Self-Study Unit 1: Journalism & Trauma

The skills needed to interact with people under such stressful and unpredictable conditions do not usually come naturally. The goal of this module is to explain what traumatic stress is and why it is useful for journalists to know about its effects.

A newspaper journalist, fresh out of college, arrives at the scene of a raging apartment fire at 2 a.m. to find dozens of people standing behind a police barrier. Some of these people seem to be in a daze, others are hysterical, and still others are seemingly calm and rational.

In the course of talking to a few people from emergency response and eyewitnesses, the journalist learns that several residents of the apartment building are unaccounted for. Soon a body is removed from the building on a stretcher, and the mood of the crowd turns somber. One woman in her mid- to late-fifties is sobbing uncontrollably as another person, a man about her age, tries to console her. The journalist overhears the woman crying in anguish about someone who might still be in the building. With pen and notepad in hand, and with some trepidation and uncertainty, the journalist approaches the couple to get more information.

Journalists who cover traumatic events such as violent crimes, horrific accidents, natural disasters and other situations in which they witness human pain and suffering are often required to approach and interview victims of trauma or their family members. Unfortunately the skills needed to interact with people under such stressful and unpredictable conditions do not usually come naturally. Without knowledge about traumatic stress and proper training in how to interact with potentially traumatized people, journalists may find their interviews to be awkward, uncomfortable and, in extreme cases, even re-traumatizing to their interviewees.

The goal of this module is to explain what traumatic stress is and why it is useful for journalists to know about its effects. In the building fire example above, there are many people who have just experienced a traumatic event, although not everyone responds to that event in the same way. Because human response to psychological trauma is varied, it is important for the journalist not to make unfounded assumptions about what the person who has experienced trauma is feeling. The adage, "You can't judge a book by its cover," is particularly apt when assessing the state of other people's emotions and well-being when they are under psychological stress. Seemingly "normal" and composed people may be suffering deeply but, for one reason or another, don't reflect that pain outwardly. On the other hand, someone who is crying during an interview may not necessarily want to stop talking. Indeed it may be the interviewer who is uncomfortable and decides to end the interview abruptly or prematurely, but the interviewee would actually prefer to continue. The point is, interviewing and writing about traumatized people professionally and accurately requires a degree of skill and insight. This learning module can help in that regard. Of course, this one module is not a comprehensive treatment of the subject of journalism and trauma, but it attempts to lay the essential framework for a study program that can help those interested in the subject learn about it at their own pace and enhance their basic understanding with additional resources (e.g., readings, Web sites, videos, etc.)

There are various types of traumatic response that victims and survivors of a traumatic event may experience. Acute stress disorder, posttraumatic stress disorder, and secondary traumatic stress each has its own set of criteria. A journalist who covers traumatic events and their victims would do well to recognize particular stress symptoms for accuracy and fairness in reporting. Moreover, this module also examines the role that covering traumatic events - especially after a prolonged period - has on journalists. We are only beginning to learn that prolonged coverage of traumatic events may trigger traumatic stress symptoms in journalists themselves. It is hoped that by discussing this long-overlooked subject of trauma effects on journalists, the profession as a whole will benefit by improving its understanding and response to journalists' emotional and psychological well-being.

By the end of this module, you should know:

  • what traumatic stress is
  • about posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), acute stress disorder (ASD) and the potential effects of working with traumatized individuals, including secondary traumatic stress, burnout, and vicarious traumatization
  • what the effects of traumatic stress are
  • why it is important for journalists to know about these effects
  • how to interview people who have experienced a traumatic event
  • how to cope, as a journalist, with SSD
  • where to get more information for continued learning