Sometimes, stories leave you so speechless, it’s unfathomable you would ever be able write a blog post about them. But you have to. Not because blogging is required coursework, but because some stories demand to be shared.
Angela Anderson came to speak with my Reporting on Traumatic Events class. On July 4, 2012, two of Anderson’s children — 13-year-old Alexandra and 8-year-old Braydon — were fatally electrocuted while swimming in the Lake of the Ozarks.
Hearing Anderson speak about her experience with having the media eye turned onto her and her grieving family was truly enough to send shivers down my spine. Would I ever be able to do that? To cover that kind of breaking news? There has to be something truly terrifying in being a parent who has lost a child. I kept flashing back to my cousin’s funeral and the sight of my aunt half-sprinting out of mass and straight to her car. Could I ever be the reporter who asks for a comment from a parent who has just lost a child?
I’m not sure. My currently flipping stomach tells me no, but Anderson gave our class some first-hand advice that I will certainly take to heart.
The family is human.
In journalism, we have an unfortunate tendency to think of our sources as just that: sources. In traumatic event reporting, the media needs to be especially mindful of treating the humans who are sharing their stories as humans — boundaries, resilience, anger, speechlessness and all. This one is both the most self-explanatory and the most overlooked (in my opinion) in trauma reporting.
Follow-up is hugely important.
Frank Ochberg, acclaimed psychiatrist and Dart Center chairman emeritus, outlines three stages of trauma reporting, but it isn’t a sunny story. Act One is the event itself. The media converge onto the point of impact, and news coverage seems nonstop. Act Two is a focus on the victim’s aftermath. It is full of recovery profiles, cold news on page 6A. Act Three is simply emptiness. As Ochberg describes it, “Sometimes there is no healing after horror.”
There is more to the story.
Fact-checking and a variety of reliable sources are always important in strong news. Even more so in breaking news situations. Even more so in traumatic events reporting. There is the old journalism adage “Don’t be first; Be right.” There are few corrections more heartbreaking to print than those about the death of a child, a fatal car accident or some other traumatic coverage. Accuracy, clarity and correctly nuanced copy is rarely as important as when it concerns a grieving family and community.
Give everything time.
The media pack descends on a community after a traumatic event sometimes makes me think I want to be on the other side, fighting off lede-hungry reporters with a baseball bat. Every person wears grief differently, but that doesn’t mean that they aren’t having a hard time grappling with a situation. Patience is key. Understand that a survivor or family member might not want to talk right now, but may share their story two months down the road.
Do everything with compassion and consideration for the family.
As I’m reading through this list, I can see that these aren’t exclusive to the journalism world. These are principals we can apply to talking with friends, family members, people next to us on the subway. Talking about painful events is painful for all parties involved, and there is a grace that we can adopt into our conversations. I know I would appreciate it, and there’s a good chance you would too.
It was a heavy 75 minutes, and a truly eye-opening conversation about what it’s like to be on the other side of the reporter’s notebook. Angela, thank you for sharing your story.
- Ashland siblings electrocuted at Lake of the Ozarks (Edward Hart/Columbia Missourian)
- Siblings with big smiles loved sports, friends, family (Xinrui Zhu, Jamie Henry-White/Columbia Missourian)
- Ashland siblings die in lake electrocution (Janese Silvey/Columbia Daily Tribune)
I like to prepare for things. If you know me at all, you might actually be surprised by that. “Hanna, prepared?” you may be asking yourself. “She’s a constant mess. She’s not prepared.”
I’m not necessarily talking about school assignments or financial planning (although I probably should) — I’m talking about physical safety. I have band-aids and ibuprofen and a charged phone and an escape route. I wear shoes I know I would be able to run in, if need be. I am not preparing for anything in particular … just life in general.
I have no idea how I would prepare for a school shooting.
I had an great conversation Friday with Sarah Ng, an MU student who helped to report on the October suicide of Ashland, Mo., teen Jared Meadows. She made a very interesting point: it’s almost impossible to emotionally prepare for reporting on tragedy.
You can have a charged phone. You can have all the lenses for your camera. You can ask the right questions. But you can’t really prepare yourself for a situation like a suicide of a 17-year-old high schooler.
And that terrifies me.
School shooting response training for police officers and firefighters has increased across the nation. Schools themselves are taking school shooting preparation more seriously, by whatever means they consider appropriate for that city’s gun control law and gun culture.
What about journalists? We can’t run drills. Our newsrooms don’t get funding to to train us, no matter how willing the Dart Center for Journalism & Trauma is to teach us.
We take Katherine’s class. That’s what we do. We study research and read studies and talk to experts. We scramble for someone who has seen it, felt it, and we beg them to teach us their ways.
We refuse to be the forgotten survivors of trauma.
That doesn’t mean I’m still terrified. So many gun deaths are kids, barely old enough to legally drive. I don’t know how to keep it together during that.
A February study “Young Guns: How Gun Violence is Devastating the Millennial Generation” (Center for American Progress), spearheaded by Chealsea Parsons and Anne Johnson, outlines the growing, overwhelming connection between young Americans and fatal gun violence. And the results are chilling: In 2010, 21 percent in people killed by guns were under the age of 25.
They’re just kids.
It’s something about life being snatched away from those who have barely begun to live that makes me scared to be a reporter. I don’t even truly know what I would have done in Sarah’s position — being sent off to investigate a potential bomb threat that ended in the tragic, confusing death of a high schooler. Seth Boster, another MU student, wrote a heartbreakingly well-written piece on Meadows’ death and the high school band’s mourning.
It’s all beautiful.
And I don’t know if I could ever write it.
So what am I doing in journalism?
Learning how to be a visible survivors, hopefully.
As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, an integral part of Reporting on Traumatic Events is following one news topic during the entire semester. Mine happens to be “shootings in a public place with multiple victims,” excluding terrorist attacks. That leaves school shootings and church shootings. Lucky me.
In order to follow this topic, my professor asked us to set up Google Alerts on our assigned topic (others included suicide, bullying with violent consequences, landslides, flooding, etc.). So now, every day, I get two emails a day listing the top news stories for school and church shootings around the world.
My inbox is not a happy place.
In the 14 months since the Newtown shooting, there have been 44 shootings in schools. These include fatal and nonfatal assaults, suicides and unintentional shootings. 49 percent had at least one fatality, totaling 28 deaths.
That’s one shooting every 10 days. According to ThinkProgress’ math in a Jan. 23 article, there was a shooting every other school day in the first two weeks of the spring semester.
In mid-January at a middle school in Roswell, N.M., a seventh-grader opened fire on his classmates in the school’s gym, critically injuring two students.
A seventh-grader. Younger than my little brother.
I don’t understand.
I’ve been skipping out on posting about my news topic for weeks (sorry, Katherine) for that exact reason: I don’t understand it.
I don’t want to destroy every privately owned gun in America. I just want it to be harder for seventh graders to get theirs hands on one. I want desperation because of cruelty in schools to lead to counseling and kindness, not a massacre. I want to never, ever, ever write a school shooting headline.
If I was a breaking news reporter, I would be horrified to go on the scene of a shooting. How do you objectively report on an issue you have such strong political opinions about? How do you represent the overwhelming grief of a parent who has lost a child? How do you tell the stories that need to be told in order to elicit policy changes without intruding on a community enduring a tragedy?
I am hopeful, but I don’t know if any training can adequately prepare a journalist to write about a school shooting. They are a tragedy unlike almost any other, and I feel as though even the best laid plans for dealing with trauma will fall flat when up against children shot in schools.
Here’s to hoping I never have to cover one because they stop happening, not because I am too terrified to tell stories of sadness.
Never have I had a class spark anxiety as quickly as my class on trauma reporting. It seems like it would be obvious, and I was expecting it, but I don’t think I truly prepared myself for the weight of other people’s heartaches.
I written posts before about how other people’s problems stress me out way more than I feel is necessary or normal. My overactive empathy has kicked into overdrive in J4301 way, way faster than I thought it would.
Yesterday in class, we watched part of the National Geographic documentary Witness: Joplin Tornado. Joplin is a mere four hours away from Columbia, and many MU students are from there, so it’s a tragedy near and dear to our hearts. Watching videos shot by citizens, hearing the screams of confused and frightened children, witnessing the total destructive power of the supercell — it was almost too much.
I did what I always did when I get super nervous and I can’t leave or check out: I fiddle. I play with my necklaces, spin my rings, snap the hair tie on my wrist. Sometimes I think most of the reason why I wear so much jewelry is so that I have something to distract me when I get anxious.
The experience got me thinking: what would I do if I was actually in an event like the Joplin tornado? Or some other traumatic event? I have a sneaking suspicion that I would either be the one to freeze or burst into inconsolable tears. Meaning, of course, I would be essentially useless. And if you know anything about me, you know that I hate feeling like I can’t help or serve someone.
Beyond my own nerves, how could I possibly write a story about a Joplin survivor? How could I possibly find the strength to dig into someone’s worst nightmare and make them open up their wounds so that I can tell everyone about it?
Usually, I am confident in my abilities to write and report. I am sure Katherine has some professorial tricks up her sleeves, but I’m nervous, to say the least.
Side note: as of Jan. 28, there had been 11 school shootings in 19 days. I am so not looking forward to diving into that politically-laced pit of children’s suffering.
Side note, part two: If you’re a fan of Malcolm Gladwell, I would highly recommend “The Unconditional” by Amanda Ripley. It’s what I’m currently reading and it’s utterly fascinating.
I am in a course this semester called “Reporting on Traumatic Events,” taught by my editor, Katherine Reed. We are looking into not only how to interview victims of traumatic events, but the trauma journalists can experience by telling these people’s stories. One on the components of this class is to blog twice a week about our reading and news topics. My assigned topic that I will be following all semester, as well as writing a (massive) term paper on: shootings in public spaces with multiple victims. As in school shootings.
Oh my god.
I have so many opinions about the politics of shooting aftermaths. I also get super overwhelmed with the idea of 12-year-old walking into his school and opening fire. How am I going to interview a survivor of a shooting without crying or breaking down?
I guess that’s the point of the course: To teach us and guide us through the ever-delicate experience of talking to survivors.
Our reading for this course is incredibly interesting. I’ve started into “The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes” by Amanda Ripley, and it reads like a page-turner novel. The first traumatic event discussed in the Mont Blanc explosion in 1917 in Halifax. The series of awful events is jaw-dropping. Just as jaw-dropping is the conclusion that Ripley comes to:
Having studied dozens of plane crashes, I’m more relaxed when I’m flying. And no matter how many Code-Orange-be-afraid-be-very-afraid alerts I see on the evening news, I feel some amount of peace having already glimpsed the worst-case scenario. The truth, it turns out, is usually better than the nightmare.
Even though that’s a terrifying thought, it is oddly soothing. Nothing that I experience will be as bad as the chaos that my imagination creates.
So that’s a good thing…
Stay tuned for more trauma-related posts. I’ll categorize them under “J4301 Posts,” if you’re interested.