characters. Act One is the first part of the play, where the story initially unfolds. By Act Two, the audience already knows the story – thanks to Act One – but expects a continuation or a follow up. Usually there is an intermission between Act One and Act Two.

News stories can make use of the “Acts” concept as well. Sometimes news stories involving trauma are reported immediately or very soon after the traumatic event occurs. For example, to use an extreme case, when the World Trade Center twin towers were attacked on September 11, 2001, news stories began appearing on television, radio and online minutes after the incident, and then of course for days and weeks thereafter. News articles that appeared during this time can be referred to as “Act One” news stories because of their close propinquity to the news event and their function of answering the most immediate questions of who, what, when, where and why for a concerned and frightened public. Act One news stories can vividly show the horror and tragedy associated with a traumatic event. The iconic video footage of the two planes crashing into the World Trade Center twin towers and the collapse of those buildings minutes later is an example of how visual images can be replayed over and over again first on television and then in our heads. These images conveyed the magnitude of the terrorist attack to television viewers in the United States and around the world.

“We watched to learn, to absorb, to begin the process of digesting horror and terror and the irrevocable change in global conditions,” explains Frank Ochberg, M.D., a psychiatrist, pioneer in posttraumatic stress disorder studies and Chair Emeritus of the Dart Center’s Executive Committee. But not moving on from Act One can delay the process of healing and recovery.

“Like many traumatic stories,” Ochberg continues, “we, the viewers, get stuck in Act One, replaying in our own minds what is replayed on TV screens: the shocking images of human destruction,” Ochberg says. “We all must move on to Act Two, when painful healing occurs and humanity is restored.” Journalists writing about the Act Two stage can help the public find personal meaning in tragic circumstances and “develop strong images of hope and healing, to inspire and confirm our best human instincts.”

“We must move on to Act Two, when painful healing occurs and humanity is restored.”

Although news about September 11 never completely disappeared, the volume of news decreased as time passed and weeks turned into months. Predictably, as the one-year anniversary of September 11 approached, the volume of news increased. Journalists began re-visiting the subject, writing the “Where are they now?” type narratives and trying to put their finger on the pulse of America one year after the tragedy. This can be referred to as the Act Two stage of news reporting, a continuation of the story after a brief intermission but perhaps told from a different perspective or angle, less focused on the exposition of basic facts than on an analysis of long-term consequences. How have people (e.g., survivors, family members, etc.) fared since the event? What salient issues continue to linger? How have people moved on with their lives? How do they choose to remember the tragedy and honor those who lost their lives?

The time span between Act One and Act Two news stories is not fixed and precisely quantifiable. The one-year anniversary of a significant news event (and sometimes ensuing anniversaries thereafter) often marks the commencement of Act Two news stories. However, other developments also tend to trigger follow up stories after a period of declining news coverage. In the case of a violent crime that generated tremendous news coverage when it first happened, for example, the Act Two news stories might emerge when the case goes to trial. That could be months or even years after the crime.

Sometimes news events are revisited many years later, beyond the typical Act One and Act Two stages, such as in contemporary news stories about Vietnam combat veterans and the emotional distress that many of them continue to experience involve war-related trauma that occurred decades ago. For ease of analysis, this kind of story is still referred to as an Act Two story, although theoretically they might also be looked at as Act Three stories since their propinquity to the news event is so distant.

Using the “Acts” classification scheme mentioned above, most of the Dart Award stories fall into the Act Two category, with the exception of articles that appeared right after the Oklahoma bombing. This makes sense because the process of healing and recovery after a traumatic event is usually gradual. However, even an Act One story can provide important glimpses into human resilience, compassion and hope.

Regardless of whether a story is told during the Act One or Act Two phase, they have the potential, as Dr. Ochberg suggests, “to inspire and confirm our best human instincts.”