Trauma awareness journalism: A news industry toolkit

Jul 8, 2024 in Specialized Topics
Sign reading, "How are you, really?" on a building

Years ago, Dave Seglins was a reporter covering the court beat – the “big, heavy, ugly stuff,” as he described it. 

In 2010, he witnessed the horrors inflicted by a sadosexual killer when covering the case in court. The experience pushed him over the brink and led him to a new path in his career.

“The images [shown in court] were just brutal. I emerged from this with PTSD,” he recalled from the incident. “I was struck by how poorly my newsroom was equipped to deal with me.”

Covering tragedy and human suffering is at the heart of what journalists do. However, there can be a personal price to pay when traumatic events are part of the equation. “Trauma-informed journalism” is a relatively new concept. It addresses understanding trauma from several viewpoints, from victims, survivors and eyewitnesses, to journalists who cover these stories.

Today, Seglins, based with Canadian Broadcast News (CBC) in Toronto, is a leader in the field of trauma journalism. He co-produced a new toolkit designed “to better prepare newsrooms, journalists, and educators for coverage of violence, conflict, and tragedy,” as it was described at the launch. 

Part of the Trauma Aware Journalism Project (TAJ), it includes free “micro-learning” videos, study guides, and advice from experts and seasoned journalists. The emphasis is on how journalists interact with victims of violence and cope with the emotional impact of trauma on their own psyches. There were 5,200 unique visitors to the toolkit website in the first two weeks, a sign of strong interest, said Seglins. 

“Today’s working reporters and journalism students understand that news is a trauma-facing profession. They don’t need a sales job – they want practical core skills, whether for reporting on the most vulnerable individuals, families and communities, or for taking care of themselves,” said Bruce Shapiro, executive director of the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma at Columbia Journalism School.

The TAJ toolkit is a joint effort by Dart, CBC/Radio-Canada and the Canadian Journalism Forum on Violence and Trauma. The materials are applicable to newsrooms, journalism classrooms, and media trainers anywhere in the world.

One toolkit resource, on essential tips for interviewing children by John Woodrow Cox, an enterprise reporter at The Washington Post and winner of the Dart Award for Excellence in Coverage of Trauma, includes the following advice:

  • Be a human first, a journalist second.
  • Do as much pre-reporting as possible.
  • Find out what questions the child has been asking.
  • When it’s time to interview, make them comfortable.
  • Don’t underestimate them.

“In my decade-plus as a reporter, the number of profound things I’ve heard children say far outnumber those I’ve heard from adults. Kids notice much more than many of us realize,” Cox writes.

Other topics covered in the toolkit include trauma interviewing, reporting on vulnerable communities, ethical relationships with sources, taking care of yourself, trauma aware leadership, planning for difficult stories and handling traumatic imagery.

“The brains” behind the project

Shapiro describes Seglins and Ariel Ritchin, of the Dart Center, as “the brains” behind the project. Both are listed as executive producers.

In 2022, Seglins, who oversees trauma training for the CBC, co-authored a national study, “Taking Care: A report on mental health, well-being and trauma among Canadian media.” He is also a Dart Center Fellow. 

“My role is to be an internal advocate and push the agenda on mental health and trauma awareness,” said Seglins.

Ritchin, a 12-year Dart Center veteran, has been immersed in helping journalists deal with traumatic issues in their work and personal lives. He advises localizing segments of the toolkit to what is happening in the community where the journalist works. If there is a large migrant population, for instance, the section on vulnerable communities or interviewing victims could be most useful.  

There are plans to expand the online video library and add topics such as media peer support, counseling for news professionals, and new research. “This project is far from over. Phase 2 is in the works,” said Ritchin. 

Seglins added “We’re interested in hearing from people who have started using the toolkit. As we build phase 2, we want to know what other topics within the area of trauma and journalism users would like to see included.” 

Responses can be submitted here.

Sampling of toolkit resources

Photo by Mitch on Unsplash,