International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies

UW journalism and Trauma Project Scripts New Approaches to Victims

Posted 1 January 1997 in StressPoints by Frank Ochberg, MD

"So long as men can breathe or eyes can see, So long lives this, and this gives life to thee."

Shakespeare wrote those lines 400 years ago, attesting to the immutability of the written word. His lover would fade and die, but her memory, his sonnet, would survive. And the Bard was correct: his words live on.

No wonder we trauma therapists care about media portraits of our patients - those depictions live on with impact. They are portrayals that capture pain and loss, shock and grief, but rarely the larger picture of a human life: who that person really is, how they cope and whom they encourage by their example of survival. Too often our clients are memorialized as afterthoughts and sound bites - inadvertent, unconsenting, two-dimensional examples of the impact of cruel events. Where is Shakespeare when we need him?

Perhaps he lurks in Seattle, a spirit that guides the work of Professor Roger Simpson and his colleagues in the Journalism and Trauma Project of the University of Washington. The project teaches journalism students how to approach survivors of traumatic stress, how to portray the whole person and how to appreciate the media's power to help and to indelibly harm.

Last month the program launched a Web site (http://weber.u.washington.edu/~jtrauma/) with information about curricula, new courses, research, conferences, interview guidelines and outreach to traumatized communities. Reading between the lines, we discover journalism professors who understand that journalism needs reform. Here are media professionals who will join the ISTSS to learn with us and about us.

Simpson recently wrote, "Understanding of the intersection of trauma and journalism has developed slowly While traumatic events - wars, earthquakes, fires and murders - remain the mainstay of daily journalism, most reporters still treat the afflicted in much the same way they did at midcentury. While print journalism for the most part hides the interchange between victim and reporter from public view, television every day affirms the harsh, sometimes brutal, character of the reporter's interview with the traumatized person. Indeed, the ambush interview sometimes produces a state like trauma in the unsuspecting person as the audience watches.

Journalistic practice appears to assume that all trauma survivors are equally ready to report their experiences and mental state to the mass audience, a fact directly contradicted by substantial clinical literature (unpublished draft, available by e-mail: newsboy@u.washington.edu). This paper goes on to explain how students, through role-play and debriefing, are prepared to adopt new insights and values as trauma reporters.

ISTSS members with similar examples of enlightenment among media professionals are encouraged to correspond with me, so that this column can fan the flames of progress.