Toolkit: Trauma-Informed Journalism

By Laura Braden Quigley, CTIPP's director of communications and outreach

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Seventy percent of U.S. adults have experienced at least one traumatic event, while 46% of U.S. children have experienced at least one by age 16.


Trauma and stress are at the root of society’s most pressing issues. From natural disasters to community violence, covering traumatic events has always been critical to a journalist’s work.


Trauma-informed approaches are gaining momentum across society – in healthcare, education, the justice system, journalism, and more – because they utilize the best scientific evidence to help build resilience and promote healing, engagement, and empowerment. Trauma-informed journalism can also lead to more accurate stories and protect survivors from further harm and retraumatization.


Trauma-informed journalism fundamentally views (living) “victims” as “survivors,” and it approaches each situation from “what happened” instead of “what’s wrong” (and includes “what’s strong,” when possible). It emphasizes empathy by treating survivors with dignity and respect at all stages of the process.


It also avoids retraumatization, which can occur when a survivor is reminded or feels like they’re reliving a past trauma through situations, attitudes, expressions, and environments that replicate the dynamics of the original trauma.


While each traumatic event has unique challenges and opportunities, the Campaign for Trauma-Informed Policy and Practice (CTIPP) has produced this toolkit to help start your journey toward becoming more trauma-informed. Please explore the citations and resources to deepen your understanding and education.

“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. It’s also about creating safe and predictable spaces. It’s about forgetting all the rules that we usually abide by… and recognizing that when it comes to trauma, we need to be treating our interview subjects differently.” – Author, consultant and former crime reporter Tamara Cherry

PRINCIPLES & GUIDELINES


UNDERSTAND HOW TRAUMA IMPACTS THE BRAIN: Journalists are taught not to assume or speculate, which is particularly helpful because trauma is a unique experience. It can impact everyone in different ways at different times. Indeed, not everyone you interview may even be aware that they’ve been adversely impacted. Trauma also affects memory, perception, and judgment, so eyewitnesses and survivors may be able to vocalize more accurate details once they have had a chance to heal and are no longer in fight, flight, or freeze mode.

DOUBLE DOWN ON INFORMED CONSENT: Most people don’t understand the difference between “on background” or “off the record.” Your source may be having the worst day of their life or experiencing flashbacks of the incident. The traumatic event might also be intimately personal or sensitive, causing them to feel acutely uncomfortable or vulnerable. So it’s critically important to explain the ground rules for the interview, the nature of your story, and precisely how you will utilize their story.

COLLABORATE THROUGH STORYTELLING: Psychiatrist Judith L. Herman says that “trauma robs the victim of a sense of power and control over her own life; therefore, the guiding principle of recovery is to restore power and control to the survivor." Indeed, collaboration is a core value of trauma-informed journalism to aid in accuracy and avoid retraumatization. When interviewing survivors of trauma, it’s ok to bend some of the traditional rules, such as sharing your questions ahead of time, letting them choose what they feel comfortable answering, and having them review and approve their quotes. It's also a great idea to ask your sources what they’d like to achieve by sharing their story.


BE PATIENT & RESPECT "NO": Survivors are under no obligation to share their experiences. One way to support people sharing is to be flexible and patient, given the extra stress a survivor may be under or experience in the re-telling of their story. They may also change their minds, so be compassionate and respectful if they ultimately decline to participate. They may change their minds again, so provide your contact information, and do not pressure them to proceed.


REMEMBER THE RIPPLE IMPACT: Trauma can ripple through the community: from direct survivors, then out to their loved ones and neighbors, and on and on. Even strangers to the survivors or victims are left wondering why and whether anything could have been done differently. Your media coverage may also be the first time someone has learned anything about your community, so think long-term with intention. It’s crucial to “constantly ask: what does the public need to know and how much coverage is too much? When does a medium become infatuated with a story when the public is not? A community is much more than a mass killing or disaster. The coverage must reflect that.” (Dart Center)

FUTURE COVERAGE? STAY IN TOUCH: If and when you produce a future story or re-cover an older one, you must reach out to your sources, so they’re made aware and not caught surprised. Survivors should always understand (and have agency over) how their story is being publicly utilized at every step of the process.


PROTECT YOUR PEACE: Journalists aren’t immune from being impacted when reporting traumatic events. An online survey of those who covered September 11, 2001, found that 62% had intrusive flashbacks or disturbing memories, and 48% reported a loss of interest in regular activities. It’s essential to ask for help and determine, develop, and practice a personal routine that helps you stay rested, healthy, balanced, and connected with loved ones, friends, and colleagues.

FRIENDLY REMINDERS & QUICK TIPS:

  • Identify yourself, your story’s focus, and how their story will get utilized.

  • Let them choose the interview location to ensure they feel safe and comfortable.

  • Set expectations by letting them know the logistics of the interview – if you’ll be recording the interview, taking notes, how long they should expect to be there, should they bring water or will it be provided, etc.

  • Don’t overwhelm them with the most challenging questions first – take it slow and don’t rush, however chaotic the circumstances.

  • Express empathy while avoiding “I understand” or “I know how you feel.” Avoid “how do you feel?” and instead, ask your source open-ended questions:

  • How are you today?

  • How did you experience that?

  • What do you think about…?

  • Occasionally, ask if they would like to take a break.

  • Leave out unnecessary gory and disturbing details.

  • If you receive a harsh reaction or they decline to participate, leave your card and explain they can contact you if they want to talk later.

AVAILABLE FOR INTERVIEWS & NEWSROOM BRIEFINGS

Jesse Kohler, CTIPP’s Executive Director

  • How trauma ripples throughout a family, community, industry, and system

  • CTIPP’s mission, vision, policy priorities, and advocacy efforts (nationwide)

Jen Curt, CTIPP’s Director of Government Affairs

  • Trauma-related Congressional legislation

  • Trauma-related federal agency and White House actions

  • Elements of trauma-informed policy

  • Policy priorities to build a trauma-informed/responsive society

Whitney Marris, Trauma therapist and CTIPP’s Director of Trauma-Informed Practice & System Transformation

  • Best methods & approaches to support trauma survivors

  • Trauma-informed systems, community models & historical policies

  • Secondary trauma and retraumatization

MEDIA CONTACT: Laura Braden Quigley, laura@traumacampaign.org


CITATIONS & RESOURCES

(free!) Course on Trauma and Journalism (Poynter Institute)


What is Trauma-Informed Journalism? Watch these Videos (Author, consultant, and former crime reporter Tamara Cherry)


Tragedies & Disasters: A Guide for More Effective Journalism (Columbia University’s Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma)


Style Guide for Trauma-Informed Journalism (Dart Center)


Best Practices for Trauma-Informed Journalism (University of Missouri’s Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute)