Best Practices in Trauma Reporting

Central to the best practices in trauma reporting is the tenet, based on the Dart Award judging criteria, that entries “should take victims as their subject matter rather than crime or violence per se. The focus should be on the victim’s story rather than on the actions of police or perpetrators, with emphasis on understanding the effects of violence rather than on anger, revulsion, or revenge.”

“Margie wants to remember more. No she wants to forget.”

This is a kind of basic philosophy for excellent trauma reporting. Violent criminals and perpetrators should not be the heroes or the attention-grabbing protagonists. This doesn’t mean that the perpetrators should never be mentioned in the article. It means that the victims, survivors and their loved ones are not simply incidental to the story – mere supporting actors to the starring role of the perpetrator. Such an angle is offensive to those who have been traumatized and irresponsibly shines the limelight on perpetrators, who may bask in the attention. It may be too optimistic to say that most readers would necessarily find the focus on perpetrators offensive as well. The lives of violent people have been showcased in many movies, novels and television programs for a long time – often to popular appeal. However, real life tragedies require more socially responsible portrayals. You don’t have to sustain a bad diet for people already gorging on junk food.

All of the Dart Award winners focus on victims, survivors or their loved ones. This is not surprising, of course, given the entry guidelines. Just focusing on these subjects, however, was not enough. Most articles focused on victimized people’s resilience if they survived the violence. (Not all victims did.) In the mental health field, such a focus might be termed a “strengths-based perspective,” identifying inner strengths and external resources that help people overcome barriers to a meaningful life. In the winning articles, victims are portrayed as survivors. Survivors may still be suffering, but they are not immobilized and powerless. Rather they are persevering and rebuilding their lives. Some have found meaning in their tragic experiences. Here are three examples:

  1. In “Malignant Memories” (1994), three adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse support each other as they come to terms with their past and find meaning in their present. Their emotional struggles continue, but they have found strength in each other and a growing happiness through their strong friendship.
  2. In “Test of Fire” (1995), Emmett Jackson is badly burned and disfigured by a malicious fire that killed his wife and daughter. Jackson’s rehabilitation was long and painful, and he will never regain his former appearance, but his passion for life is unstoppable. He is grateful to be alive and will use whatever resources available to make his life a happy and meaningful one.
  3. In “Legacy of Love and Pain” (2003), Angela Hudson nearly dies after her ex-husband ties her up, douses her with gasoline and sets her on fire. The love and devotion of her family – especially her mother – comes through powerfully in this story. Angela makes a slow recovery, but her family’s support coupled with her strong will to live help her through her darkest days.

Not all stories have resilient victims. Realistically, sometimes the end result of violence is more tragic. In “The Short Life of Viktor Alexander Matthey” (2002), the victim dies before the story is even written. These stories, however, have another point to make, such as problems in the current system of checks and balances or the effects of abuse hidden from public knowledge. In “The Joseph Palczynski Story” (2001), much of the narrative focuses on the abusive perpetrator, but it is to show how his manipulative nature deceived and harmed his victims. Their names are boldly showcased on the cover page of the special report, perhaps indicating that it is their trauma which lies at the heart of this article, not the perpetrator’s.

Even when there are resilient victims, the resilience may be wavering. “Margie wants to remember more. No she wants to forget.” These two sentences from “Malignant Memories” (1994) convey the sometimes contradictory feelings that arise in recovery. The goal for the journalist when focusing on survivors should not be to simplify the recovery process but to describe it honestly.