Creating An Ethic for Teaching about Trauma

At the 2013 AEJMC conference, Dart Faculty Fellow Ari Goldman gave a presentation before the Media Ethics Division on teaching journalism through the historical lens of trauma.

August 7, 2013

“Seek Truth and Report It.”
“Minimize Harm.”
“Act Independently.”
“Be Accountable.”

These are the main principles of SPJ’s Code of Ethics. Many of us are familiar with them. Many of us teach the Code in journalism ethics classes at our universities. And, in most cases, they make a lot of sense. They work well in the normal course of events: elections, budgets, school board meetings, sporting events, profiles and features. 

We teach these because we can all give examples from real life where journalists who failed to follow these principles compromised their news organizations and their reputations. Reporters who favor one side, who appropriate other’s material, who shade the truth, who betray their readers and their sources, inevitably injure their news organizations and damage their careers.

But what about when tragedy strikes? An unexpected death? A school shooting? A suicide? A genocide? A tornado? A hurricane? An act of terror?

Do the same ethics apply? Are there always two sides to every story? Does the terrorist get the same treatment as the terrorized? Do we still stand on the sidelines or do we get involved? Do we strive for balance… or for compassion? Is it our job to tell the truth …. or to serve the community?

Although this may rankle some traditionalists who think the rules never change, I am going to argue that trauma reporting is different. And different rules apply. The very definition of trauma is that it is something that “overwhelms our normal capacity to cope and adapt.” The same thing happens journalistically. We are overwhelmed. This affects the decisions we make in the newsroom in terms of staffing and space and budgets and personnel. And it overwhelms our ethics. New rules come into play.

An article in the December 2012 Journal of Mass Media Ethics declared that we don’t prepare our journalism students well for such eventualities. The article, “Journalism on the Spot: Ethical Dilemmas When Covering Trauma and the Implications for Journalism Education,” was written by Elyse Amend, Linday Kay and Rosemary C. Reilly.

The article bemoaned the lack of teaching in journalism schools about ethical decision-making in trauma situations. The authors found that while courses in ethics are commonplace in most journalism programs, a focus on what to do in a crisis situation is sorely lacking. Yet, they noted, young journalists often encounter traumatic events – car crashes, murders, suicides, natural disasters – early in their careers. To get guidance, the authors convened a panel of seven Canadian journalists who spoke about their experiences with trauma journalism. After considering the evidence, the authors suggest this solution: Incorporate into current journalism programs a classroom simulation of a crisis situation. The simulation that they suggest in this article is a fire in an art gallery where life and property are threatened. Students play various roles in the drama -- reporters, witnesses, proprietor, resident and artist. 

“Such classroom simulations,” the authors conclude, “address the same themes that emerged in our focus group with seven Canadian journalists, namely navigating job responsibilities and ethical obligations, defining one’s role as a journalist covering violence and trauma, and negotiating which harms are ‘permissible’ and ‘impermissible.’” They continue: “Classroom simulations are also an effective tool in addressing the theory-practice gap in education and training identified in the wider literature and the feelings of inexperience and unpreparedness expressed by our focus group participants.”

I couldn’t agree more. Giving students a sense of reality, even if it is simulated, is of great value. But I think we can do more. There are problems with such classroom simulations. First, they are, well, simulated. Real life situations are better. And, two, this approach looks at trauma journalism only as a hard news, deadline story. As Bruce Shapiro of the Dart Center likes to say, there is always Act I and Act II when it comes to trauma reporting. Act I is the breaking news story – and there are certainly challenges to getting that story. There is confusion, shock, chaos. 

But there is also Act II, the long-range analytic story that tells what happened and explores the long-term effects of a traumatic event, the loss, the disruption, the things that remain. PTSD happens only after an event. And that is part of the story too.

I want to spend my time with you today talking about some other models for teaching about crisis reporting, drawing on my own experience at Columbia. In the last six months, I gave my students first-hand experience with reporting in challenging situations. I took students on two international trips: one to Italy for the installation of Pope Francis and the other to the death camps at Auschwitz.

One trip, of course, was rather joyous. The installation of a pope is a grand spectacle and moving (even if you are not a Catholic). It also was a breaking news story that had to be covered under the pressure of deadline. The other, the journey to Auschwitz, was rather depressing. Auschwitz is a killing field where the stench of death still lingers. The barracks, the gas chambers, the torture cells, the exhibits of hair shoes and glasses taken from the vulnerable are things that continue to haunt the mind. Auschwitz is most definitely an “Act II” story. Going there with students was a different kind of trauma reporting opportunity.

I want to talk about these trips and how they served as teaching tools and presented very different lessons in journalism ethics. And they convinced me of several things: We need to prepare our students for both the Act I and Act II stories. And we need to prepare them for both the joyous and depressing stories. We need to because our ethics do change. Perhaps that is why there is no set and widely accepted ethical standards for journalists, SPJ notwithstanding. To some extent, ethics do depend on the story … and the place … and the situation … and the time. We still need to teach an ethical framework, but the details change, just as the story changes.

I will say at the outset that the danger of not engaging students in these lessons is to create cynical journalists who think every story is the same. Just collect the facts and all sets of facts are equal. But the world is more complicated than that. Another danger of not preparing students for these challenging situations is that we force journalists to keep every experience bottled up inside with no room for personal processing or expression. Reporters too suffer from PTSD.

So much for the dangers. Now to some solutions.

The Vatican trip was part of the “Covering Religion” seminar that I’ve been teaching at Columbia for 20 years. In the mid-1990’s our dean at the time, Joan Konner, had this idea that certain organizations should support courses that we offer and brought Scripps Howard in as a donor. Over the years, I cultivated a relationship with Scripps that led to them supporting our first international trip, in 2000. The trip coincided with the visit of John Paul II to the Holy Land. I took 16 students on that trip and have been traveling with students nearly every spring ever since. Of the 12 trips I’ve led, six have been to Israel, but we’ve also managed to go to other places where religion is high on the agenda, including India, Ireland, Italy and Russia. You can see the journalism that these trips generated under the “archives” of the class website. And while, as I said, Italy this year was rather joyous, some of the “Covering Religion” trips have included some trauma reporting.

I remember being in the Grand Mosque in Moscow in the spring of 2002 with a journalism class that had begun its year in New York with the terror attacks of 9/11. The imam in Moscow laid out his understanding of 9/11: It was a CIA plot engineered with the help of the Israelis to make Muslims look bad. The number of killed, the imam, was widely exaggerated. Today, such talk is commonplace, but a decade ago such talk was shocking. My students, who had seen the smoke rising from the World Trade Center site, were angry, hurt and challenged. A few years later on a trip to Ireland, the religion class visited the separation wall that still keeps a tenuous peace between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland. And on a trip to Israel, we saw another separation wall, this one between Jews and Arabs that has torn communities asunder in the name of politics, security, religion and terror.

I didn’t know how positive the 2013 trip to Italy would be. We also went to Italy in 2012 and two of my students wrote about the difficult lives of Roma who are housed in refugee camps on the outskirts of Rome.

I had been planning to go back to Rome and, as always, began preparing my students for the journey at the beginning of the semester in January. By late February, Benedict had resigned and by the time we arrived in Rome in mid-March Francis had been named pope. We arrived just in time to cover his first news conference. A few days later we covered various aspects of the new pope’s installation mass.

What happens on these international trips is that we cover any breaking news we encounter and also prepare materials for features that we write and produce upon our return. In 2013, these were mostly positive stories, like the article we did on the merchandising of the pope, and the piece on the pope’s tailor. This was a happy trip.

I can contrast that with the trip that I took a few months later to Germany and Poland. This is not part of my Columbia work but a separate project that I am involved with called FASPE. It stands for Fellowships at Auschwitz for the Study of Professional Ethics.

The idea behind FASPE is that numerous professions repeatedly violated their core beliefs during the Holocaust. These professions include doctors, lawyers, the clergy and journalists. FASPE takes students from each of these professions – medical students, law students, seminarians and journalism students – and educates them about the behavior of their profession during the Holocaust by taking them to German and Poland for 10 days every summer. It then asks the students to apply the ethical lessons learned to contemporary topics. 

With this trip too, I used a website to chart our journey and to record the lessons learned. These are all Act II stories. Under the features tab, you will find articles about the behavior of the press during the Holocaust, about respecting the boundaries of a Holocaust survivor and about contemporary issues like working as a journalist in Mexico today and the ethics of conducting interviews with murderers.

I’ve taken you on this tour of both the FASPE and Covering Religion courses because I think they both tell us a lot about the ethics of trauma reporting. I like to think that the religion trip helps prepare students for working abroad in both good times and bad times. I like to think that both courses help students prepare for Act I and Act II stories. Trauma journalism is a breaking news story and can turn into a long-range investigative feature project.

Now, of course, not every journalism class can go on an international trip to learn about ethics and trauma reporting. I recognize that I am privileged in having these teaching opportunities. And that my students are privileged. But I believe that many of these lessons can be applied to programs that don’t travel as well. While the “simulated fire” exercise is one option, there are others. I present these in a new curriculum that I drew up for the Dart Center. The curriculum is called “The Journalist as First Responder.”

The course explores just what trauma is and how best to deal with it, both in relating with sources and in dealing with oneself; what we call “self-care.” At the core of the course are a series of “best practices” for journalists to use when it comes to taking with survivors, children and veterans, both for a breaking news story and beyond. And other “best practices” when it comes to writing these stories, like going easy on graphic details, providing resources for mental health and writing profiles not only of the perpetrators but of the victims.

The main assignment of the course is most definitely an Act II exercise. I ask the student to visit a memorial and write about the incident, event or person that sparked it. The student also has to speak with a survivor or a relative of a survivor or a first responder who has memories of the incident.

The beauty of the memorial assignment is that you don’t have to go far. No international trips necessary. Virtually every community has a memorial -- for a fallen soldier, a hero cop or firefighter or for a population that suffered a traumatic event, be it a genocide or an earthquake. Through the “memorial” assignment, the student learns to speak to people who have suffered trauma. It also recognizes that the impact of these events changes over time. Talking to someone in the immediate aftermath of a deadly tornado is different than speaking to them a year later when their home has been rebuilt. The trauma remains, but the conversation and the method of journalistic inquiry will be very different. 

Ultimately, the student learns that trauma, as I said at the beginning of my talk, is something that overwhelms our normal capacity to cope and adapt. At least initially. But, with time, we do adapt our methods and our practices, and even our ethics, in a way that serves our subjects, our readers, our editors and ourselves. These are lessons that we can teach our students. 

Thank you.