Trauma-informed reporting can improve journalism for both reporters and sources

More young and relatively inexperienced journalists are being forced to cover mass shootings. Journalism schools need to be preparing them.
A masked crowd of hundreds surrounds an elected official giving a speech at a City Hall vigil for the victims of a 2021 shooting in San Jose at the Valley Transportation Agency railyards.

The crowd for a vigil of victims of a 2021 shooting at the Valley Transportation Agency railyard in San Jose, taken May 27, 2021. Cabral covered the shooting for a local paper. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

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In the aftermath of a mass shooting, dozens of news organizations appear at the scene of the tragedy, trying to piece together what happened alongside the families of the victims.

It was a harrowing spring day in Texas last year when Jamie Landers, a recent graduate of the journalism school at Arizona State University, found herself representing one such newsroom at the Uvalde shooting at Robb Elementary School, in which 19 children and two adults were killed. It was the second time she’d covered a mass shooting in under six months.

Landers told The Objective that she never wants her reporting on a community and families in grief to cause further harm. She’s also concerned how having to report on traumatic events could impact a reporter unfamiliar with trauma-informed reporting practices.

“Not knowing how to cover people who are experiencing this kind of grief can then, in turn, be the moral injury that you experience — if you don’t get it right, if you create further harm for these people, that’s a lot to live with,” she said. “If you don’t deal with [covering people’s trauma] properly, it’s going to come up later. That can not only hinder you personally but hinder your career.”

Not only have mass shootings in America become more common, but they’ve also become more deadly. 

There were 686 mass shootings — defined as “any incident in which four or more people are shot and wounded or killed, excluding the shooter” — in the United States in 2021 and 636 in 2022, according to Everytown Research. Almost exactly a year before the Uvalde shooting, I covered one of those incidents for a local paper. I was just two years out of the same undergraduate program as Landers, and the shooting took place only 12 miles from my childhood home, where I was living at the time. To say the least, it was a troubling experience.

Several studies over the past 20 years have shown that journalists tend to have higher rates of PTSD than the general population, and 92% of journalists reported experiencing at least four traumatic situations in their careers, per a 2008 study. Couple this with a 2022 Pew Research report where 51% of journalists ages 18 to 29 said that their job has a very or somewhat negative impact on their emotional well-being, and it seems imperative to me that we train journalists at a young age to thoughtfully and ethically cover mass shootings and other traumatic events while providing support as they grapple with what they’ve witnessed. 

Other young journalists feel similarly; according to multiple people I spoke with, young journalists are more vocal in asking for trauma-informed training and mental health support. Getting trauma-informed training prior to reporting a story may seem complex, but it boils down to having empathy for the survivors of a traumatic event and working to recognize their humanity, rather than just viewing them as parts of a story you’re writing.

While no one expects journalists to function as therapists, it’s important to learn tactics such as informed consent, making sure your source understands reporting jargon like the difference between “on background” and “off the record,” and collaborative storytelling; this can include sharing questions with a source ahead of time to help them prepare for a difficult conversation. It’s also key for journalists to learn how to protect their own peace and to take care of themselves after covering a traumatic event, even if that means taking some time off.

Landers says she relied on the basic training she received at Arizona State University, like I did, when covering a mass shooting. But journalism schools can be doing more to prepare their students. That’s something Bruce Shapiro, a co-founder of the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma and adjunct professor at Columbia University (and himself a survivor of a mass stabbing event) has been working on. He’s been thinking about how journalists should engage with coverage of violent encounters since the mid-1990s. 

Conversations around street crime, war, genocide, and other atrocities led to funding to create the Dart Center. Increased resources on the subject have been slowly but steadily growing since then.

“There is in the profession, I think, widespread recognition that there are distinct challenges to covering mass shootings and other catastrophic events, as well as the daily impact of less spectacular trauma in communities around the country,” Shapiro says. “A lot of the credit for that goes to younger journalists and to journalists of color who have really pushed their newsrooms to recognize the importance of getting some training on these issues.”

Through the Dart Center, he offers a 75-minute interactive training (they have been offered both online and in person) that allows students to share about traumatic events they’ve previously covered and what they hope to learn from the workshop; Shapiro then tailors the rest of the time to the group’s specific concerns. Some focus on reporting on victims or survivors, while others emphasize learning how to take care of yourself when reporting.

Sign-ups have taken off; last year, Shapiro hosted 200 Dart Center trainings around the country at various newsrooms and journalism programs, including Arizona State University. He doesn’t see a distinction between professional and student newsrooms and gives the same training to college classrooms. 

“Reporting on trauma is a skill set, and taking care of ourselves is a skill set, no different than checking facts or verifying quotes,” Shapiro says. “It’s as important to the success of reporting in its mission, and it’s as important to journalists’ own careers as any other way of getting a story right.” 

At Arizona State University, a coveted internship — and one I had when I was 18 — is working the breaking news desk at The Arizona Republic. The desk is full of fresh reporters, while established reporters sit on more specialized desks. Breaking news often requires rushing out to the sites of traumatic events, like a car crash or homicide, and a quick turnaround for stories. Meanwhile, more established reporters tend to write longer, more involved articles, less often about immediate traumatic events. 

In speaking to fellow recent graduates from other journalism programs, I found it was a similar case in their newsrooms. If we’re sending out our youngest, least experienced reporters to cover breaking news, for their sake and the sake of the community they report on, it feels especially important that we include training on trauma-informed reporting early in journalism school curriculum. 

Practicing trauma-informed reporting is important for the people we interview as well. In a 2021 international survey of 71 homicide and traffic fatality survivors for the Journal of Community Safety & Well-Being, all but six reported at least one negative outcome from their interaction with the media following the initial traumatic event. 

Over half described the media as contributing to their trauma, citing reports that included inaccurate information,  privacy concerns, and a lack of follow-ups. According to the survey, several respondents said the resurfacing of their trauma in the media caused them harm: “Beverly, whose daughter’s homicide remained in the news cycle for six years, wrote in her survey: ‘Every time there is another story or a mention of her, there is an overwhelming sense of loss all over again.’” 

Though there’s still a lack of resources for working with sources on sensitive topics, some research on the topic has been done. In her dissertation, “Ethical Implications of Communicating Risk in the Media: A Heuristic for Reporting on Crisis Events With a Focus on Mass School Shootings,” George Mason University professor Ashley Yuckenberg came up with an acronym to discuss five ethical trouble spots for journalists: WHIMM.

W for witnesses (not relying on information from people who may still be in shock; H for harm (avoiding gratuitous details about crimes); I for influence (working to not indulge the mass shooter’s desire for widespread infamy; the first M for missing side (offering differing perspectives to contextualize information); and the second M for missing information (sensitivity to the gaps in reporting as information unfolds that might cause excruciating suspense for those affected). 

Kate West, an assistant professor at UT Austin and longtime journalist, believes in the importance of training journalists to report on traumatic events. She’s writing a book that she hopes will be like the AP Stylebook but for trauma reporting — something that young journalists can keep on their desk and pick up in times of need. The book is set to come out in August, and she will teach an elective class with it on her campus in spring 2024.

“It’s [usually] a one-off lecture or a one-time conversation with a journalist as a guest speaker that we bring in; we need to have a full-blown class where we’re teaching this,” she said. 

When she went looking for materials to teach the class with, she came up short. 

“There was nothing concrete that not only looked at this, but also dealt with how to self-care,” West said. “If we keep having turnover after three, four, or five years [because of burnout], it’s not going to produce the depth of journalism that we really need, especially now.”

West knows that journalists are complex people and aren’t just their jobs. Her planned class will cover meditation, look at case studies of trauma-informed reporting, and give students a chance to share their own experiences. 

“We’re going to look at prior trauma, how things in your life that have taken place might wind up impacting you as a journalist,” she said. “What if you lost your mother or father in a car accident when you’re younger? And then you have to go out to cover not just one fatal car crash, you’ll have to cover dozens while you’re a journalist. So how are you going to be able to continue working in this capacity and dealing with this day in and day out in a healthy manner?”

All that being said, Shapiro with the Dart Center emphasizes that being a journalist isn’t necessarily a one-way ticket to PTSD. 

“There are specific steps we can take to nurture, maintain, and build that resilience,” he said. “There are a lot of strategies or ways as individual journalists and as communities of journalists, we can take care of one another. My newsroom workshops have pivoted a little bit more toward resilience in the last couple of years because I’m finding a growing number of reporters are almost afraid that they are doomed to [have] PTSD, and that’s not the case.”

The Dart Center offers comprehensive resources that, along with West’s upcoming book, universities can easily incorporate into their curriculum. And the local papers that so often work with young journalists can instate formal policies around covering traumatic events. 

It’s important to get managers and editors, who are often part of an older generation, trained on trauma-informed reporting and the aftereffects of trauma so they can best support their teams. That might mean creating therapy budgets or giving the reporter a few days off after covering a traumatic event. Journalists, often taught to remain tough in the face of their workload, may need help learning how to open up to the people around them as well. 

I’m glad to see that more universities are making an effort to incorporate some form of training on how to cover mass shootings into their curriculum, including my own alma mater, which brought back alums who had covered the Uvalde shooting to discuss their experiences in a Zoom panel last fall.

My local paper in Arizona — like many others in the country — re-examined its practice of publishing mugshots, something it was still doing when I interned there my sophomore year. 

But with no set curriculum at many large J-schools, it’s clear to me that this field is still something that needs to grow. Reporting on traumatic events should be a skill, like any other, taught in that Journalism 101 class we all take in our freshman year. 

And for those reporting on a mass shooting, though you can’t anticipate how you’ll feel during or after, there are strategies that work to help prepare people for the tragedy this work is likely to make you write about. Schools and newsrooms would do better to incorporate that into their environments. 

Angelica Cabral is a journalist/writer currently working in the nonprofit sector. She graduated with her degree in journalism and mass communications from Arizona State University in 2019. 

This piece was edited by Omar Rashad. Copy edits by Janelle Salanga and Curtis Yee.

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