International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies

Media Matters, Media SIG and the Dart Center: A Retrospective

Posted 19 March 2013 in StressPoints by Patrice Keats, PhD


Here we are at another changing of the guard for the Media Matters (MM) column. Many thanks to the previous editor, Meg Spratt, for all of her good work in continuing the communication about, and awareness of trauma in the journalism context. As the new contributing editor and as a way of moving forward, I’ve taken stock of everything that Dr. Spratt and the editors before her presented. What follows is a brief summary of their work and an invitation to ISTSS members to join in what comes next.

The MM column reflects collaboration between college and university journalism programs, psychology professionals, the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma and the Dart Society. Through this collaboration, the column has addressed questions raised and news about journalism workers and trauma effects.

When it was launched 16 years ago, the MM column's primary goal was bringing professional journalism to ISTSS, and bringing the mission of ISTSS to media professionals. This was accomplished by providing journalists with best practices for interviewing trauma survivors in safe ways (including educating journalism students), and supporting journalists who experienced traumatic stress while gathering news.

ISTSS continues to support this objective by offering a platform for exploration and reporting on journalism and trauma research and practice with psychology professionals, and developing collaborations with journalism and psychology members. Plus, journalism and psychology researchers, educators and Dart members meet annually to further explore these issues within the Media Special Interest Group (Media SIG).

Over the years, MM editors and contributors have reported on numerous topics that the individuals and organizations mentioned above have brought forward in the developing field of journalism and trauma. Within the first two years of the column, the editor noted the launch of an international collaboration to support journalists in stress (sponsored by the Dart Foundation), the first ISTSS panel on journalism and trauma (1999) and a Media SIG sponsored and organized a competition (2000) for Dart Fellows (in conjunction with the ISTSS conference). The column was routinely used after that to make announcements about Dart Center awards, funding opportunities, Dart Society activities and the Dart research database.

The brief history that follows summarizes four other topics from the field that were highlighted in past MM columns: trauma education; working relationships and collaborations; theoretical understandings related to the media and trauma; and research in the journalism and trauma field.

Trauma education of journalism students, working reporters and photographers and administrators in news organizations was covered. In journalism schools, students learned (through unique methods such as enactments) how to interview and respond to trauma survivors. Trauma training in newsrooms was also addressed, with recommendations for reporting on issues such as suicide and people suffering from traumatic grief. Concerns about the lack of resources for both students and media workers prompted the Media SIG-sponsored development of the first booklet for journalists in the field (e.g., Tragedies & Journalists, Hight & Smyth) as a resource for understanding the complexity of trauma responses of survivors and media workers. To increase access to resource materials for professionals and the public, links to Dart Center materials were also included in MM. Editors also addressed ways in which the media could better serve the public through accurate reporting, providing information about trauma and by informing survivors on how to handle interviews following traumatic events.

Working relationships and collaboration between groups (e.g., clinicians, media organizations) in support of media workers who cover trauma and violence was highlighted. Columns included a call for accessibility to qualified clinicians for media workers and survivors, and reports on Media SIG activities where Dart Fellows and clinicians met to discuss their work. There were also commentaries on the need for referrals, materials and on-site mental health support for journalists and other media; creating stigma-free counseling; a clinician’s appeal for media workers’ self-care; changing the cultural stigma about seeking mental health services among journalists; and looking at issues that arise from covering disasters in order to better understand political, cultural and geographic differences around recovery needs of locals.

Understanding media and trauma included a report on the “fallacy around objectivity” of media professionals covering personal trauma events or being present at trauma events (natural disasters, conflict areas). Other columns spoke to the commonality of  journalism and psychotherapy as listening professions (seeking a coherent narrative, sensitively receiving stories, supervision and support, self-awareness) in order to nurture a stronger working relationship.

Other issues covered included the political stakes of journalism in relationship to interventionism (the belief that news coverage will cause people to take action); pollution ritual (journalists becoming detached from traumatic events) and how journalists may be viewed as participants in a conflict and therefore be open to retaliation (kidnapping, torture, death). Another contributor speculated on how the media contributes to a societal stigma around mental illness and treatment and provided recommendations to avoid this stereotype (avoiding identifying mental illness as an explanation for violence by stating that the majority of violent acts are unrelated to mental illness).

The benefits of media exposure and ways in which news organizations could expand trauma literacy in specific areas and cross culturally by reporting on the differences in responses to trauma among various cultures were addressed as well. Other columns focused on how trauma narratives in the media could become healing narratives to help trauma survivors process their experiences in healthy ways.

Research in journalism and trauma focused on research outcomes. One column explored how exposure to media content related to trauma could also affect public perceptions of trauma and its meaning. Other topics included understanding how to approach media workers for participation in research, making research reports more accessible to media professionals participating in the studies and using methods (such as qualitative inquiry) that not only brought different evidence perspectives, but were also written in ways that would inspire journalists to learn more about trauma experiences and responses in their field.

Moving forward, I would like to propose new topics for future columns. I invite journalism and psychology members to help me create content. For example, brief abstracts of research work (whether completed or ongoing) in this area of study as a regular addendum to the column (with links or pdfs). Psychology professionals and journalism workers would benefit from learning more about resilience and coping for people working in the field. Reports could be narratives by journalists or photojournalists, media workers (video editors, producers, etc.), Dart Society members who participate in peer support workshops, or clinicians working with media workers in their practice. Further, if clinicians had a better understanding of journalism culture there could be an increased openness of journalism professionals to access mental health services in formats that would better meet the needs of those who access them. Articles in this topic area could also be from those in the journalism field and from clinicians who work with media professionals.

Finally, as a means of further linking trauma psychology and journalism I would like to solicit short pieces from those in a variety of organizations who support journalists and photojournalists’ safety such as the Rory Peck Trust, Frontline Club, International News Safety Institute, Canadian Journalism Forum on Violence and Trauma, Committee to Protect Journalists and others.

With these possibilities in mind, I send my call far and wide and await your future participation and interest in the Media Matters column.

About the Author

Patrice Keats, PhD, is an associate professor in the Counseling Psychology Program at Simon Fraser University (Canada). Her main area of research is in the field of traumatic stress studies with a specific interest in the effects of trauma and conflict for journalism professionals, affect-focused intervention and clinical supervision.