Tip Sheet for Journalism Educators

Tips for journalism educators seeking to bring crisis/trauma training into the classroom from Associate Professor of Journalism at San Diego State University and 2011 Dart Center Academic Fellow Amy Schmitz Weiss.

Start small – jumping into teaching this kind of topic can be daunting and challenging at first for any educator. Start small. For example, you can have just one class or a weeklong class devoted to the topic. As you get more comfortable teaching the topic, you can expand it into a longer experience that extends across the semester.

For example, in my classes, I devote a week to the topic in each of my classes and break it into a series of themes for each class. For example, you can break it into the following format:

  • Class 1: Define Trauma; Traumatic Events; PTSD
  • Class 2: How to Cover and Report on Trauma; Interviewing Techniques; Dealing with Sources
  • Class 3: Coping Mechanisms/Self-Care for Journalists; Impact of Trauma Coverage on the Public

Short-term class activities: When teaching the topic of trauma, you can take a variety of approaches to help students to understand trauma, traumatic events and its news coverage in a variety of contexts. Here are some suggestions:

  • Review recent news stories about traumatic events and talk about the pros/cons of the coverage, the reporting techniques used, impact of the coverage on the public, etc.
  • Videos: There are several helpful videos on the Dart website you can show during a week in class and discuss the traumatic news event and how it was covered. 
  • Guest Speakers (Virtual or Face-to-Face): Identify a reporter, psychologist, editor or other media professional who has covered a traumatic news event in your community or region. Invite them to the class as a guest speaker. If the speaker is not able to attend in person, make it a virtual opportunity and have a Google Hangout or Skype session with your guest.
  • SoundCloud Interviews: Nowadays, recording interviews through the mobile device has become easy. In addition, having a way to take that recording and upload it online has also become a simple process. To help students hone their skills in empathetic interviewing when covering a traumatic news event, have them role-play with a classmate using the echniques they learned. They can upload this to SoundCloud and the their classmates can listen to each other’s interviews and critique them.

Semester-long class activities: If you are feeling comfortable teaching the topic after conducting a few exercises or classes on the topic with your students, you can extend the exercise into a semester-long activity. Here are some suggestions:

  • Blog diaries/observations: Have the students start a blog and have them write about their observations of news coverage about traumatic events. i.e. how they are covered, what they would do differently if they were covering it, how the public is impacted by the coverage, etc.
  • Photo Diary/Pinterest/Tumblr: Sometimes a photo can communicate more than the written word. Have the students create a photo diary over the semester. This can help them learn how photos can be used when covering a traumatic news event but also how they should be used. This provides a great opportunity to talk about the role of ethics in traumatic news situations too. I highly recommend showing the video by Donna DeCesare on the Dart Center website about Witnessing and Picturing Violence as part of this class activity.
  • Community by Community: Another way to help students understand how traumatic news events can be covered accurately and respectfully is to have them look within their own town or neighborhood. Have the students pick a location in their town or neighborhood that they can get to know: its culture, history, people, language, etc. Have the students observe news coverage of that neighborhood or area over the semester to see exactly how it is covered. This encompasses looking at all the coverage of the community not just the crime and violence that occurs. When a traumatic event does happen, they can discuss and observe how it was covered in comparison to the rest of the news coverage and how they would handle the story, the sources, and the overall coverage on the topic. This could take the form of a research paper they complete for the end of the semester, a series of blog posts they write throughout the semester, or a formal presentation to the class at the end of the semester. 

These are just a few tips. Of course you can combine the short-term and long-term class activities into one semester if you wish. 

The first step is to jump into teaching the topic to your students – it can be just one class during the semester. Once you become comfortable with teaching the topic, you can expand on it as time goes on.