Washington Post narrative puts focus on survivor, not offender, of mass shooting

When I think about the recent attacks in San Bernardino and the Planned Parenthood clinic, I can quickly recall the names and photos of the offenders. But I couldn’t tell you the names of the victims and survivors. This is probably true for many news consumers — partly because the media tends to focus more on offenders than on victims.

This is slowly beginning to change, thanks to efforts such as the “No Notoriety” campaign, which Tom and Caren Teves started after their son was killed in the Aurora theater shootings. The Teves say they want less coverage of offenders and more coverage of those affected by mass shootings.

A new Washington Post story, “A Survivor’s Life,” stands out for this reason. The longform narrative focuses on 16-year-old survivor Cheyeanne Fitzgerald, who was shot in the back during the Umpqua Community College mass shooting two months ago. 

“She had been the youngest one shot on just her fourth day of college, and she was also one of the survivors in the worst shape,” the Post’s Eli Saslow writes. “Lung punctured. Kidney pierced. Ribs cracked. Nerves compressed. Stomach stapled. Abdominals torn.”

The story, which was published this week, is painful to read. It doesn’t glamorize a survivor’s life or gloss over the pain. Instead, it holds a magnifying glass up to the physical and emotional struggles that survivors often face. We’re taken inside the world of a teenager who keeps knives with her at all times because she fears for her safety, a teenager who is afraid of being alone and jumps at the sound of any loud noise — knocks on the front door, cars backfiring.

Fitzgerald’s family and friends want her to move on. What she wants is someone to listen to what happened to her on the day that forever changed her life.

“She wanted to talk about it,” Saslow writes. “She needed to tell someone who knew her — someone other than a psychologist — what she’d been thinking ever since that day: ‘I just lied there. I didn’t save anybody. I couldn’t even get up off the ground.’ But what everyone else around her seemed to want was for the shooting to be over and for her to be better, so they came to urge her along at all hours of the day and night. In came the assistant district attorney with a bouquet of flowers and a check for $7,200 in victim restitution. ‘On to better days,’ he said.”

This excerpt, and many others in the story, challenges the notion of what it means to be resilient and explores the ways that resilience and recovery are often oversimplified.

“This, she was realizing more and more, was the role of a survivor in a mass shooting: to be okay, to get better, to exemplify resilience for a country always rushing to heal and continue on,” Saslow writes. “There had been a public vigil during her surgery, a news conference when she was upgraded from critical to stable and then a small celebration when she was sent home after two weeks with a handmade card signed by the hospital staff. ‘Strong and Moving On,’ it had read.”

We hear the phrase “Stay strong” a lot in the aftermath of tragedy. Just think of all the stories and photos of people holding up “Boston Strong” signs after the marathon bombings. It makes sense that people would want to look for some semblance of strength when they’re feeling weak and vulnerable. Holding up a sign, though, doesn’t mean you’ve bounced back.

Stories about people “staying strong and moving on” aren’t necessarily bad, but they’re not Restorative Narratives. More so, they’re stories that take place during what psychologists call the “honeymoon” or “community cohesion” period — the phase in between the tragedy and the true recovery and rebuilding process. During ivoh’s Restorative Narrative Summit this past June, clinical psychologist Kevin Becker shared this image with attendees:


As Becker alluded to in his talk, the media often leaves after the honeymoon period and then revisits the story around the one-year anniversary. Restorative Narratives explore the periods in between — the disillusionment, coming to terms, trigger events, and ultimately the periods of reconstruction and resilience. Narratives that show a person’s pathway toward resilience can be harder to tell; they require time, patience, and an authentic understanding of a person’s story. But they’re important.

Positive psychology research suggests that stories about resilience can mobilize people in ways that tragic stories can’t. Michelle Gielan, a journalist turned positive psychologist, recently told us: “Resilience is incredibly important in storytelling because it’s one way to show that behaviors matter, and behavior mattering is at the core of having optimism. When we have a resilient mindset, which is so deeply connected with an optimistic mindset, we overall believe that good things can happen.”

Psychologist Kelly McGonigal shares similar sentiments in her new book, “The Upside of Stress.” “The idea that we can experience post-traumatic growth from other people’s stories is not wishful thinking,” she writes. “New research shows that people can find meaning in, and experience personal growth from, the traumatic experiences of others. Psychologists call this ‘vicarious resilience,’ or ‘vicarious growth.'”

Restorative Narratives show how people and communities are making a meaningful progression from a place of despair to a place of resilience. Saslow’s story doesn’t quite fit this definition; instead of showing a survivor who has reached a place of resilience, it shows a survivor who wants to get there but is still in despair. And that’s ok; journalists shouldn’t force a story into a particular framework or genre if it’s not a good fit.

“A Survivor’s Life” is rooted in a tragedy that occurred just two months ago. Restorative Narratives, by contrast, don’t typically emerge until many months and even years after a tragedy has occurred. Stories like Saslow’s, though, are an important step toward telling Restorative Narratives. By following the stories of survivors — not just on anniversaries but at various times during a tragedy’s aftermath — storytellers can gather the string they need for what could become a Restorative Narrative.

We need more of these narratives in the media — not just because they represent good storytelling and can improve media coverage, but also because they can have a meaningful impact on people and communities.

To learn more about the Restorative Narrative genre, read this story. To support media practitioners who want to do this type of work, click here

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