Teaching the Breaking News Story

An educator describes how he incorporated a grisly murder in his community into an upper-level journalism course.

I decided to incorporate a two-week session on trauma reporting into my spring-quarter reporting class. This class is for upper-level journalism majors. I required Covering Violence by Coté and Simpson as a secondary text.

During the first week (two class periods), I introduced the concept of trauma reporting and focused on case studies, interviewing techniques and ethical issues.

As fate would have it, a grisly murder had occurred in our community early in the quarter: An 8-year-old boy was slain by his 16-year-old neighbor. The murder stunned and traumatized the tight-knit neighborhood in which it occurred.

The story was front-page news in The Bellingham Herald for nearly a week. The paper has no police reporter, and the two reporters who led the coverage of the first days’ events were Kari Thorene Shaw, who covers the local Indian tribes, and Mary Lane Gallagher, the education reporter. I invited them to come to class to discuss their coverage of the story.

Shaw’s experience was especially enlightening for the students. She had come into the newsroom on her day off on the morning the boy’s body was discovered and was enlisted to go to the neighborhood to get reaction. She learned that the murdered boy was well known by the residents because he was allowed by his parents to roam relatively freely. Shaw and her editors pondered how to present this information and decided to use one of the many quotes she had collected referring to this. Shaw had nothing from family members because they would not talk to her or anyone from the media that first day.

Her story infuriated the family, and the morning it was published the grandfather told another reporter — a neighbor — that he’d kill her if he encountered her. Instead of retreating, Shaw arranged for a face-to-face interview with him that afternoon. They met in a coffee shop, and a male photographer accompanied Shaw. She offered her side of the story, and the grandfather, though initially hostile, agreed to give the family’s side. She returned to the newsroom, wrote a story and, she told the students, went home and stayed up all night sobbing.

After the class I asked the students how many of them still wanted to be a reporter. One of the 18 raised his hand. Others said it confirmed for them that they wanted to go into public relations.

The second class period that week I brought in a psychotherapist who works with victims of trauma. She had been a first-responder to traumas for many years, helping victims as well as firefighters and law-enforcement officers, but became burned out. She still works as a therapist, but not in such stressful situations. She explained PTSD and handed out pamphlets about it. She stressed to the students the importance of recognizing symptoms of PTSD within yourself and others. Although her presentation wasn’t nearly as dramatic as that of Shaw’s, it still proved valuable because of the information she imparted.