Best Practices in Trauma Reporting

After 12 years, the Dart Award has amassed a rich resource of “best practices” in newspaper reporting – articles that are forming the basis for research and educational materials that journalists and journalism students can learn from as they develop their own skills and sensitivity in reporting on violence and trauma. Although these examples for best practices come from the print media, the principles they espouse can be applied to other media formats as well, such as broadcast (radio and television) and online news.

The news media have long been criticized for their insensitive coverage of victims of crime and trauma. The Dart Award provides an opportunity to recognize news teams who are raising the bar in trauma reporting and setting high standards of journalistic excellence for their colleagues to emulate and build upon. “What I’ve learned,” says Migael Scherer, director of the Dart Award for six years up to 2005, “is that you don’t teach people a thing when you’re always telling them that they’re wrong. You need to catch them doing it right.”

This best practices guide has “caught” journalists doing it right. It is based on a systematic analysis of Dart Award winners that collectively represent a “best-in-class” of trauma reporting. One way to study this topic is to start with some of the basics, such as reflecting on the Dart Award criteria (specified earlier) used for evaluating excellence in trauma reporting, as well as reviewing the Dart Center web site and the book, Covering Violence: A Guide to Ethical Reporting About Victims & Trauma by Roger Simpson and William Coté. Then look at some real life examples of articles written about real people in real communities.

The following is a list of best practices, starting with some conceptual aspects of trauma reporting and progressing toward more detailed and specific examples. The thing to remember is that these are not absolute rules but rather guidelines or issues to seriously consider. There will occasionally be exceptions to these guidelines. One hopes that these exceptions are made after an informed discernment process.

The goal of this best practices guide is not to provide a template for trauma reporting, although the specific examples should be useful for journalists working on similar stories or faced with similar ethical dilemmas related to trauma reporting. The goal is to help journalists produce professional, insightful, informative, ethical and engaging stories about difficult subject matter by using other journalists’ successful ideas, insights and experiences as an inspirational guide. Of course, each journalist writing about trauma will find his or her own voice and perspective when crafting the story. But that voice and perspective may be informed by the voices and perspectives of those who have already engaged in the process effectively.

The following section discusses narrative elements and other considerations that reporters should keep in mind when writing about violence and trauma. Some of these elements are presented as best practices examples. Other elements are more explicitly presented as suggestions or recommendations.