Trauma-informed journalism: What it is, why it’s important and tips for practicing it

Trauma-informed journalism: What it is, why it’s important and tips for practicing it

Trauma-informed practices first took shape in medicine, after the medical community began to understand trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Other fields, such as education and law, have also been discussing trauma-informed practices.

“Trauma-informed journalism” is a relatively new term, even though covering trauma — ranging from storms and fires to sexual assaults and homicides to mass shootings and wars — has always been a part of journalists’ work.

Trauma-informed journalism can mean different things to different people, says Tamara Cherry, who worked as a crime reporter for nearly 15 years and is the author of the upcoming book, “The Trauma Beat: Victims, Survivors & the Journalists Who Tell Their Stories,” slated for publication in Spring 2023.

“Trauma-informed journalism means understanding trauma, understanding what a trauma survivor is experiencing before you show up at their door, and understanding how your actions [as a journalist] will impact them after you pack up and leave,” says Cherry. “It’s also about creating the safe and predictable spaces. It’s about forgetting all the rules that we usually abide by when we’re interviewing school board officials and politicians and recognizing that when it comes to trauma, we need to be treating our interview subjects differently.”

Discussions about trauma-informed journalism are becoming more common due to a confluence of factors, including the COVID-19 pandemic and increased hostility toward journalists. Together, these elements “have really made it clear that for journalists to do their jobs, they need to understand trauma more, so that they can tell better stories,” says Elana Newman, research director at the Dart Center for Journalism & Trauma at Columbia University and McFarlin Professor of Psychology at the University of Tulsa.

This explainer and tip sheet on trauma-informed journalism is based on a review of several reliable sources on trauma-informed reporting and an interview with Newman of the Dart Center, and Cherry, founder of Pickup Communications PR agency, which provides services and tools for victims and survivors of traumatic events, the journalists who cover their stories and the criminal justice sector. We use The Dart Center Style Guide for Trauma-Informed Journalism as our source for defining trauma-related terminology.

“Trauma-informed journalism means understanding trauma, understanding what a trauma survivor is experiencing before you show up at their door, and understanding how your actions [as a journalist] will impact them after you pack up and leave.”

Tamara Cherry

1. Understand that trauma impacts the brain, including the memory and the ability to vocalize events as they happened.

Trauma results from an event, series of events, or set of circumstances that are physically or emotionally harmful or life-threatening to an individual, and have “lasting adverse effects on the individual’s functioning and mental, physical, social, emotional, or spiritual well-being,” according to the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

Trauma can significantly affect a person’s perception and judgment. When faced with traumatic situations, the brain can go into survival mode and people can suddenly feel and behave differently from their normal selves. “That’s why eyewitnesses to traumatic events are notoriously unreliable. It’s also why even seasoned journalists at moments of high emotion can sometimes get it wrong,” according to the Dart Center’s “Trauma & Journalism: A Guide for Journalists, Editors & Managers.”

Trauma impacts the brain, memories and a person’s ability to vocalize their stories, says Cherry. Immediately after a tragedy, “we as journalists are asking people to tell their stories when quite often they literally can’t,” she says. “So, we might think that we’re getting their story, but really, we’re getting whatever version of their story that their brain is coming up within the moment.”

But months down the road, when the sources have had time to heal a little and they’re not in fight or flight mode, we might actually get a more accurate story, Cherry says.

2. When getting informed consent to tell a trauma survivor’s story, err on the side of overexplaining.

In the context of trauma-informed reporting, informed consent means informing your sources about the nature of your story and having their consent to use their name and report on their experiences. While this is an important aspect of reporting many stories, trauma-informed reporting requires journalists to err on the side of overexplaining.

“Don’t assume [sources] know what terms like ‘on the record’ or ‘on background’ mean. If that’s something you’re discussing, make sure to be extremely clear about how they will or won’t be identified,” writes journalist Alice Wilder in “Trauma-Informed Reporting,” published for Transom, a nonprofit organization that brings new voices and ideas to public broadcasting via workshops and its website.

Give your sources the option to review their quotes or even to change their mind about being quoted before a story is published.

In writing her book, Cherry allowed the people she surveyed and interviewed — including more than 100 trauma survivors — to review the parts in which they were quoted or where their stories were used to ensure their continued consent and accuracy of the survivors’ accounts after her initial interview.

“I knew enough about trauma to really appreciate the weight of responsibility that I had to get this right and to not cause further harm,” she says. “I wanted them to be able to review their excerpt, but I didn’t want it to leave them in a dark place. I wanted it to leave them in a better place.”

“Don’t assume [sources] know what terms like ‘on the record’ or ‘on background’ mean. If that’s something you’re discussing, make sure to be extremely clear about how they will or won’t be identified.”

Alice Wilder

3. Give power to survivors during the interview and storytelling process.

Journalists are trained not to let sources pick which questions they want to answer, and see the questions ahead of the interview or the story before it’s published. But when it comes to interviewing survivors of trauma, it’s OK to break those rules. Let your sources know that they have control of the situation.

“One simple way to raise their comfort level is by not pushing any questions that they are not prepared to answer,” writes Maggie Doheny in her article “Best Practices for Trauma-Informed Journalism,” published by the Reynolds Journalism Institute in December 2021.

The Dart Center’s guide, “Tragedies & Journalists,” has five tips for interviewing victims of trauma:

  • Always treat victims with dignity and respect.
  • Clearly identify yourself.
  • Never say “I understand” or “I know how you feel.”
  • Don’t overwhelm your source with the hardest questions first.
  • If you receive a harsh reaction, leave a number or your card and explain that survivors can contact you if they want to talk later.

In the aftermath of a tragedy, prepare yourself for a wide range of responses from survivors. “Bear in mind the emotional impact of what has happened. Approach people with care, respect and kindness. Take a moment to introduce yourself, make eye contact and explain why you would like to talk to them. Take it slowly and don’t rush — however chaotic the circumstances. Don’t just stuff a microphone in someone’s face and expect an interview,” according to the Dart Center’s trauma and journalism guide.

“Never ask that most overused and least effective of journalistic questions: ‘How do you feel?’ You may get tears in response, but you’re not likely to get a coherent, useful or meaningful answer. ‘How do you feel?’ is the one question survivors and victims consistently say they find the most distressing and inappropriate. Better options include: ‘How are you now?’ or ‘How did you experience that?’ or ‘What do you think about …?’” according to the Dart Center’s trauma and journalism guide.

“Opt for open-ended questions and let subjects know that they’re not required to answer questions,” advises Wilder in her Transom article. “Instead of ‘Start at the beginning’ or other chronological based questions ask, ‘Where would you like to begin?’ or ‘Would you tell me what you are able to remember about your experience?'”

Wilder also advises against questioning why your source is emotional: “Even if the traumatic event was long ago, or if it doesn’t seem ‘that bad’ to you, their reaction should be respected,” she writes. She also advises against saying “I understand what you’re going through” or “I know how you feel.”

Ask survivors what they would like to achieve in telling their story, advises Cherry.

And if you’re producing a podcast, video, or a printed story about a crime or tragedy that happened in the past, make sure the survivors are aware of it and are extended the opportunity to include their voice and be part of the process. “Because if they’re not, then they could really feel like we are talking about them behind their back,” says Cherry. “Or they can be surprised by it because they might not even know [the podcast/show/story] is happening.”

“‘How do you feel?’ is the one question survivors and victims consistently say they find the most distressing and inappropriate. Better options include: ‘How are you now?’ or ‘How did you experience that?’ or ‘What do you think about …?'”

Dart Center’s Trauma & Journalism: A Guide For Journalists, Editors & Managers

4. Have a plan for your interviews.

If you’re interviewing a trauma survivor, think about how you’re caring for them before, during and after the interview.

Let survivors pick the place of the interview, so they can feel safe. Tell survivors what questions you’re planning to ask, Cherry writes in her tip sheet. Ask if there are questions you should avoid.

During the interview, make sure survivors aren’t reliving the event. Find out if they want to take a break.

At the end of the interview, thank your sources and let them how their interview will be used and when to expect the story, advises journalist and author Jo Healey in “Reporting on Coronavirus: Handling Sensitive Remote Interviews,” published in 2020 on the Dart Center’s website.

5. Don’t forget about your own mental well-being.

Over the years, research has shown that journalists’ job can affect their mental health.

Depending on their beats or work locations, 4% to 59% of journalists have symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, according to the Dart Center. Over the years, research has shown that journalists’ job can affect their mental health.

Journalists should be aware of signs of trouble, which include the inability to concentrate, feeling on edge or numb, or inability to feel compassion for sources, Newman explained in 2021. Other signs include the inability to sleep, feeling angry or excessive use of alcohol.

Here are five self-care tips from the Dart Center’s 2009 guide, “Tragedies & Journalists“:

  • Know your limits.
  • Take breaks.
  • Find a friend or colleague who is a good listener.
  • Find a hobby, exercise, spend time with family and friends.
  • Seek counseling if you feel overwhelmed.

Newman also shared self-care tips for journalists in 2021, which we summarized in “Self-care tips for journalists — plus a list of several resources.”

Recommended reading

This article first appeared on The Journalist’s Resource and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.


Image by Alexas_Fotos from Pixabay

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