Communication Journalism and Trauma
by
Meg Spratt, Sue Lockett John
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 May 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756841-0061

Introduction

The consideration of journalism and trauma as a distinct field of practice, education, and research is relatively new. In the final decade of the 20th century, efforts at both Michigan State University and the University of Washington stressed the need to teach sensitive and accurate reporting of victims and survivors. The pioneering Victims and the Media Program launched by William Coté at Michigan State University (1991) and the Journalism and Trauma training program founded by Roger Simpson at the University of Washington (1994) figure prominently in any overview of this significant shift in journalism education and scholarship in the United States. Both programs were informed by the work of the psychiatrist Frank Ochberg, an expert on post-traumatic stress syndrome, and funded by the Dart Foundation in Mason, Michigan. In 1999 the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma was founded at the University of Washington. Efforts to improve teaching and research of the newsgathering, journalistic narrative, and effects of trauma journalism spread quickly, and an international network of journalists, educators, and mental health professionals resulted. Subsequently, the Dart Center headquarters moved to Columbia University in New York, with satellite offices in London and Melbourne, and a research node at University of Tulsa in Oklahoma. In addition to the development of these university-based programs, a series of natural and human-caused tragedies through the 1990s and first decade of the new century further fueled the need for journalism and trauma education and research. In the United States, journalists needed to find affective and compassionate ways to tell tragic national stories, including the Oklahoma City bombing in April 1995, the Columbine High School shootings in April 1999, the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, and the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Internationally, uprisings and unrest in the Middle East, the Israeli-Palestinian and Sri Lanka conflicts, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and terrorist acts such as the 1995 Sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway, the Bali and London bombings in 2005, and the 22 July 2011 mass killings in Norway, presented challenges for both local journalists and nonlocal correspondents. Natural disasters, including devastating earthquakes and tsunamis in Indonesia, Haiti, Chile, and Japan, have added to the need for journalism and trauma scholarship. It has become crucial for reporters, photojournalists, editors, and news managers to recognize and understand reactions to trauma, including their own. Because of the cross-disciplinary nature of journalism and trauma scholarship, journals publishing related research are diverse. Communication publications include those focusing on general media studies, journalism practice, ethics, and political communication. However, more work on journalism and trauma is beginning to appear in publications covering other disciplines, including psychology, sociology, public policy, and criminal violence.

General Overviews

To date, the most comprehensive works covering various aspects of journalism and trauma are the groundbreaking textbook Covering Violence: A Guide to Ethical Reporting about Victims and Trauma (Simpson and Coté 2006), the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma website, a special 2009 edition of Nieman Reports (Ludtke 2009) devoted to trauma coverage, and Trauma Journalism: On Deadline in Harm’s Way (Massé 2011). Through their work as journalists and educators, Roger Simpson and William Coté have noted a profound need for trauma training programs for both students and working journalists. While trained to gather information and craft narratives about tragic events, journalists typically receive no training on understanding emotional trauma, recognizing signs of stress, or working with victims in a sensitive and effective way. Nor are young journalists generally trained to recognize, admit, or deal with their own emotional reactions to tragedy. The first edition of Covering Violence was published in 2000, but subsequent worldwide terrorist activities and natural disasters challenged journalists to report with accuracy and sensitivity, not only to the immediate experience of victims, but also to their personal and cultural histories. Local tragedies—fatal accidents, homicides, or sexual assaults—are also devastating to survivors, but these do not generally garner national or international attention. Simpson and Coté 2006 deals with this wide range of tragic news stories by reviewing basic information about stress reactions and post-traumatic stress disorder, assessing the emotional risks to journalists when exposed to trauma, and illustrating both good journalistic practice and self-care through a series of journalist profiles. Massé 2011 continues this work with a fresh overview of the field and new case studies from working journalists. Two other general overviews—both collections of essays, articles, and resources—are the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma website and Ludtke 2009, a special issue of Nieman Reports titled Trauma in the Aftermath: Voice, Story, Character and Journalism, featuring a collection of essays by journalists, trauma survivors, and researchers. The Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma website, developed by Dart Center staff and colleagues over more than a decade, now offers extensive materials for journalists, clinicians, researchers, educators, and students working internationally. Ludtke 2009 includes journalists’ personal stories about covering a range of local and international tragedies, as well as articles drawn from panels at a Nieman Foundation multidisciplinary conference in February 2009 exploring journalism narratives of violence and tragedy. In addition, Underwood 2011 adds both historical and literary perspectives in a look at how fiction, journalism, and the personal lives of writers combine to create trauma narratives.

  • Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma.

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    Extensive collection of information about trauma and journalism along with practical resources. Includes gateways to pages specifically designed for journalists, educators, researchers, and clinicians, and features links to Dart Centre Australasia and Dart Centre Europe. In addition to articles, tip sheets, and audiovisual materials, the site features an extensive searchable research database of scholarly articles related to journalism and trauma.

  • Ludtke, Melissa, ed. 2009. Special report: Trauma in the aftermath: Voice, story, character and journalism. Nieman Reports 63.4 (Winter).

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    Essays consider the appropriate expression of emotion while covering trauma; personal narratives from journalists about textual, photographic, and audiovisual coverage of particular tragic events, including crimes, combat, and natural disaster. Articles include advice on approaching victims, crafting accurate and sensitive narratives, and self-care for journalists affected by trauma. Available in print and online, and is supplemented by Online Exclusives

  • Masse, Mark. 2011. Trauma journalism: On deadline in harm’s way. New York: Continuum.

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    Builds on the existing literature to provide an updated overview of the field of journalism and trauma, including practical, ethical, and legal information for journalists and students. Personal stories about journalists who have covered tragedy help illustrate primary points and issues in each chapter.

  • Simpson, Roger, and William Coté. 2006. Covering violence: A guide to ethical reporting about victims and trauma. 2d ed. New York: Columbia Univ. Press.

    E-mail Citation »

    Comprehensive, accessible introduction to trauma reporting issues and best practices, edited by professors who pioneered classroom and professional training for covering tragedy. Topical chapters and guidelines draw on research and clinical and field experience, and are paired with journalist profiles and examples.

  • Underwood, Doug. 2011. Chronicling trauma: Journalists and writers on violence and loss. Urbana: Univ. of Illinois Press.

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    Drawing from history and literary journalism, Underwood adds often ignored elements to the study of journalism and trauma: the functions of both journalism and fiction in telling stories of violence and the interweaving of the author’s own experience with trauma in the resulting narrative.

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