Best practices for trauma-informed journalism
Experts and journalists provide tips to keep yourself and your sources safe
Trauma-informed reporting can help journalists navigate sensitive situations with a thoughtful approach and with a prepared mindset for their own mental health. With more trauma awareness, a reporter can minimize their effect on survivors of traumatic events.
I spoke with journalists who have covered stories that involve trauma and experts on the topic: Elana Newman is a psychology professor at the University of Tulsa and research director for the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma; Maria Alejandra Silva is a program coordinator at the International Women’s Media Foundation; Leah Millis is a senior photographer for Thomson Reuters, where she covers the White House and breaking news stories; and Rachel Dissell investigated rape cases while she worked at The Plain Dealer from 2002 to 2020 and works closely with the Dart Center on trauma-informed interviewing and storytelling techniques.
Why we should be trauma-informed
“There’s two different kinds of stories that involve trauma,” Dissell said. “One is in the immediate aftermath of a trauma, something that’s still unfolding. And the other would be more like a trauma has happened and folks are dealing with the aftermath of it.”
Based on the varied situations, there may be a different approach to every story. By taking the steps to become trauma-informed, a journalist can improve their storytelling and be more thoughtful about their impact on survivors.
“You’ll get more accuracy, be able to stick to journalistic ethics and tell a better story,” Newman said. “You’ll be able to cause no harm to other people. You’ll be able to stay in the field longer and tell stories about pain and suffering.”
A journalist can start preparing before they are assigned to a traumatic story. One way is through research.
“I did a lot of research and reading,” Dissell said, “and it’s not actually that hard. There’s great stuff on the internet like Stevenson YouTube videos from Dr. Rebecca Campbell, who’s really good at explaining what happens to someone’s brain when a trauma happens. Understanding that as a reporter is helpful. Then when you see how someone’s reacting, you kind of go, ‘Oh, I understand what’s happening with them right now.’”
Taking the time to understand the effects of trauma can lead to more understanding in the actual situation. That way, a journalist can know how to react in an empathetic and thoughtful manner. There are some key questions a journalist can ask to decide whether covering the assignment is a healthy decision at that point.
“Have a check in with yourself and think about what could happen. Where are you, mentally and emotionally in that moment? Are you prepared to take that on?” said Alejandra Silva.
It’s also important to ask questions that will ensure your safety. Journalists may enter dangerous areas to cover a story.
“What to carry? What works for tear gas? What eye protection? What respirator? What kind of things to wear? What to avoid wearing?” said Alejandra Silva.
If it’s an interview with a trauma survivor and less of a breaking news situation, a journalist can carefully craft their questions so they are giving control to the interviewee.
“One thing is to understand that a person who has experienced a life threatening event or sexual assault or something of that nature, they may feel that their power has been taken away, and feel helpless,” Newman said. “It’s really important to enter a story giving your source or your subject as much control as possible.”
On the other hand, self care can be a large part of preparing for a trauma related story. Each individual journalist will have something different that works for them, but there are some steps that are good for everyone.
“Try and get a bit more sleep than usual ahead of time and hydrate a bit more, especially the night and the day before. Also make a plan for what you’re going to do the day after,” said Millis.
All of these steps of the pre-reporting process are crucial in ensuring the journalist’s safety and the best possible interview experience for the survivor.
During the event or interview
When covering stories of sexual assault, Dissell immediately presents options to survivors. “I say to folks, there’s a couple of different ways we can do this. We can have all these conversations first, and then we can come back around to how you’ll be identified in the story, once you have a better understanding of what the story is going to be like and what it’s going to include. And you can be a person who is not identified, but we use details so people know a little bit about you. You can maybe use a first name and then some details, because we want people to know you’re a human and connect with a story. Or we can use your full name and some other identifying information if you’re fully comfortable.”
Making sure that interviewees know they have control of the situation is key. One simple way to raise their comfort level is by not pushing any questions that they are not prepared to answer.
“Telling someone that they can stop at any point. They don’t have to answer your questions,” Newman said. “You would never say that to a politician, but it’s helpful to tell somebody in these situations that you can tell me as much or as little as you want. Questions might make them uncomfortable, but if you don’t want to answer the question, you don’t need to.”
Another power that a journalist can give to their interviewee is encouraging them to ask questions, too.
“One of the simple things I tell to folks who I’ve interviewed about trauma is, ‘Hey, you can ask me questions too.’ I’m the reporter, and I’m asking you a lot of questions, but you can always stop me,” Dissell said. “And you can always ask me questions like: Why are you asking that question? Do I need to share this detail? Or can I share something with you? And then let you know why I might not want to share it like that.”
When covering an event like a protest, Millis is as transparent as she can be. She makes sure that the crowd knows she’s a journalist and her reason for being there.
“I am fairly obvious about who I am. I have my press card out, I generally try to talk to people that I photograph. And if I don’t have time, or it’s quite difficult to speak to someone, I at least try and tell them, ‘I just want to let you know that I’m with an international news company.’ I try and give them an opportunity that if they feel afraid to be photographed, they have the opportunity to communicate that with me. One way is being really obvious about making eye contact with people,” said Millis.
It’s important to know that journalists are human. It is normal to feel emotions while covering some of these stories.
“People need to be aware of their biases and they need to be aware that they will have emotional reactions,” Newman said. “And being emotional doesn’t mean that you’re not being objective. It means that you’re empathetically engaging with your sources and your subjects.”
After the reporting or event
Once the reporting is over, there are still ways to keep sources in the loop. Making sure that sources feel safe enough to ask questions while the story is being written or edited is important. This also prevents any negative reactions or your sources feeling surprised by what is included once the story gets published.
“If you have a question about what I’m going to include in the story, let me know and we can talk through that,” Dissell said. “Or if you have a concern about one part or one detail, let’s talk about it before it’s published. I also explain to them how a publication process works. I’ll interview you and I have some editors, editors will read the story, they might ask me questions, and I might have to come back to you and ask you questions. And those questions don’t mean that they don’t believe something you said, they just want to make sure that we get things as accurate as possible.”
Along with that, make sure that trauma survivors are ready to share their story. Do not make them feel trapped once they are already in the process of the story. Regularly check in with sources and give them the opportunity to change their mind.
“I also always give people an out,” Dissell said. “No story is important enough, where if someone calls you and says, ‘I just can’t do this, it’s really harming me.’ It’s never worth it to cause someone a mental health crisis because they’re just not ready to do what they thought they were ready to do. Or if we need to take a break and take some space, and then come back together and talk, that’s fine. I think when people know that, it takes a little pressure off of them. And they are able to kind of relax into thinking about how to tell a story a little better.”
Once the story is finished and edited, there’s still one last check a journalist can do to make sure they covered the situation carefully.
“Take the story when it’s done,” Newman said, “review their story and ask themselves at the end of it, is it accurate? If this were my relative, how would I feel about it? Is there anything I would change? Just to do a tone check for sensitivity if this was someone I love.”
The key to all of the post-production is staying in communication with sources and choosing each word or edit thoughtfully.
As a journalist, it can be difficult to ingest all of the emotions that come along with covering a traumatic event. Journalists have to keep their mental health in mind as they cover stories, along with after those stories are done.
Millis makes an effort to give herself space after covering an event. “I will try and plan something the day after the event, whether that’s just a trip to a specific park nearby that has a lot of nature in it, or even just a trip outside of the city,” she said. “It usually involves nature and very intentional time away from my phone and away from social media.”
She also takes steps to identify when she is feeling heavy from the stories. She has found specific coping mechanisms over her time as a journalist.
“I’ve learned over the years to try and identify when I see signs of burnout within myself, or depression or anxiety. A lot of that self awareness has come from therapy over the years. And then, just learning positive coping mechanisms, which include, for me, hands-on things like gardening or I started painting again, which I hadn’t done since I was in high school. Things that don’t involve the internet or social media, things that involve creating something in real time.”
Dissell switches the next type of story she covers. This gives her time to heal from the previous story. “It’s hard to hear a lot of difficult details and process them and really support someone through telling a story like that without feeling a lot of it yourself,” she said.
Dissell finds that her support system is the key to covering these stories and being able to relate to those she’s serving.
“I think having a good support system of other journalists or other professionals who do the work that you can talk to and process stuff,” Dissell said. “I’ve been able to do a lot of trainings with social workers and trauma therapists and even law enforcement who deal with this kind of stuff. Just being able to talk through how you’re feeling about something is a lot more helpful, so you’re not just kind of keeping it inside.”
Taking steps to stay healthy mentally is important in order to continue doing work as a journalist. “I think resilience is a requirement,” Millis said, “because if you don’t have a structure to support yourself, mentally, physically, you will burn out, and you will not only burn out, you won’t be able to continue.”
Editors, orgs and newsrooms should help too
It is not only the responsibility of the reporter to make sure they are producing trauma-informed journalism. The tools and support should be provided by their organization. It starts with preparing journalists to cover stories that involve trauma.
“Put time into preparing people before we send them into a situation that involves a lot of trauma, rather than trying to help folks who really struggle afterwards. I think that knowledge about trauma can be a really good preventative,” said Dissell.
Millis recognizes that 2020 was a difficult year for everyone, including journalists. With the start of COVID-19 and the many protests, journalists took on a lot of work that could have easily weighed on their mental health.
“I think 2020 should be an eye opener for news organizations that want to continue to produce good work,” Millis said. “In order to do that they have to have intentional mental health support, policies and culture. I think everyone is beyond burned out right now in our industry, so if there isn’t a concerted effort, that will take a pretty big toll on our industry, and on a lot of people who are freelancers and who don’t have the privilege of staff.”
There are simple processes that a newsroom can put in place. That includes accuracy checks with sources and making sure that the story has been seen by many editors first. This is courteous to survivors so their story is told correctly and any blind spots may be addressed.
“There’s been just a few studies. Most survivors who read about themselves are not obsessed by the coverage. Sometimes it’s the tone, they’re upset when it’s inaccurate,” said Newman.
There is more trauma-informed journalism today than there was in the past. However, organizations and individuals can still make the effort to improve their storytelling and impact on others by taking some of these steps.
Resources for journalists
- The Dart Center Style Guide for Trauma-Informed Journalism
- HEAT training
- Resources for Journalists Coping With Trauma
- Risk Assessment and Planning for Student Journalists
- IWMF Emergency Fund Application
- Photographing vulnerable populations
- Police tactics, situational awareness and disengaging techniques
- Coalition against online violence
- Black Journalists therapy relief fund
- JSafe app
- IWMF Webinars
- Lawyers for Reporters
- Journalist Trauma Support Network