Best Practices in Trauma Reporting

Winning articles fell into two large but clearly identifiable categories: 1) The Extended Personal Narrative and 2) The Social Impact Narrative. These are not necessarily mutually exclusive categories, but the focus of the articles tended to emphasize one approach more than the other.

The Extended Personal Narrative

The Extended Personal Narratives are just that: extensive and personal. Emotional trauma is a difficult topic to report on because human suffering is often a very private and personal experience. It is clear from the articles that use the Extended Personal Narrative technique that the journalist had to develop a trusting relationship with his or her subjects and enter their world for a period of time. These people were often vulnerable and still suffering from their emotional wounds, but they trusted the journalist to tell their stories to a broader audience, even allowing themselves to be photographed despite sometimes disfiguring injuries.

Interviewing and interacting with someone who has been traumatized can be awkward and uncomfortable for both the journalist and the interviewee. Because telling these stories requires that the journalist gets to know the human subject of the article and their psychosocial context well, not just superficially, the Extended Personal Narrative almost always take much longer to write than a conventional hard news story. Journalist Michele Stanush and photojournalist Lynne Dobson followed the progress of Emmett Jackson, a man badly burned in a house fire, for more than a year before the two-part article about him was published in the Austin American-Statesman. In writing her 26-part series called, “A Stolen Soul” (1999) – which portrayed a tormented mother’s long struggle to see her son’s murderer caught, tried and sentenced – journalist Barbara Walsh spent “hundreds of hours” with the murder victim’s mother, Yong Jones. During the investigation, Jones’ husband also died.

After winning the 1999 Dart Award, Walsh explained what some of her meetings with Jones were like:

I called Yong and met with her the following January. Her son’s killer had yet to be tried. I was overwhelmed by her sadness. She sat in her darkened living room surrounded by dozens of photographs of her murdered son and dead husband. She cried throughout the two hours I talked with her. And at times during our first meeting, I cried with her. Though the local paper had covered her story, no one had told her story from start to finish. No one had explained who this mother was and why she was so desperate to save her son’s soul. I told Yong I wanted to tell her story as completely as I could in serial form. To gather enough details for the serial, I’d need to spend hundreds of hours with her. I knew before the story was done, this mother’s grief would keep me awake at night and I would not only cry when I talked with her but when I typed my notes and wrote each of the chapters.

Walsh echoes the sentiments of many journalists who report on violence and have shared in the pain and sadness of their interviewees. At one time journalists were less likely to reveal that they were emotionally affected by the subjects they covered, but a more open climate seems to be emerging in a growing number of newsrooms that not only permits but encourages candid reflection about the psychological effects of covering violence. The Daily Oklahoman, for example, is one newspaper that has a consistent policy of providing counseling for its journalists when needed. The need for this policy became apparent after the 1995 bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City, and its current managing editor, Joe Hight, is a longtime supporter of journalism and trauma education and outreach. This gradual change in attitude toward openly discussing how trauma affects journalists is a positive alternative to “compartmentalization,” a process in which journalists practice a sort of dissociation from their emotions and go about their business as if everything is fine when it is not. This process may be necessary at times for the short-term, so that journalists who cover trauma can fulfill their professional obligations to the news organizations and the public they serve. Problems tend to occur, however, when compartmentalization interferes with journalists’ psychological well being, manifesting in self-destructive or anti-social behaviors such as alcohol or substance abuse, smoking, unreasonable argumentativeness, depression, dysfunctional relationships, sleep difficulties, lack of motivation and so forth.

Writing about other people’s trauma is difficult, time-consuming and often energy-sapping work – but very important work nonetheless. It can also be rewarding, and not just in the laudatory sense of the word. Producing an engaging, well-crafted and sensitive news story about crime victims, survivors and their loved ones is not only good for the reputation of the news organization and its employees, but it is also good for their communities. A civil society – people engaged in activities that improve and enhance the social welfare – can only be achieved if people are “connected” with others in their community. One of the functions of the news media is to help people make this connection and to care – not only about those they know, but also about strangers who are in some way also a part of their lives.

Writing about other people’s trauma is difficult ... but very important work nonetheless.

When people are connected to their community (however they may define this concept), they are more likely to respond with empathy to stories about other people’s pain and suffering than with a disinterested gaze. They are more likely to be moved and want to do something: express their support for the victim or the victim’s family; help pass legislation assisting crime victims; speak out against the personal violation or social injustice; demand public safety accountability; and so forth. The personal tragedy of strangers becomes a communal concern. Mass media research over the decades has shown that mediated messages and images can have an effect on the way that news consumers think, feel and act. That is what makes The Extended Personal Narrative a powerful technique to talk about trauma. The story is not just about one person’s – or one family’s – trauma. Rather it is about trauma to a part of a community.

The Social Impact Narrative

The Social Impact Narrative does not eschew the personal story, but it is not focused on any single person (even though it might include stories about individuals). Rather, the Social Impact Narrative tells the story of a broader social problem or phenomenon such as gang violence, terrorism or people on the run.

The hundreds of articles written after the Murrah Federal Building bombing in Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995 were a mixture of Act One and Act Two stories, as well as Personal Narratives and Social Impact Narratives. In the days, weeks and months following the blast, The Daily Oklahoman was helping readers connect to the lives of individual victims, survivors and families. For example in one article, published two days after the blast, a relatively short news story talked about two young brothers who “clung to the hope” that their mother had survived the tragedy. “The boys’ distress turned into a real-life nightmare about 1 a.m. Thursday,” the article said. “That’s when three men and a woman, all clad in their best Army green, arrived at the door with the horrible news.” They told the boys, who were being looked after by a neighbor, that their mother had not survived. The greater story was about the significant impact the bombing had on the community, but it was personalized by stories about real people and their real losses.

The Social Impact Narrative tells the story of a broader social problem or phenomenon.

“The Path of a Bullet” (1997) and “Homicide in Detroit” (2005) also weave social impact narratives with personal narratives. These stories clearly focus on larger community concerns while introducing readers to members of that community directly affected by the social problems around them. Unlike “A Stolen Soul” (1999) or “The Test of Fire” (1995), which focuses on a single person’s journey for the duration of the story, the Social Impact Narrative is more of a macro-analysis.