Pulitzer Prize Centennial Examines Impact of Trauma Coverage

The Dart Center teamed with three Oklahoma universities and the Oklahoma City National Memorial to put on a two-day trauma and journalism conference, commemorating the centennial of the Pulitzer Prize. Dart Asia Pacific Board Member Matthew Ricketson reports from Tulsa.

Among many powerful moments at the Pulitzer Prize and trauma conference held in Oklahoma on September 28 and 29, two in particular resonated.

The first came courtesy of Walter “Robby” Robinson, of Spotlight fame, when he recounted the response after his investigative reporting team published revelations about systemic cover-up of abuse by Catholic priests: Instead of angry calls from Catholic readers, The Boston Globe was flooded with calls from abuse victims willing, eager even, to speak publicly for the first time.

Robinson, a grizzled newspaper veteran, remembered taking a call from an 87-year-old man who said he had been abused by a Catholic priest. Then a great-grandfather, the man had never spoken to anyone about what happened to him as a 12-year-old, 75 years before.

“I had a lot of trouble talking about this case at the time,” said Robinson of the now 14-year-old story. His quietly spoken words settled on the silent auditorium, like snow chilling skin to the bone.

He and his team’s relentless digging had been fueled by outrage at what they had uncovered, but their work began to take a toll. One week after the flood of calls from victims began, he contacted a mental health professional. “We could handle the journalism side of it but not the mental health side.” As a result, the Globe included a list of mental health resources for victims alongside subsequent requests to speak with them.

Robinson’s reflection came near the end of his remarks to an audience of 300 at the University of Tulsa’s Lorton Performing Arts Center on the conference’s opening night.

After Robinson spoke about the burden often carried by abuse victims for decades, Kenna Griffin, a former reporter for The Oklahoman, recounted a story about a female journalist she interviewed for a research project who seemed unaware of the impact her work might have had on her.

The journalist had reported on several executions and, Griffin said, her biggest concern at the time was that she might not be able to hear the condemned prisoner’s final statement over the hum of an air conditioning system.

She did not think that she had suffered from trauma, Griffin recounted. At the end of the interview, she told Griffin that she had not turned on the air conditioning in her car or at home since the last execution, which occurred several months before. “And it was in the South, and it was hot,” Griffin added.

Her words hung over a silent auditorium at the University of Central Oklahoma, where students gathered for a session about recent research on covering trauma.

The two day conference, co-chaired by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist turned academic, Joe Hight, and Tulsa University Professor of Psychology Elana Newman, was aimed at both celebrating this year’s centenary of the Pulitzer Prizes’ founding and exploring how prize-winning journalists have reported on traumatic events.

Events were held at three Oklahoma universities and panel sessions included distinguished journalists, editors, educators and researchers.

One speaker, Charles Porter, who was an amateur photographer when he won the 1996 Pulitzer Prize in in Spot News Photography, spoke for many panelists when he highlighted the profound impact they can have on both individuals and communities, and the importance of covering them.

Panelists also discussed reporting lessons learned, their approaches to covering a wide range of sensitive stories, how the Internet has impacted trauma coverage, and the effects their work has had on themselves and on those they reported on.

If Robinson’s anecdote showed his awareness of his team’s limits in handling the impact of their reporting on themselves, Griffin’s showed how easy it is for journalists to miss these signs.

This is at least partly because of the deadline-driven newsroom culture of pursuing stories above all else. Robinson says he is much more aware of the impact of trauma coverage now but acknowledges he and his team – which swelled from four to eight after the initial disclosures in 2002 – “never had any real discussions about how this was affecting us.”

He also recalled that the newspaper for which he worked for more than three decades sent between 25 and 30 reporters and photographers to Afghanistan and Iraq but “I don’t think the subject of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) ever came up. Shame on us.”

Professor Newman, who is research director for the Dart Center, said in her conference presentation that awareness of the impact of trauma reporting was steadily growing but that more needed to be done to inculcate that awareness among reporters, editors and managers. She also said that significant gaps in the field’s research still need to be addressed.

This is being done, not least in her own research work, but also in that of others like Desiree Hill, Raymond McCaffrey and Griffin, who all presented results at the Pegasus Theater.

Griffin, who is now an assistant professor at Oklahoma City University, said she surveyed 829 journalists and found that nearly nine in ten were exposed to trauma through their work, either directly or indirectly. Of those surveyed, though, only five percent were exposed to trauma at extreme levels.

Symptoms of trauma were present in a minority of journalists, and those journalists were likely to be 25-years-old or younger and more likely to have already experienced personal trauma in their lives. She noted that her results are consistent with others that find older and younger reporters are at greater risk, but also that many studies have not found age to be a significant factor.

Turning from the impact on journalists to how they went about their work, insights were gained by discussing what Ed Kelley, Dean of Gaylord College of Journalism and Mass Communication, called the last major analogue news event – the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing.

He recalled how The Oklahoman had a website at that time but “we didn’t know what to do with it”. Incessant rumors  blaming Middle Eastern terrorists for the bombing were referred to in the next day’s newspaper but only briefly. “If that event happened now the coverage would have been completely different. The rumor would have been reported immediately.”

Certainly, incorrect rumors have been reported since 1995, and this has damaged the credibility of news reporting and weakened trust among audiences.

Others on the panel with Kelley at the University of Oklahoma showed, however, that current reporting practices are adapting to the slew of rumours that accompany any major news event today.

Hannah Allam, a national security correspondent for McClatchy in Washington D.C, says journalists are building in safety buffers in their reporting of breaking news, and that audiences still want – and need – accuracy.

“Whenever a major news event in my area breaks I always tweet straight away what Spencer Ackerman of The Guardian says: ‘Just remember that one fact uncovered is better than 1000 hot tips,’ and that ‘first reports are almost always wrong.’”

Hailey Branson-Potts, who was part of The Los Angeles Times’ Pulitzer prize-winning team for coverage of the San Bernardino shootings, affirmed Allam’s point.

She said her newspaper first heard about the December 2015 shooting on Twitter but confirmed it with official sources before posting on their website. “We were very aware of not publishing rumors.”

This did not mean the newspaper waited until evening before filing for the next day’s newspaper, as used to happen in the analogue days; instead, as The Los Angeles Times Pulitzer prize entry cover letter said:

“By 11 p.m. that night, our main story had been updated 22 times, with details that revealed the full scope of the tragedy: 14 slain, 21 wounded, by a pair of black-clad assailants who opened fire on a holiday potluck for county health workers. Over the course of that day, Times journalists pushed out 149 news reports on Twitter and 16 detailed posts on Facebook, including video.”

And to finish with two reflections: one that reminds us that ripples on the pond of trauma reporting spread wide, and the second a thought for the future.

Hannah Allam made a telling observation about the impact of trauma reporting: “Whenever we are covering a big disaster story at least we have the excitement and the glory and knowledge that the story is important, but it is the folks at home who always have the fear and concern and worry,” she said, acknowledging her mother and her kindergarten-aged son in the audience.

During Walter Robinson’s presentation, a clip was played of Spotlight’s final scene and end credits that starkly show how far beyond Boston what Robinson calls the “institutional betrayal” of children has been uncovered, not only in other parts of the United States but in 31 other countries.

Since Robinson’s team published their initial reports, journalists around the world have come to embrace the multiplier effect of collaboration, most notably in the Panama Papers in 2015 about the proliferation of global tax havens. Imagine what might happen if 400 journalists from 80 countries overseen by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists combined, as they did for the Panama Papers, to tackle the scourge of child sexual assault.