Best Practices in Trauma Reporting

A relatively early research study by Simpson and Boggs (1999) called, “An Exploratory Sudy of Traumatic Stress Among Newspaper Journalists,” was published in the Spring 1999 issue of Journalism and Communication Monographs. This study of 131 participants from daily newspapers in Washington and Michigan showed that journalists were susceptible to traumatic stress after exposure to traumatic events they covered as news stories.

Other studies have supported this finding. Feinstein’s (2003) Dangerous Lives: War and the Men and Women Who Report It is written by a neuropsychiatrist who studied the effects of trauma on war journalists. He found that many of these journalists experience work-related psychological distress, including Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, alcoholism and depression.

How prevalent is exposure to traumatic events among journalists? Pyevich’s (2001) doctoral dissertation involved conducting an online survey of 906 newspaper journalists at daily newspapers in the United States. She found that more than 95 percent of them covered at least one violent or traumatic assignment in the year 2000 in which they were personally threatened, exposed to events in which people are hurt or killed, or indirectly involved with events in which people are hurt or killed.

The Dart Center has been providing information and resources to news organizations and journalists who have been exposed to trauma and violence directly or indirectly. A seminal book on journalism and trauma was authored by Coté and Simpson (2000) and is currently being updated. Called Covering Violence: A Guide to Ethical Reporting About Victims & Trauma, the book discusses the science of trauma and relates it to the journalistic experience. Interviews with journalists who have covered violent crime stories and actual story examples are included in the book. This text provides substantial conceptual and practical information for journalism students and practicing journalists alike.

Another publication that is of practical value to journalists is Ross’ (2003) booklet called Beyond the Trauma Vortex: The Media’s Role in Healing Fear, Terror, & Violence. This booklet provides bullet-pointed information about trauma and its second-hand effects on the public (via the media) and on journalists themselves. The author has enumerated four goals in writing this publication: 1) To provide information on the nature and characteristics of trauma the media can pass on to the public; 2) To explore the issue of second-hand trauma and its effect on journalists, and offer tools to cope with it; 3) To explore second-hand trauma’s impact on the public with suggested guidelines for the media to avoid contributing to it; and 4) To learn how to work with the “political trauma vortex” and enhance the power of the “political healing vortex” (terms which she explains in her booklet).