Dart Academic Fellows Talk About Teaching Trauma

Why is teaching about trauma important? Participants in the inaugural Dart Academic Fellowship program explain how the experience has changed their approach. 

Thirteen educators from the United States, Canada, Germany and Australia gathered at Columbia University for the inaugural Dart Center Academic Fellowship Program in June 2010. The three-day program featured information about brain science, trauma reactions, best practice for trauma coverage, and effective teaching techniques. This impressive group of fellows shared their own rich experiences reporting on tragedy and teaching trauma journalism. (A complete list of participants and their biographies can be viewed here.)

I recently asked the fellows why they believe teaching trauma journalism is important and what they plan to do with the fellowship experience. Randal Beam, associate professor of journalism at the University of Washington, has begun work on a teaching simulation about coverage of a student suicide. He put the importance of teaching such coverage succinctly: “[Reporting trauma] reflexively – without much thought – has the potential to harm people and to tell stories inaccurately or insensitively.”

Here’s what they have to say about what they’ve learned, and how they plan to pass on that knowledge to their journalism students and colleagues:


Ian Richards, University of South Australia

One of the first things that struck me when I entered journalism many years ago was the seemingly irrational behaviour of journalists in times of crisis. While sane and sensible people did their best to leave disaster areas as quickly as possible, journalists invariably did everything in their power to get to the centre of the action.
I soon realised that this was not madness, but, rather, the only way to find out what was really going on. It was only much later that I also realised that – like medical workers, fire-fighters and police – journalists can suffer serious psychological harm from performing this vital role.
Most journalists will at some time encounter human tragedy through their work. The reportage which results from these encounters continues to be one of the central justifications for the role of journalism in society. As journalism educators, we need to equip our students to perform this role in ways which do not leave a trail of emotional carnage through their ranks.
The Dart Center Academic Fellowship at Columbia was a great experience, which provided some excellent ideas for teaching journalism students about reporting events involving human tragedy. Many of these will now be incorporated into the journalism ethics strand of the University of South Australia’s journalism program.
The main vehicle for doing this will be an extension of our annual “Dealing with Death Day,” which has been designed to teach students about such difficult professional issues as intrusion into grief and interviewing the recently bereaved. Run in conjunction with the Australian Funeral Directors Association, the annual program deals with such topics as death, dying and children’s concepts of death, and includes presentations from a bereavement counsellor, a forensic scientist, and a representative of the State Coroner’s Office. A major part of the day is an extended discussion with experienced journalists about the ethical and practical issues involved in reporting serious crimes and disasters such as bushfires and tsunamis.
The Dart Center Academic Fellowship has made it clear that we need to give students a deeper understanding of the meaning and implications of trauma. Not only do they need to understand its effects on the survivors with whom they will one day interact, but they also need an informed awareness of the possible implications for themselves when reporting such situations. Although it is probably impossible to equip all students to handle every situation they might encounter when they join the industry, the Fellowship demonstrated that it is possible to give students a strong foundation for reporting human tragedy.

Yvonne Latty, New York University

Natural disasters, homicide, poverty, terrorist attacks, war, suicide, rape: this is the world we live in and these are the stories our students will be telling. We have to be able to teach what they will face as working journalists. Every reporter covers these types of stories in his or her career. It is not easy; it is painful, complicated and very challenging. It is also very, very important work.

I found the Dart Academic Fellowship program very inspiring; it is helping me push even harder in the direction I was already blindly heading. Thanks to this program, I no longer feel blind.

A few days after the program ended, [University of Arizona Fellow] Celeste de Bustamante and I created a program called "Beyond the Border," which aims to give undergraduate and graduate students hands-on reporting experience, so that future journalists have the tools to report on complex issues such as immigration, violence, environmental degradation and ethnic and racial conflict in areas such as the U.S.-Mexico border. I will be taking students to the border and Celeste will be bringing her students to New York City to report on the complex issues Mexican immigrants face here.

In the spring I plan on recreating in a basement on the NYU campus the Houston Metrodome as it was during Hurricane Katrina. I want to teach my students how to deal with trauma victims and their own emotions.

Ben Ortiz, Harry Truman College

Teaching journalism and trauma is crucial at Truman College, given the challenges and experiences of our student body and neighborhood – not just to face the difficult aspects of our times that our students know firsthand, such as anti-immigrant backlash, street violence, low-income survival, and post-war scars of the mind and body, but also to go forward together with our mutual survival skills and resilience to overcome and to live lives free of fear. If the education we provide does nothing else, shouldn’t it at least try to approach this learning outcome?

The Dart Center Academic Fellowship program helped me realize this most important lesson that I plan to infuse throughout the curriculum of what I teach and share with colleagues as well. I hope to create a workshop based on Dart’s lessons, and my sincere wish is that students and colleagues alike can also experience the friendships I forged through facing trauma as a journalist and teacher.

Barbara Hans, Hamburg University

Whether international catastrophes or car accidents in a local setting, traumatic events occur everywhere anytime; our students, whether they become news reporters, war correspondents or even sport editors, will sooner or later be confronted with the topic. Therefore, teaching journalism and trauma is essential to university-based journalism education. It is our responsibility as teachers to prepare our students for their job by teaching interviewing techniques, research methods and news reporting. But what is of even greater importance to me is creating an awareness for questions related to media ethics.

Good and passionate journalism incorporates reflecting what you are doing, what the threats are and how you should deal with your sources and interview partners. As online journalism becomes more and more important, the meaning of instant reporting grows. The pressure young journalists face is enormous. We have to equip them with a toolkit for difficult and demanding situations. To me, teaching trauma and journalism is one of the most vital and important ways to do so. The program provided me with the knowledge and tools to incorporate the topic into the curriculum. Now I feel well prepared.

The Dart Center Academic Fellowship program enabled me to gain deeper insight into trauma and journalism and the international perspective on the topic. I am going to teach a course named "Covering Catastrophes" in next year’s summer term. It is the final term for our journalism master students at the University of Hamburg. The course will be part of our media ethics unit. It will combine theoretical background on journalism and trauma with a toolkit, practical exercises and insights by experienced practitioners. It aims to create an understanding of the importance of trauma in the varying situations the students might face. And it will encompass guidelines on how to deal with traumatized interview partners or even traumatic situations a journalist may face. The support of my faculty and the motivation of our students are huge. I am glad to teach a stand-alone course on journalism and trauma and to distribute the knowledge and input I gained in New York – and transfer it to our national setting.

Elizabeth Mehren, Boston University

Well before my 2010 Dart Center Fellowship at Columbia, I had been gathering material with the aim of developing a Boston University journalism course that would focus on covering trauma and crisis. It struck me that news coverage of disasters has changed, expanding dramatically in proportion to a seemingly insatiable appetite. Yet most college journalism programs, including my own at Boston University, glossed over the immense nature of this topic. Disaster and catastrophe coverage that I somewhat ironically labeled “big news,” because of the vast scope involved, accounted for exactly two sessions in my own introductory journalism curriculum. That was two sessions more than some of my colleagues allotted to the subject.

Before my Dart Center Academic Fellowship, I had trouble imagining how I could create a semester-long course that would be anything but bleak and horrific. Thanks to this fellowship, I am fully determined to develop a course proposal that I have tentatively titled "Covering Troubling Topics." My intention is to produce a proposal and syllabus that I can submit by mid-fall. Already, I have hired a teaching assistant for the fall whose area of interest is genocide. I intend to rely heavily on material I learned through this fellowship. In addition, I have contacted the Boston University News Office to make myself available to media sources seeking comments on trauma and disaster coverage. Because of the Dart Fellowship, I feel more qualified than ever to talk about these topics.

Cliff Lonsdale, University of Western Ontario

We need "climate change" in our newsrooms and our journalism schools – far greater recognition and understanding of the impact of troubling events on news gatherers, news makers and news consumers.  Emotional trauma is an integral part of the newsgathering process.  Dealing with it – in ourselves and others – should not be treated as a sidebar.  The Dart Center Academic Fellowship has spurred me to review my own course material, looking for new opportunities to raise students' awareness in the normal course of dealing with the craft and challenges of everyday journalism.

Teresa Lamsam, University of Nebraska

Before the Dart Center Academic Fellowship, I had planned to create a learning module on historical trauma in Indian Country. After the Fellowship, I have a more comprehensive context in which to present the material to future journalists. I also plan to create a brown-bag presentation to faculty and hope to find collaborators for developing a stand-alone course.

After my workshop experience on trauma journalism, I wondered how I could have been part of creating journalism curriculum for 10 years and never once consider the importance of teaching about trauma to young journalists. I'm not talking about a drop-in comment here and there, but rather actual teaching modules – or even a course. The absence of trauma journalism in curriculum puts journalists in professional and personal peril. I learned that trauma is so much more than I thought it was. Trauma can be a result of war and disaster, true, but it can also be experienced in disadvantaged communities and through historical discrimination. I am much more sensitive to these issues now and I can incorporate them into the diversity portions of my courses.

Nancy Dupont, University of Mississippi

I was already aware of the importance of teaching good interviewing skills, and I am more so now. Insensitive interviewing can add to a victim's trauma. That belief was reinforced at Dart.   

The Dart Academic Fellowship allowed me to learn from my colleagues around the nation and the world. It was the best kind of learning I could get, and it's one that can last forever because of the contacts I made.

Dan Williams, Lyndon State College, Vermont

[Trauma journalism training] is important in the near-term because our students are the cub reporters of tomorrow, and they're the ones the boss will send to cover the 2 a.m. fatality accident or – as Cliff [Lonsdale, Fellow from University of Western Ontario] grippingly described – ask a mother for a photo of her dead child. You don't want to learn how to do that through on-the-job training. Longer-term, [trauma training is important] for people considering a journalism career. It's important to know how repeated exposure to trauma can affect you.

In the coming year, I want to put a much greater emphasis on interviewing in my journalism classes. A person who can conduct a good interview with a trauma survivor can interview anyone – it's a skill that can be employed in all sorts of situations. I'm also, er, dying to steal Ian Richards' idea and put on a "Dealing with Death Day." What a great idea!

Dawn Fallik, University of Delaware

Covering trauma is part of almost every journalist's experience, whether it's a car crash or a "death knock." But very few students have any idea how to approach these situations. The Academic Fellowship allows professors to talk about the unique challenges of presenting these issues in a classroom. The ultimate hope is when our students are out in the "real world," they'll have a solid foundation to work from when covering emotionally and sometimes physically challenging stories.

Celeste Gonzalez de Bustamante, University of Arizona

All aspiring journalists – whether they want to be feature, sports, entertainment, or investigative reporters – will deal with conflict, crisis, and trauma. The more we can do to educate and give future reporters tools to ethically cover tough issues, while teaching them how to keep themselves emotionally healthy, the more we do to better the profession.

Teaching journalism and trauma is particularly important at the University of Arizona, where we are 60 miles from the international border with Mexico. Offering students the tools to keep themselves safe and teaching them how to put complex issues such as violence, immigration, and conflict into historical, cultural, and global contexts are some the most valuable gifts we can give them.

Before the Dart Center Academic Fellowship program ended, New York University professor Yvonne Latty and I discovered that we had shared interests about the U.S.-Mexico border. We developed a program titled “Beyond the Border,” a cross-cultural and international project that will involve students from both our universities and reporting in the Arizona-Sonora region as well as New York City on issues such as immigration, violence, and environmental degradation.

After the Academic Fellowship program, I feel like I am so much better equipped to teach students how to deal with the various types of trauma reporting. This fall, I plan to incorporate what I learned into my existing classes, and perhaps in the future have a stand-alone course on journalism, the border, and trauma reporting.

Mark Masse, Ball State University

It is important to teach journalism students that coverage of conflict, violence, tragedy, and trauma typically occurs on a local (breaking news) level, although reporting on war, terrorism, natural disasters, and catastrophic events tends to be the focus of pro-active training programs by major news organizations. By informing students of the emotional effects of covering conflict stories, we educators will help prepare them for what they will encounter, and, hopefully, enable them to be more resilient and effective reporters.

Instruction on emotional effects of coverage is directly related to raising awareness of the ethical implications of interviewing victims and their families. Students need to know what is appropriate behavior for interacting with victims and affected others. Instruction on progressive techniques should include discussion of the role of emotion and empathy in trauma journalism. Young journalists need to learn how to enhance their craft by being in touch with their feelings and how to manage those emotions when covering stressful stories (i.e., how to balance being both a human being and a journalist).