The Sunday Magazine

"An enormous change in the news agenda": How trauma-informed reporting is transforming journalism

It's a journalist's job to find the human stories behind disasters, violence, tragedy and hardship. But the telling of these stories can sometimes have devastating impacts for the subject and sometimes the journalist.
People hold candles during a candlelight vigil for those killed in El Paso, Texas, earlier this month. Reporters need to exercise a great deal of sensitivity as they tell the stories of victims and survivors of traumatic events like mass shootings, journalist Bruce Shapiro says. (MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images)

Award-winning journalist Bruce Shapiro still remembers the moment he went from being a crime reporter to being the victim of a crime reported on by others. 

It was August 1994, and Shapiro and six others were stabbed in a New Haven cafe by a man having a psychotic episode. 

But what has most stayed with Shapiro from that experience was seeing himself on television a few weeks later.

As Connecticut debated a new tough-on-crime bill – a bill that Shapiro did not support – a local TV station chose to illustrate the story by running footage of him being wheeled into an ambulance. 

"This shocked and appalled me," Shapiro told The Sunday Edition guest host Connie Walker. 

Bruce Shapiro is the Executive Director of the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma (Kim Komenich)

"I felt that my image had been stolen and that my experience was being exploited politically," he said. "There is that survivor's gut feeling that you've lost control of the story … and that is a really powerful feeling. That is its own betrayal. It's one of those second wounds that makes you feel betrayed all over again after a traumatic event."

Bruce Shapiro is now the Executive Director of the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, and one of the pioneers in the burgeoning field of trauma-informed journalism – an approach to reporting that respects the pain and psychic wounds of the traumatized.

Changes to our understanding of these psychic wounds in recent years have fundamentally transformed the way we do journalism, Shapiro said.

"It's changed us on interviewing. It's challenged us ethically [on] how do we think about showing respect, not inflicting unnecessary pain on folks while fulfilling our traditional and important journalistic need for verification, for detail, for information."

"It may require shifting some of the permissions and powers that are traditionally the journalist's prerogative to the source," he added. 

"So I think it's been a kind of revolutionary change not only in how we tell stories but whose stories get told … When we talk about trauma, we're talking about elevating experiences that so often have been either suppressed or censored or the subjects of shame. That's an enormous change in the news agenda."

There is that survivor's gut feeling that you've lost control of the story … It's one of those second wounds that makes you feel betrayed all over again after a traumatic event.- Bruce Shapiro

Ginger Thompson has spent much of her career speaking to people who have suffered trauma. She is a Pulitzer prize-winning senior reporter at ProPublica and a former investigative reporter for the New York Times. Her work has taken her inside the drug war in Mexico, and to the U.S.-Mexico border and the heart of Trump's immigration and family separation policies. 

Ginger Thompson is a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist and senior reporter at ProPublica (ProPublica)
She describes her relationship with her interview sources as "deep and intense."

"I spend a lot of time trying to imagine what this person could be feeling and what I might be able to say to get [them] to understand that the reason I'm interested in speaking to them is about them," Ginger Thompson added.

"Most people want to talk if they … feel that their story will be portrayed honestly [and] that they'll be treated with respect," she told The Sunday Edition.

"What I often worry about more these days is what I'm going to do once they agree to talk, because there are a whole bunch of responsibilities that go along with having someone tell you their story," she added. "How [am I] going to make them feel once I've asked them to delve back into the worst thing that has ever happened in their lives? … What kind of potential emotional trauma am I about to ask them to go through all over again for me? How do I handle that? How do I handle their expectations for the story? ... How do I manage the reaction to the story?"

"Just because the story is published doesn't mean I'm gone," Thompson said.

Part of the conversation about trauma-informed journalism also revolves around the need to talk about journalists' own mental health as they report on horrific events.

"Things have certainly gotten a bit better … Many newsrooms now at least have a nod towards some kind of trauma awareness training," Shapiro said.

"On the other hand, I think there's still way too much stigma," he added. "There are still too many journalists who fear that they will not get the next assignment if they show any vulnerability … There are too many managers who don't understand how to look for signs of trauma trouble."

"My own view is that this is not only a matter of reporters' own self-care or an organization's duty of care… It's also part of the press freedom equation. To me, a journalist who is sidelined because of occupational post-traumatic stress disordered is censored," Shapiro said. 

To hear the full conversation, click 'listen' above. 


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?