Best Practices in Trauma Reporting

Since 1994, the Dart Center for Journalism & Trauma (hereafter referred to as the Dart Center) at the University of Washington and its predecessor, the Victims and the Media Program at Michigan State University, have recognized outstanding trauma reporting through the annual Dart Award for Excellence in Reporting on Victims of Violence. (The Dart Center has administered the award since 2000; prior to that, the award was administered by MSU’s Victims and the Media Program.) Each year a cross-section of judges composed of journalists, clinicians and victim/survivor advocates has selected a newspaper article or cohesive series of articles from approximately 50 entries in an intensive two-tiered evaluation process.¹ The top prize is given to the entry “that best portrays victims and their experiences with accuracy, insight and sensitivity while illustrating the effects of violence on victims’ lives and the process of recovery from emotional trauma.”

The 12 winners of the Dart Award from 1994 to 2005 represent all regions of the United States and deal with a wide range of topics. Recognizing that exemplary news stories about victims of violence involve the coordinated work of journalists, editors, photojournalists, design and layout professionals and others, the award is actually a team prize. Winning teams have come from newspapers in Alaska, California, Maine, Maryland, Michigan, New Jersey, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Texas and Virginia. Finalists and Honorable Mention recipients further broaden the geographical swath. The nature of violence covered in winning articles has included incest, arson, terrorism, domestic abuse, sexual assault, gang-related shootings and other gun violence. Some of the winners have been large newspapers with daily circulations in the hundreds of thousands, whereas others have had daily circulations under 100,000.

In short, Dart Award winners show that outstanding trauma reporting is possible in a wide variety of contexts. These articles also show that the urgency of writing about violence and its consequences exists in communities of all sizes and demographic characteristics.

What makes these particular articles so good? For starters, they adhere to the criteria that the Dart Center has established for excellence in trauma reporting (see sidebar).

While the criteria are helpful for judges evaluating the merits of articles that have already been written, these criteria can also serve as helpful guidelines for journalists and journalism students preparing to write news stories about victims and survivors of violence, their loved ones and their communities. As they set out to collect their facts, conduct their interviews and consider their angles, they can think of the award guidelines as questions that they would ask themselves before, during and after crafting words into stories as a constant check for ethical, sensitive and compelling reporting. The following checklist, derived from the criteria, may help journalists writing about trauma critique their own work:

□ Does my story portray victims of violence with accuracy, insight and sensitivity?

□ Is my story clear and engaging, with a strong theme or focus?

□ Does it inform readers about the ways individuals react to and cope with emotional trauma and the process of recovery?

□ Does it avoid sensationalism, melodrama, and portrayal of victims as tragic or pathetic?

□ Does the story emphasize the victims’ experience rather than the perpetrators’?

If the answer to any of these questions is “no,” the journalist should consider whether the story can be enhanced or improved by changing it so that the answer is “yes.”

1. Prior to 2000, newspaper coverage of a violent event – such as the bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma – met eligibility criteria for the award. In the year 2000 and beyond, eligibility was limited to single articles or a cohesive series of articles, such as a serialized story on the same topic.