Covering Trauma & Tragedy: What it Takes

January 7, 2005
Category: Uncategorized

Dr. Frank Ochberg remembers the first time he cut into a live human being. He was doing his surgical rotation as a medical student decades ago. He held the scalpel as his teacher placed a hand on top of his. Together they pressed into the skin.

Cutting a person open is difficult. Surgeons have to learn to overcome the natural human instinct not to hurt someone. In the same way journalists who cover suffering, violence, and disaster must overcome some natural human instincts if they are to do their jobs well, Ochberg says.

He went into psychiatry, not surgery. He specialized in trauma. He founded the Dart Center for Journalism & Trauma. And from 2000-2003, Ochberg served as the center’s chairman. 

Journalists covering the tsunami and its aftermath are consistently reporting that the devastation and suffering are among the worst they have ever witnessed. Several journalists have reported that the magnitude of death and sorrow surpass what they have witnessed in the war, the Sept. 11 attacks, and even in other natural disasters.

Those who are well-trained or have a lot of experience act instinctively in order to get the job done, Ochberg said. “When you are in your role, you are operating fairly automatically,” he said. It’s the same for an emergency worker doing triage or a soldier in battle. They don’t ask too many questions or get very philosophical while they are working. If they did they would be paralyzed.

Instead, what happens before and after the crisis is what prepares people in such roles to perform well amid chaos.

Talking with Ochberg and reading just a small amount of the research on trauma, it’s pretty clear that good journalism during a disaster such as the tsunami requires more than just getting a good reporter or photographer to the scene.

In newsrooms, we could be preparing journalists better. We may not see another disaster of this magnitude in our lifetimes, but all journalists cover tragedy and suffering.

Here are some places we could start:

  •  A little bit of knowledge goes a long way. People who have just survived a traumatic event are incredibly inarticulate, Ochberg says. It is part of the physiological response. They have a hard time saying what their experience means. As a journalist, if you know this, you’ll stick with straight-forward questions. A good story-teller can rely on observation and description to convey meaning, rather than asking sources who are struggling to string sentences together to do so.
  • A solid foundation in the values of journalism. We cover disasters to tell the story, to take readers and viewers to a place they can’t go on their own and to inspire people to help. But human suffering evokes a human response. How should journalists react when faced with hungry children and despondent parents? What obligation do reporters have to share food, water, and other resources with the people they encounter? These are complicated questions with no easy answers. Journalists who have discussed the issues with their editors are going to be better able to reason through the dilemmas.
  • A dose of humility. Ochberg designed the Dart Award for Excellence in Reporting on Victims and Violence. After years of talking to the winners, he says the best stories are those in which the reporter sees herself as a conduit, the means by which a source can tell his story, he says. Whether it’s a doctor discussing a horrific day of amputations or a mother describing the loss of her children, when the reporter lets the source tell the story, the story gets stronger.
  • Some emotional preparation. It’s embarrassing to talk to a person who has suffered through a horrific event, Ochberg says. Some journalists feel guilty for not being able to do more. Seeing children suffer might make some journalists fearful for their own family’s well-being. Just as counselors, doctors, and nurses are trained to handle such interviews, journalists could be trained, Ochberg said. It could be as simple as having senior reporters discuss their experiences with junior reporters or as formal as bringing in an expert.
  • An opportunity to debrief. Witnessing trauma and its aftermath causes emotional trauma itself. The most important element in processing those emotions is the opportunity to talk about it afterward. Ochberg emphasized that this is as important for journalists as it is for relief workers.

American newsrooms generally cover tragedy well. They give voice to the suffering and show the audience something most people couldn’t comprehend without stories and images. Before and after the tragedy it’s a different story. Many individual journalists make efforts to do the work described here. Is this work being done newsroom-wide? Should it be?