Covering tragedy and trauma

Photo: Sasha Wolff, Grand Rapids

by Leah Samuel

Awful things happen. You already know this. Mass shootings, wildfires, floods and other terrible events are happening in many places, affecting everyone, including teens. And there are some singular events that often involve young people in particular — fatal car accidents, suicides and assaults, among others.

Whether you’re reporting a story about a tragedy, or writing about it as part of a larger story, there are ways to do it that allow you to be a responsible journalist and a respectful person. Here are some suggestions:

Write plainly, but sensitively

It’s fine to use words like “killed,”  or “died.” They state the fact clearly and are generally neutral. It might be tempting to use phrases like “passed away,” or “left this world,” but they’re vague and, to some people, they sound like religious terms. And in the end, the words don’t really lessen the trauma for anyone.

Don’t get too clinical or graphic, either, with phrases like, “died of exsanguination due to self-inflicted lacerations,” or “bled to death after deliberately slashing his own arms.” They both accurately describe the same thing, but the first sounds cold and the second creates a horrific mental image. Let the gossipy ones whisper about the gory details.

Don’t find fault

Who or what caused a tragedy should come from an official document, or from someone you’re quoting. But it’s not for you, the reporter, to assume. Recognize that there is usually more than one factor involved in a tragic event. In crime, a suspect is innocent until proven guilty. With car accidents, factors like road conditions, driver behavior, and signage have to be taken into account before a cause is determined. And there’s never a single cause of suicide, like failing grades or a breakup. After all, those things happen to a lot of people who don’t take their own lives. So, unless you’re investigating for a story on how the tragedy happened, just stick with facts.

Stay out of it

That can be hard to do, but it’s necessary. The focus should be on the people in your story — the person who died, the survivor who won’t walk again, friends who witnessed the horrible event, or the classmates left behind. keep your feelings out of the story. This is not the time to go into how much you will miss that guy in class, or to get on a soap box about texting and driving. If you see a teachable moment and want to send a message, or just want to honor the classmate you lost, write an editorial, an essay or a tribute and label is as such.

Be gentle with sources

When bad things happen, some people might not want their names used. Others might not want to show their faces. And some don’t want to be interviewed at all. Journalists naturally will try to get sources to open up or reveal themselves, as you might do with a reluctant or difficult source for other kinds of stories. When covering a traumatic event, however, you can try some gentle persuasion, but don’t push it. And when you do your interviews, remember that when people are in their feelings, they aren’t always clear. Take special care to quote them accurately and to understand what they mean.

Include helpful experts

Interview a climatologist or engineer who can explain how the rainy weather and clogged storm drains led to the flooding. Interview a firefighter about how that gas fire started. Interview a social worker, psychologist or therapist about the feelings people can expect to have and what they can do about them. These sources will give your story some added perspective and help your readers understand, and maybe prevent, accidents or other tragedies.

Be human

You’re a reporter, not a robot. You can be somewhat removed from the story, but don’t be surprised if you’re affected in some way. It’s completely normal to feel sad, angry or afraid when writing about something traumatic, even when it’s happening to other people. Empathy is a good trait for a reporter; you can engage with sources better. But if those feelings are making it hard to do a fair story, ask your editor or teacher. If you’re still upset after the story is done, be sure and find someone you trust to talk to about it.

Leah Samuel is a former reporter for STAT and the Boston Globe.