Tragedies & Journalists

Tips for covering traumatic events in your community:
1. Understand that your coverage of a traumatic event will have an impact on your readership, viewers or listeners. Remember that the tone of your coverage may reflect the tone of the community's reaction to it. Thus, you should establish policies that affect your coverage: For example, consider coverage of public memorial services for the victims, instead of private funerals. And, if you do cover private services, call the funeral home to ensure that you will not intrude.

2. Write stories about the victims' lives and their effect on your community. These are short stories about the victims, their favorite hobbies, what made them special, and the ripple effect of their lives. In many cases, victims' relatives want to talk when they realize that the reporter is writing these types of stories. In 1995 after the Oklahoma City bombing, The Oklahoman called these stories "Profiles of Life." The Oklahoman also did "Profiles of Life" after the record F-5 tornado outbreak in May 1999 that killed 44 people and the plane crash in January 2000 that killed the 10 members of the Oklahoma State University basketball team and staff. After the September 11, 2001, World Trade Center attack, The New York Times called its short stories about the victims "Portraits of Grief." The Asbury Park Press called its stories "In Tribute." These short stories can be published daily in a similar format until all of the victims have been featured. They sometimes lead to bigger stories, too.

3. Provide forums on what people are thinking, especially words of encouragement. Offer lists for ways people can help and how they have helped. Frank M. Ochberg, M.D., executive committee chairman of the Dart Center for Journalism & Trauma, says, "Journalists and therapists face similar challenges when they realize their subjects are at risk of further injury. Techniques may differ, but objectives are the same: to inform about sources of help."

4. Find ways people are helping, including acts of kindness, and report on them throughout the recovery process. This may provide hope for the community.

5. Constantly ask these questions: What does the public need to know and how much coverage is too much? When does a medium become infatuated with a story when the public is not? A community is much more than a mass killing or disaster. The coverage must reflect that.