The vocabulary of medicine has an unfortunate quality: Many of its words are so descriptive that they also cry out for non-medical use.
If you say someone is toxic, you probably don’t mean that they’re damaging your liver function. If your novel needs an antagonist, you’re not looking for someone to block the function of your hero’s receptor proteins. A high school senior struggling with calculus is more likely worried about differential equations than kidney stones. And if you’re on the receiving end of a brutal insult, it really matters whether someone has made fun of your haircut or an anvil’s fallen on your head.
This is also true in the language of trauma, which has both a specific medical meaning and a broader cultural one. Was taking the SAT really traumatic? Did it really leave you with PTSD? Were you once truly addicted to the Bravo network?
A certain amount of imprecision might be fine for general conversation; if you say “Wow, the Giants are really murdering the ball,” no one will think the team should be arrested and charged with ball homicide. But for journalists, precision is right there in the job description, and the language you use sloppily can impact real people’s lives.
Enter the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, which has done yeoman’s work helping reporters both deal with trauma in their own career and better understand the traumas undergone by the people they write about. Now they’re out with a new guide aimed at helping journalists with trauma-related questions, both those on a tight deadline and those with a little more room to stretch out. It’s called the Dart Center Style Guide for Trauma-Informed Journalism and it’s worth a look.
For example, let’s take PTSD — post-traumatic stress disorder. It’s not just a catch-all term for the long-lasting impact a traumatic event has had on someone:
First defined by the American Psychiatric Association in 1980, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a psychological injury that results from exposure to an extreme traumatic stressor in which the person experienced or witnessed an event or multiple events that involved actual harm or a threat to the physical integrity of self or others.
For a diagnosis, a certain number of symptoms across four areas must last for more than a month and interfere with functioning. These areas include re-experiencing, avoidance, negative changes in thinking and mood, and hyperarousal or reactivity. Some of these traumatic stress reactions may also be present without meeting the criteria for a PTSD diagnosis.
PTSD should not be used interchangeably with more general descriptions of trauma-related reactions. Be aware that most people who experience trauma recover naturally and do not develop PTSD. Only refer to PTSD if it’s relevant and has been formally diagnosed.
If someone previously traumatized gets “triggered,” does that mean they’ve been “retraumatized”? Nope:
Retraumatization is not the same as a trigger. Triggers bring back painful memories, and sometimes flashbacks. Retraumatization is more powerful and consuming: It happens when a conscious or unconscious reminder causes a person to vividly and comprehensively re-experience the feelings, thoughts and occasionally memories of a past trauma as if it is occurring in the present.
For example, if a journalist interviews a trauma survivor, and the journalist’s facial hair and smell reminds the survivor of the perpetrator of a traumatic event, and they experience feelings of terror, this is a trigger. But if a journalist pressures a survivor to give an interview and persists after the survivor asks to stop, this transgression may lead to the person experiencing the same feelings and reactions of helplessness and exploitation at the time of the traumatic event — this is a retraumatization.
(Also: Don’t do that.)
What about “trauma” itself? It’s right there in the Dart Center’s name, after all.
Trauma is a complex and ambiguous noun, both in casual and clinical usage. Trauma can refer to a physical wound or a psychological injury; the violent or injurious event itself; the ongoing psychological aftermath of such events; or a shared communal sense of loss or victimization. It can refer to a one-time experience or aftermath of overwhelming fear, or the cumulative, complex impact of ongoing abuse and threat, or both.
Adding to the confusion, science tells us that the same event will have wildly varying biopsychosocial impacts on different individuals. The same car accident may be a transient event for one person, yet in another evoke ongoing PTSD or other psychological injury.
For this reason, use trauma as a noun (and its verb and adjective forms: traumatize and traumatic) with care, always making the meaning and context clear. Avoid generalized use of “trauma” as a shorthand that may pathologize ordinary grief or distress, or which fails to account for resilience alongside emotional challenges.
When possible, use more specific language that conveys the particular flavor of an event, response or condition (i.e., choose “she had difficulty sleeping or concentrating” over “she was traumatized”). Avoid overuse of “trauma” or “traumatized” in ways that suggest a uniform response to distressing events, and be careful to distinguish short-term distress from long term traumatic stress reactions.
The guide includes lots more information along specifically trauma-related matters, but it also tackles related issues that can come up in related reporting — everything from trans issues to refugees, mass shootings to mental illness, suicide to genocide. The advice isn’t particularly didactic (“You must write it exactly this way!”); it’s more about raising some of the issues and concerns that can come up when you’re looking into lives that may not be like your own. Give it a read and you’ll probably be ever-so-slightly better at your job when you’re done than when you started. That should give you the closure you need.
(Oops: “Unless a source uses the term, avoid using the word ‘closure’ in your stories or when interviewing.” Sorry.)
This article was originally published by Nieman Lab. It was republished on IJNet with permission.
Joshua Benton is Nieman Lab's founder and senior writer.