Covering trauma stories


The country just recognized the 10th anniversay of the Columbine shootings. Since then we’ve experienced a spate of other trauma stories, not only on campus, but in our communities. Think Viginia Tech, Iraq, natural disasters like Katrina, more local shootings and, perhaps more recently, trauma of people greatly affected by the recession.

I am reminded, for instance, of a story of trauma currently being covered by recent community college (Las Medanos College) journalism student Jennifer Wasdworth at the Tracy Press on the death of a young girl allegedly at the hands of the girl’s Sunday School teacher. How have we prepared her to cover this story?

What better time to learn more about how to better prepare students to cover stories of trauma? That’s why I am in San Francisco this weekend participating in a free workshop for journalism educators to learn to do just this.

As Bruce Shapiro, executive director of the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, who is co-sponsoring the workshop, said in his opening remarks: “We would not think about sending students to cover football without knowing what a goal is.” Why would we send students out to cover catastrophe, violence and trauma without giving the skillsets to understand these stories, including being better prepared emotionally to handle these kinds of stories?

“We know how to prepare students to cover news conferences,” Shaprio said, but trauma stories often aren’t controlled by those in power, there is more chaos.

He said there are three acts of trauma news:

Act One — Covering the immediate tragedy. We’re better as journalists and teachers in learning how to do this.

Act Two — What are the ways violence plays out over time: days, months and years. How do we understand and report the continuing news. Stories of Post Trauma Distress Syndrome would be an example.

Act Three — How are communities altered long term by trauma? We dont really have a good example of Act Three journalism and what it looks like yet.

About 17 people are participating in the workshop. Different levels of education and the industry are represented. There is a high school teacher in the room, three community college instructors, several private and public university instructors and a variety of trauma-related industry professionals, including a trauma counselor and an Iraq War photographer.

I came fully prepared to sit and learn a lot from this weekend, but it is clear that as it progresses, there will be more of a conversation as the distiction from presenter to participant dissolves and we look for creative ways to introduce trauma training into our curriculum.

One of my goals in participating is to learn more about how to not only better train my own students, but share with the many California community college journalism teachers in the state who could not participate this weekend.

The Dart Center is co-based at the University of Washington and Columbia University. It has held several workshops around the country helping train journalism

More later


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