Best Practices in Trauma Reporting
Dart Award-winning articles, for the most part, tend to be long, much longer than a conventional news story that you would typically see in the newspaper. The challenges of writing about the complexities of violent crime and its far-reaching traumatic effects in a meaningful and informative way are considerable. These stories require time and space to inform readers about the effects of violence, keep their attention and move them to care about the subject matter.
For example, in “The Path of a Bullet” (1997), the Long Beach Press-Telegram effectively showed how the murder of a 16-year-old boy had far-reaching ramifications, not only on the boy’s family but on his community. The bullet used in the shooting only cost 22 cents, but the devastation and loss this violent act caused was virtually incalculable. The full impact of this traumatic event would not necessarily be immediately apparent; rather, it unfolds over time in a variety of manifestations. If this story had been written as a conventional hard news story, using the proverbial “Who, What, When, Where and Why” model, there would be less opportunity for the journalist and readers to explore and understand how many lives this single bullet – and the act of murder – has harmed and destroyed. The article shows how individual actions are often part of a system, where one event can reverberate throughout that system and trigger other events.
Writing about violence in such a complex manner is not easily done with brevity. As a result, many Dart Award-winning articles are fairly lengthy, taking up large amounts of newsprint and, more often than not, requiring a “special report” type format or more than one issue of the newspaper to fully tell the story. “A Stolen Soul” (1999), for example, took up 26 issues. Other stories were told within a single issue, but the newspaper devoted a large amount of space for the story, photographs, graphics and so forth. Despite the long length of some articles, a number of reporters who wrote winning articles have told the Dart Center that they had to cut their articles down by as much as half prior to publication. They also said that it was important to work closely with their team members – editors, graphic design and layout artists, etc. – throughout the writing process to ensure that the final story developed with their input.
Although many of the award-winning articles were written as extended personal narratives, the winning collection of Oklahoma bombing articles (1996) included noteworthy examples of reporting told in the conventional hard news format. These articles showed how an act of domestic terrorism affected victims, their family members, friends and community soon after the violence occurred as well as in the ensuing weeks and months. Because of deadlines for breaking news, journalists cannot always devote long periods of time to working on a lengthy story about violence, no matter how complex the circumstances. If a major tragedy has occurred, readers want and deserve to know about it as soon as possible. Under these circumstances, the news gathering and writing process can still be done with sensitivity and professionalism using the recommendations provided in this guide.
The length of an article is determined by a number of factors. What the reporter and the editor deem necessary to tell the story as completely and thoughtfully as possible is just one factor. In print news where space is a premium, the decision to allot large amounts of it to text and images for a single story is a serious commitment. The resulting piece, however, is often more satisfying for readers than a story that feels superficial and incomplete. Space and story length considerations need to be discussed early on in a story’s development.
For a variety of reasons, it may not be possible for a newspaper to devote large amounts of space to a story about victims of violence. If that is the case, it is still possible to write a story that is accurate, insightful and sensitive. Work within your constraints to do the best job possible telling readers about victims of violence.