The “Covering Traumatic Events” course that Katherine Reed teaches at the Missouri School of Journalism is not required, though she thinks it should be.
“It gets you thinking about the purpose of journalism, which is more complicated for people to think about than it’s ever been,” she told ivoh in a recent interview. “If you can get students thinking about the fundamental issues, our purpose in the profession, that’s a good thing.”
In these days of social media, data, and digital journalism, and the emphasis on new tools to tell stories, old-school standards of journalism sometimes get lost in the shuffle. Being a watchdog. Bearing witness. Covering trauma.
Only a small number of journalism professors actually teach trauma reporting, according to a 2013 survey done by UC-San Diego professor Amy Schmitz Weiss. Reed noted that the study showed just 12 percent of journalism educators were teaching about trauma reporting.
Reed began thinking about offering a course in covering trauma after she went to a workshop for university-based journalism teachers at Columbia University’s Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma. She was invited back as a senior fellow the following year, and then pitched a course on trauma reporting to her colleagues at Missouri.
“I decided that Missouri is a pretty big school and I felt that we could accommodate a stand-alone course,” Reed said. “A couple of people were skeptical of the need for a class like this, but I walked out of the meeting with course approval.”
Reed covers a lot of ground in the few short months that make up an academic semester. She taught the class for the first time last spring and is offering it again this semester. She takes an interesting and well thought-out approach, beginning with a look at the human brain “to help my students begin to understand how the brain responds to danger and trauma and exposure to trauma.”
Reed’s class explores the impact and repercussions of natural and manmade disasters, terrorism, and the different ways that victims, witnesses, and journalists might respond to traumatic situations. The class spends time discussing the Sept. 11 terrorism attacks, the 2014 stampede at the Hajj Muslim pilgrimage, and the closer-to-home 2011 tornado that swept through Joplin, Mo., among other occurrences.
“I start there because as journalists we have to understand better the normal range of reactions people have, so we don’t misjudge what is normal and base decisions on inaccurate views of how human beings act in these kinds of stresses,” Reed said.
Reed’s course also touches on covering international conflict, particularly as it pertains to freelancers who often end up being the “boots on the ground” at a time when many news organizations are eliminating or reducing their foreign news bureaus.
“It gets scarier and more dangerous for news organizations to send people to these places where they need to see what is happening,” she said, noting that the “fundamental act of bearing witness and telling people what it means” is “significant for all of us.”
Students also spend a lot of time discussing Frank Ochberg’s writings on “The Three Acts of Trauma” and the media’s tendency to focus on Act I — when trauma is a breaking news story — without giving as much, if any, attention to Acts II and III.
That’s where recovery, resilience and reintegration kick in, and those are the narratives that Reed thinks deserve to be told. “I think it is a bad thing when we think about trauma as just a victim story,” Reed said. “When we go back to people who have suffered a trauma, we find amazing stories that make you feel good about being a human being.”
Reed brings in outside experts, like those who treat veterans at the VA Hospital nearby, to garner an understanding about “hardwired differences that might make us respond differently in traumatic situations” and why, for example, some people might be predisposed to post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) while others are able to just move on.
Resilience is a large part of her class. Angela Anderson, a local mother whose two children were electrocuted while swimming at a lake in the summer of 2012, spoke to Reed’s class and served as a reminder that trauma and tragedy are personal, as is resilience and recovery.
Throughout the course, Reed tries to prepare students to confront themselves and their own feelings for the inevitable time when they themselves will have to report on a traumatic event and its aftermath.
“I think it prepared me to cover those stories in a way that doesn’t harm the people involved in the story,” student Caleb Hoke said in a video about the class. “But I think it also prepared me to cover those stories personally in a way that doesn’t harm myself.”
Students say they’ve found the course to be both moving and valuable.
“I think in not talking about resilience and recovery, we kind of perpetuate stereotypes and we kind of have an idea in our head about what people should be like after something has happened to them,” said recent graduate Caroline Michler, who took the course last year. “It’s clear that the human spirit has the ability to bounce back … and to share those stories of resilience I think (is) very healing to the people themselves and also to the community.”
Here’s a link to the full video:
Interested in learning more about how to cover stories of recovery and resilience? Join us at our annual Restorative Narrative Retreat & Summit this June.