Best Practices in Trauma Reporting

Visuals complement the written text. All Dart Award-winning articles featured extensive displays of photographs, many of which almost filled entire pages of newsprint and fleshed out stories in ways that words alone would have difficulty accomplishing. In “Malignant Memories,” for example, more than 50 percent of the space that the newspaper devoted to the story was taken up by photographs. Readers saw the three adult survivors of sexual abuse on the front page of the newspaper, one woman with her arm around another, and the third looking on with concern, as they walk outdoors. By the end of the story, readers know the intimate details of these women’s lives, of their troubled pasts and their current emotional conflicts.

In other award-winning articles, photos and graphics may take up well over 50 percent of the page on some pages, with text almost serving as a footnote to the visual layout. “Path of a Bullet” contains perhaps the most literal representation of violent images than any of the other Dart Award winners. The front page of this special report shows a close-up of a 16-year-old Martine Perry – “longtime Boy Scout, gang member and beloved son” – lying on the ground after being shot in the head by a bullet. A bloody white cloth is crumpled near his head. The photo fills the entire top half of the page. A golden-colored bullet image (taken from a photo) lies on the bottom right-hand corner of the page with another image of a spent bullet casing nearby. A photo of the shooting victim as a 3-year-old child being held by his father on a sofa is positioned near the bottom center of the page and a hand-written letter written by his father is reproduced on the left-hand side of the page, bottom of the fold. The text on this page is relatively sparse. In large point size, it reads:

Three hours short of his 17th birthday, Martine Perry is lying naked on a stainless steel hospital table, life seeping out of his body. A baby wails in a distant corner of the emergency room. An elderly woman pleads with a nurse to hold off putting a tube down her throat. And Martine lies silent, motionless, blood oozing from his head, as eight people work frantically to revive him.

The impact of this page, taken as a whole, is profound. Although disturbing, the page design and layout is congruent to its weighty subject matter. It is attention-grabbing but also moving, connecting so many different and contrasting images simultaneously: youthful and happy innocence (from the three-year-old child photo), gun violence, grief, confusion and despair, and whatever else the reader takes from it.

Photojournalists have a special challenge when photographing traumatic images. Former Dart Award Director Migael Scherer profiled photojournalist Lynne Dobson, who was part of the winning team for the Dart Award in 1995, in Covering Violence: A Guide to Ethical Reporting About Victims & Trauma. Here is what Scherer wrote:

The paramedic described him as “a human being in tatters,” crisp skin hanging off in rags, more than 80 percent of his body burned. The fire, the work of an arsonist, took Emmett Jackson’s hands, nose, eyelids, and lips and killed his wife and baby daughter. Three years later photographer Lynne Dobson and reporter Michele Stanush of the Austin American-Statesman set out to learn how he had survived such loss and kept going. The result was an award-winning story, “The Test of Fire.”

The photos are compelling, not just for the respectful way they reveal such horrible injuries but for the way they transform the reader. Dobson turns the voyeuristic impulse to simply stare at a disfigured human and back away into a sense of connection.

Without the text to accompany it, the photographs of Emmett Jackson are jarring. With Dobson’s sensitive but unsentimental photos and Michelle Stanush’s engaging writing, however, the reader sees beyond the disfigurement. “He taught me to see through his appearance,” Dobson told Scherer for her profile. Dobson and Stanush, in turn, show the reader that a person is more than his physical attributes. Scherer writes:

She [Dobson] captures the nuances of posture that are as expressive as a raised eyebrow or the crinkle in the corner of an eye. There’s the set of Jackson’s shoulder’s – all attention – as the therapist teaches him to use a headset. The stiff determined stride as he jogs. The exuberance in his raised metal forearms as he watches a football game to which he drove in his own car. And, most especially, there’s the unexpected tenderness in Jackson’s prosthetic claws as he holds a worn open Bible, its page marked by [his wife’s] picture and obituary. The layout itself is a progression that reflects the increments of Jackson’s physical and spiritual recovery.

The total collection of powerful photographs purposefully embedded in Dart Award-winning articles would make a fascinating and engrossing study in itself. They capture fear and anxiety in a child’s face, inconsolable grief over the death of a loved one and a partial mirror reflection of a teenage rape survivor that serves to obscure her identity as well as symbolize her fragmented outlook.

A photo that the Dart Center has used in a number of publications is of an older woman’s hands holding a gold heart-shaped locket with the picture of a young man’s face encased within the heart. This photograph conveys meaning that would be difficult to put into words. We learn from the article, “A Stolen Soul” (1999), that the man in the picture is the woman’s only son, who was shot and left to die on a sidewalk in Baltimore. He eventually dies in the hospital, leaving behind a father and a mother who spent four years waiting for her son’s killer to be caught and sentenced. Some of the photographs show the utter anguish the mother feels for having lost her only child. The locket photo, however, shows only deep, devoted and unending love.

Another strategically taken and used photo appeared on the front page of the Providence Sunday Journal when it ran “Rape in a Small Town” (2004). Not wanting to visually identify the teenage rape survivor who is the subject of the article, the large front-page photo showed only a portion of her face as reflected in a hand-held mirror. The photo is subtly powerful in that it shows the young face of the survivor, but it is a partial or fragmented image, perhaps a reflection of the fragmented identity experienced after a violent assault. Under the photo is a caption, two lines out of the survivor’s journal: “It’s like I’m a walking dead girl. I think of the times I loved myself, better yet, liked myself.” The caption and the photo together speak to the trauma of surviving a sexual assault while affording some privacy to the survivor who is trying to heal from the emotional wounds left by her attacker.

“Children of the Underground” (1998) uses large, compelling photos throughout the pages. The front page features a photo of a 13-year-old girl with worry etched on her face as she holds a telephone receiver to her head. The scene behind is her dark, grey and dreary. Her hair is scraggly. She looks like she may have been crying. The photo as it appears on the page is more than 12 inches in width and eight-and-a-half inches in height. The first thing you see when looking at the page is the girl’s frightened, worried expression. The photographic layout in “Children of the Underground” is like a gallery of human misery, resilience and determination. The adult perpetrators and victims in this story are not always clear. The “truth” boils down to who the reader believes more, or believes at all. The children, however, have a kind of innocence that is captured in their photographs. They seem trapped or caught in a situation too complex for their young minds to analyze. All their faces seem to reveal is spontaneous, guileless feeling.

After carefully reviewing one Dart Award winner after another, one soon realizes how vital photographs are to the telling of a story. First of all, they can draw you in to a story, getting your attention from the get-go with an image that invites a closer look. Second, photographs can invoke immediate emotions as the image seen triggers an almost instantaneous reaction from the brain. And third, photographs are an important part of the storytelling process. Exposition, plot and denouement progress through both words and pictures.

Graphic art can also convey considerable information to readers in easy-to-digest visual representation. A number of Dart Award winners used graphic art, along with photography, as part of their stories. Timelines, boxed information, highlighted “factoids” and an array of other graphic representations can enhance the cognitive and visual impact of a story, as well as reduce complex details to a more reader-friendly format. Graphic art and photographs in “The Path of a Bullet” (1997) special report take up a large proportion of most pages in the report and draw readers’ eyes to a dynamic and striking layout rather than a static flow of text. These artistically crafted images, all created by Paul Penzella, provide information about medical costs, police costs, incarceration costs, hand gun types and – perhaps most startling – a graphic titled, “The Real Cost of a Bullet,” which details the economic costs of a 22-cent bullet as estimated from an actual case involving a real murder victim and four suspects.

Compelling, sensible and informative newspaper design and layout involves knowledge and experience by professionals. The Dart Award recognizes the contributions of these professionals, which is why the award is meant to be a team award. Remember: It takes a team to construct the total package.