Katherine Reed is an associate professor on the print and digital faculty at the Missouri School of Journalism. She has published a really interesting discussion of the role journalism plays surrounding traumatic events and she argues forcefully that journalism students should be taught how to handle these situations rather than simply thrown into them.
She is arguing for better instruction for journalism students, but we should note that our education never ends and many of us have never been taught what to do when covering trauma.
Trauma, of course, is all around us. It can be found in the earthquake that buries Asian cities, in the drowning at the local lake, in the car crash on the interstate. For me, anyway, these instances bring out a strange dichotomy. I’m attracted from a great remove to learn more about a tsunami halfway around the world that kills thousands, but I don’t want to approach a single mother who has lost her child to violence. It creates a push-pull in my own soul that I deal with every day as a journalist.
Reed suggests some things that I have always found to be true.
Trust your instincts. As thinking, breathing human beings, we develop a bit of a radar for when to approach victims and when to leave them alone. Use your ethical compass. Are you usually able to divine your moral true north? I bet you are, and that will serve you well the next time you cover a traumatic event. If an hour after the murder seems like the wrong time to approach a grieving mother, wait a day or a week or find someone associated with the family who would appreciate the chance to speak. …
People need to talk. Throughout my now 30-year career, I’ve been surprised again and again what people want to talk about in the wake of something terrible. In fact, I’ve been surprised so much by this phenomenon that it’s no longer surprising.
Approach with appropriate respect. Reed mentions TV reporters rushing to the home of a family in mourning with their camera lights already blaring before they even knock on the door. You probably know that you are sometimes better served to keep your pen and pad in your pocket until you have established a rapport.
It’s OK to say you are sorry. Don’t let the necessary remove between journalist and source cause you to appear less than human. It’s all right to tell that mother how sorry you are for her loss. Don’t pretend to be a friend or something you are not just to get the story, but don’t pretend to be callous either.
It’s OK to be rattled. If you don’t have second thoughts about approaching a father who has just lost his daughter, there is something wrong with you. Don’t rush. Talk it over with mentors and editors before and after your coverage. You can always call me.
Lastly, remember that these are people, not merely victims. They are not story elements, quotes to be plugged in long about the third graph. Their stories are infinite and not confined to a single horrible event. Consider the sweep of the life at hand. No one should be defined by her worst moment.