Best Practices in Trauma Reporting

Traumatic events happen in just about every corner of the world. A number of Dart Award winners, Honorary Mentions and Finalists have had an international component to the narratives. In “A Stolen Soul” (1999), writer Barbara Walsh spends considerable time constructing a historical context around her primary interviewee, Yong Jones. This meant going back to Yong’s childhood: “The 5-year-old girl with the almond-shaped face and solemn brown eyes” who “looked to the sky as the sirens screamed over Inchon, Korea.” Walsh revisits an earlier trauma in Jones’ life – World War II – and the warplanes dropping bombs from overhead. To understand Jones’ life as an adult and mother of a murdered adult son in the United States, readers would first have to understand Jones’ life as a child in her native Korea.

In 2005, the two Honorable Mentions for the Dart Award were both international in scope. “Women of Juarez,” published by the Orange County Register, was an eight-part series about survivors in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, a community that has seen hundreds of women killed in the past decade. The other Honorable Mention, “The Healing Fields,” published by the Rocky Mountain News, was a 12-part series about a local couple who survived the Cambodian killing fields and returned years later to help others. Both stories required extensive reporting from foreign countries where violence had taken its toll on the human population.

In “The Short Life of Viktor Alexander Matthey” (2002), writer Matthew Reilly had to “travel halfway around the world and back” to tell Viktor’s story. In his acceptance speech for the Dart Award in 2002, Reilly said he asked himself this question as he embarked upon telling Viktor’s sad story: “How did a boy near death from starvation and exposure in eastern Siberia wind up emaciated, battered and dead of hypothermia in the wealthiest county of the wealthiest state of the wealthiest nation in the world?” To answer that question, Reilly had to go to Viktor’s home in Russia, the orphanage he lived in for a time and elsewhere. Although he never met Viktor because the boy was dead by the time he wrote the story, Reilly said he felt as if he knew him. Bridging two starkly different cultures, Reilly and photojournalist Saed Hindash was able to show that sometimes violence and neglect knows no cultural boundaries.

Dart Award Director Migael Scherer had this to say about the winning article that year (April 11, 2002):

Last year ended with an enormous story. This is a small one, about a very small victim. Yet it encompasses so much of what we need to understand.

“The Short Life of Viktor Alexander Matthey” is an intense and spare depiction of the life of a Siberian boy. His violent death is told against the larger story of his birth parents, of the orphanage that briefly shelters him, and of his abusive adoptive parents in America. Overcoming the challenge of reluctant sources in the U.S. and in Russia, the reporter and photographer retrace Viktor’s life and take readers into his heart. They speak for all voiceless victims to expose child abuse and neglect as a global problem, and to deftly show how religion is used to justify inexplicable cruelty. No country or culture is immune.

Viktor’s story ends powerfully, with his mother’s words and image. Her remorse and humility engage us all in the process of justice and restoration as our own shock turns to awareness of what needs doing: Acknowledge wrongs. Remember the past. Connect.