Covering Violence and Trauma

By Sonya Rehman

In a fascinating lecture last night, award-winning journalist Bruce Shapiro, the Executive Director of the ‘Dart Center for Journalism & Trauma’ spoke about what every journalist should know about reporting violence.

Shapiro spoke about how “violence, conflict and tragedy are basic to journalism” and how imperative it is for a journalist to fully understand the people and events being reported on – as that gives a journalist greater resilience of character, and aids in better story-telling as well.

Bruce Shapiro

But the focal point of Shapiro’s lecture was mainly about how reporting on trauma and violence can affect journalists. He spoke at length about the physical and mental repercussions on a journalist after witnessing traumatic events and then talked about the aftermath of these experiences on a journalist’s psyche.

The consequences of unchecked and untreated PSTD (Post-traumatic Stress Disorder) can be truly damaging for a journalist and therefore, Shapiro outlined the factors that one should look out for when assessing when one is at risk of undergoing a crippling PSTD. The factors in Shapiro’s slideshow included shame, isolation, disempowerment, rage, depression, and disruptions of relationships – both professional and personal.

Shapiro then went on to address something very pertinent: how journalists should interview traumatized sources. Traumatized sources, Shapiro stated, often had difficulty concentrating when relaying distressing events and experienced a level of disconnection and distrust when speaking with journalists. Understandably so. But to combat this, Shapiro advised the students last night a number of things.

This included seeking out atypical levels of permission to interview sources, making use of comfortable and safe locations when interviewing a traumatized source, having a “trusted third party present”, and laying out the ground rules of the interview to the source beforehand – regarding how the interview will be used.

In addition, Shaprio propagated that a journalist should “imagine” how the interview will roll out before it takes place. He also suggested that a traumatized source should be allowed to end the interview whenever he/she so wished, and, if necessary, the journalist should offer support (in the form of social connections) if need be, to the source.

Most importantly, rather than starting off an interview with a traumatized source as; “How do you feel?”, Shapiro deemed it best to start with the question; “What happened to you?”

Getting to know about the source’s life prior to the traumatic event was also a good way to truly connect with the source, Shapiro had said during the lecture on covering trauma.

*The lecture took place in October, 2009. This piece was penned for the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism website.

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