New Tool for Journalism and Trauma Research

With the launch of the Dart Research Database, journalists, clinicians, scholars and mental health researchers have a new tool to keep current with scholarly work on the intersection of journalism and human tragedy.

Until November 2010, researchers who wanted to survey the field of journalism and trauma had to be multilingual. Not only did they need to be familiar with the methods, databases and journals of academic disciplines from psychology to communications and public policy, but they also had to be conversant with each discipline’s distinct terminology. What the field of psychology files under “Trauma Exposure,” communication tags as “Emotional Response.” 

The Dart Research Database is a first step toward transcending this language barrier. With a comprehensive bibliography edited by the Dart Research Lab at the University of Tulsa and an easy-to-use website maintained by the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, the database gathers interdisciplinary scholarship on journalism and trauma in a single location, grouped in a single set of searchable categories. 

The result, says Bruce Shapiro, executive director of the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, is a research tool that’s not just for academics. “Reporters can use it to find background for their stories or to think through ethical and practical craft issues. News managers can find arguments to advance training and support for their news teams. Clinicians can find data that may inform their work with clients or patients who end up in the news, or to be supportive of journalists who come to them for help.”

The project started with a simple question that had for years bothered clinical psychologist Dr. Elana Newman, director of the Dart Research Lab: What is being published in the area of trauma and journalism? Nobody knew the answer because the field was so new and so fragmented.

“The Dart Research Database brings together researchers and practitioners who normally don’t talk to one another,” says Shapiro. “News professionals, psychologists and psychiatrists, victim advocates, historians, media-studies scholars, ethicists, epidemiologists...on and on.” Keeping track of all these tribes has been a real obstacle for research. “I would start working on, let’s say, the occupational health of journalists,” says Newman, “and I’d find that I’d left out all the information in the communications field.”

In 2007, Newman and University of Tulsa graduate student Summer Nelson decided to tackle this problem with a comprehensive literature review. “Our original goal was to better understand what literature was out there and identify the gaps and the things that still needed additional study,” says Nelson.  That meant dealing with the language problem in a systematic way.

The Dart Research Lab’s solution was to come up with a “coding scheme,” a single set of terms that would define all the important aspects of method and content. The research team, which grew to include undergraduates Cassie Roby and Stefanie Johnson, brainstormed and ultimately produced a broad set of categories with which to describe scholarly literature, from “Type of Trauma” to “Psychological Disorders Discussed.”

The coding scheme was a prerequisite for measuring and describing scholarly output. (Results of that analysis have been presented at various conferences and a peer-reviewed publication is in process.) 

Those categories now make up the “Advanced Search” function of the Dart Research Database. Search the “Occupational Health of Journalists” category, and 99 citations pop up, ranging from Journalism Studies to the Journal of Aggression. For those with narrower needs, the search function, developed by database wizard David Smith of the Columbia Journalism School IT Department, allows for very sophisticated queries, as described on the Advanced Syntax Page

Newman is quick to point out that this is far from a final product. “I would like it to be emphasized that we’re in the beta version,” she says. (Feedback of all kinds is welcome. Just click the blue “Feedback” button at the top of the Database site.) The Research Lab team will continue to add newly published articles to the site; there is also a plan to write reviews for the various subject areas. Down the line, the team will continue to pursue other initiatives for fostering research on journalism and trauma, from conferences to journals.

For now, though, the goals are modest. Says Newman: “If this database facilitates scholarship in the area and makes it a little bit easier for journalists to be thinking about these problems from a more well-informed, multidisciplinary way of looking, I would be overjoyed.”