Best Practices in Trauma Reporting

Because newspapers have access to the criteria for the Dart Award before they submit an entry, most of the articles submitted for the award reflect the criteria to some degree. The winning article, however, not only “pulls it all together” best – as determined by a diverse panel of discerning judges – but also has an emotional impact on the reader as any good story usually does.

The Dart Award winner for 2005, “Homicide in Detroit: Echoes of Violence,” published by the Detroit Free Press, is a six-part series that seamlessly integrates extended personal narratives (i.e., in-depth profiles of individuals) with social impact narratives (i.e., macro-analytical implications of specific problems). The murders discussed in the Free Press series, for example, are framed as part of a larger social problem and yield disturbing statistics, but the crimes also touch the lives of ordinary people who often exhibit extraordinary resilience in the face of the senseless violence around them. One of those people in the article is 62-year-old Margeree Jefferson, who was interviewed and photographed scrubbing down her porch one morning to remove the blood left there by a shooting victim. The language is at once literal and symbolic.

“This is the reality of living inside a murder scene – a grandmother has to wake up early and clean up the blood of a stranger before it dries and leaves a deep stain that might never come out,” writes journalist Jeff Seidel. In the next paragraph, this one line stands alone: “Some stains never do.”

The photographer, Eric Seals, provided the powerful images that accompanied and enhanced the articles. Although the dark thread of violence is woven through the series, the photographs are not gratuitously violent. There are a few disturbing photos, appropriate to context, but many others simply show people deeply affected in one way or another by the violence and suffering that have stained their community. The photo of Margeree Jefferson, mentioned earlier, might even be interpreted as a symbol of strength – a woman resolved to maintain peace and normalcy in a community where both are disrupted on a regular basis. The blood on her porch is stubborn and doesn’t come out easily. But she continues to scrub, and the stains eventually wash away. Then she washes herself up, changes her clothes and attends a parade with her son, daughter-in-law and grandchildren. The people harmed by violence are portrayed with dignity and sensitivity in the article. Cold hard statistics are humanized by the universal language of pain and healing.