Dart Award: History and Analysis

Since 1994, the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma has recognized outstanding trauma reporting through its annual Dart Award for Excellence in Reporting on Victims of Violence.

Since 1994, the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma has recognized outstanding trauma reporting through its annual Dart Award for Excellence in Reporting on Victims of Violence. Each year a cross-section of judges composed of journalists, clinicians and victim/survivor advocates has selected a newspaper article (or cohesive series of articles) from approximately 50 entries in an intensive two-tiered evaluation process. The top prize is given to the entry "that best portrays victims and their experiences with accuracy, insight and sensitivity while illustrating the effects of violence on victims' lives and the process of recovery from emotional trauma."

The 12 winners of the Dart Award from 1994 to 2005 come from all regions of the United States and deal with a wide range of topics. Recognizing that exemplary news stories about victims of violence involve the coordinated work of journalists, editors, photojournalists, design and layout professionals and others, the award is actually a team prize. Winning teams have come from newspapers in Alaska, California, Maine, Maryland, Michigan, New Jersey, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Texas and Virginia. Finalists and honorable mention recipients further broaden the geographical swath. The nature of violence covered in winning articles has included incest, arson, terrorism, domestic abuse, sexual assault, gang-related shootings and other gun violence. Some of the winners have been large newspapers with daily circulations in the hundreds of thousands, whereas others have had daily circulations under 100,000.

In short, Dart Award winners show that outstanding trauma reporting is possible in a wide variety of contexts. These articles also show that the urgency of writing about violence and its consequences exists in communities of all sizes and demographic characteristics.

What makes these particular articles so good? For starters, they adhere to the criteria that the Dart Center has established for excellence in trauma reporting - namely, that the articles:

  • portray victims of violence with accuracy, insight, and sensitivity;
  • be clear and engaging, with a strong theme or focus;
  • inform readers about the ways individuals react to and cope with emotional trauma and the process of recovery;
  • avoid sensationalism, melodrama, and portrayal of victims as tragic or pathetic;
  • emphasize the victims' experience rather than the perpetrators'.

While this list is helpful for judges evaluating the merits of articles that have already been written, these criteria can also serve as helpful guidelines for journalists and journalism students preparing to write news stories about victims and survivors of violence, their loved ones and their communities.

Because newspapers have access to the criteria for the Dart Award before they submit an entry, most of the articles submitted for the award reflect the criteria to some degree. The winning article, however, not only "pulls it all together" best - as determined by a diverse panel of discerning judges - but also has an emotional impact on the reader as any good story usually does.

This year's winner, "Homicide in Detroit: Echoes of Violence," published by the Detroit Free Press , is a six-part series that seamlessly integrates extended personal narratives with social impact narratives. The murders discussed in the series are framed as part of a larger social problem and yield disturbing statistics, but they also touch the lives of ordinary people who often exhibit extraordinary resilience in the face of senseless violence. One of those people in the article is 62-year-old Margeree Jefferson, who was interviewed and photographed scrubbing down her porch one morning to remove the blood left there by a shooting victim.

"This is the reality of living inside a murder scene - a grandmother has to wake up early and clean up the blood of a stranger before it dries and leaves a deep stain that might never come out," writes journalist Jeff Seidel. In the next paragraph, this one line stands alone: "Some stains never do."

The photographer Eric Seals provided the powerful images that accompanied and enhanced the articles. Although the dark thread of violence is weaved through the series, the photographs are not gratuitously violent. There are a few disturbing photos, appropriate to context, but many others simply show people deeply affected in one way or another by the suffering that has stained their community. The photo of Margeree Jefferson, mentioned above, might even be interpreted as a symbol of strength - a woman resolved to maintain peace and normalcy in a community where both are disrupted on a regular basis. The blood on her porch is stubborn and doesn't come out easily. But she continues to scrub, wearing light blue rubber gloves, and the stains eventually wash away. Then she washes herself up, changes her clothes and attends a parade with her son, daughter-in-law and grandchildren. The people harmed by violence are portrayed with dignity and sensitivity in the article. Cold hard statistics are humanized by the universal language of pain and healing.

"To tell honest stories," write William Coté and Roger Simpson, authors of Covering Violence: A Guide to Ethical Reporting About Victims & Trauma , "the journalist must know the basics of how violent acts and events affect people." In the book, the authors "show how journalists can give the public vital information about calamities without further harm to the victims. The book is premised on the conviction that news can tie the victim and the public together constructively through the rigor of thoughtful reporting practices." Journalists who are sensitive to the suffering of others and understand the complexity of emotional trauma are often able to write about traumatic experiences in a way that is informative, engaging and often helpful to readers.

On April 15, the Dart Center will recognize the team members from the Detroit Free Press who won the 2005 Dart Award for Excellence in Reporting on Victims of Violence. The event will be held at the University of Washington in Seattle in conjunction with a conference to explore lessons learned in the aftermath of the South Asian tsunami. After 12 years, the Dart Center has amassed a rich resource of "best practices" in trauma 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. Up to now, awards have only been given to entries submitted by the print media. Beginning next year, entries will be accepted from the broadcast media, beginning with radio in 2006 and television in 2007.

For many years, the news media have been pummeled by public criticism 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, "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."

The positive changes in trauma reporting are catching on. The president of the Dart Center 's Executive Committee, Joe Hight, who is also managing editor of The Oklahoman, recently wrote an editorial on the Dart Center's Web site about The Wichita Eagle's decision to devote extensive coverage to the victims of alleged serial killer Dennis Rader. "Why all the coverage devoted to the victims?" Hight asked. "Because its editor listened to a newsroom who was sensitive to victims' family members and the community, sensitive to what was needed to continue the long recovery from a sensational tragedy." Prior to his involvement with the Dart Center, Hight's own newspaper received a Dart Award for its coverage of the bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. In addition to the reporting accolades, Hight's newsroom also serves as a model for proactive intervention with journalists exposed to trauma.

The Dart Center will soon be publishing a "best practices" resource for journalists and journalism students based on a comprehensive analysis of Dart Award winners. At least two free online courses about journalism and trauma (one in particular which uses past Dart Award winners as examples) will be offered in the near future through an arrangement with News University, or NewsU, a project sponsored by the Poynter Institute and the Knight Foundation. In the meantime, visit the Dart Award web site to read a selection of past winners, see photographs used in those stories and learn more about the Dart Award in general.