New guide puts reporters in the victim’s shoes

I added two copies of a newly published book to our small newsroom library this week.

Until now, the volumes on the shelf mostly have been on the craft of writing. There are copies of "Ernest Hemingway on Writing," The Associated Press Stylebook, Theodore M. Bernstein’s classic "The Careful Writer" and James J. Kilpatrick’s "The Writer’s Art."

The newest volume is a bit different. Its title: "Covering Violence: A Guide to Ethical Reporting About Victims and Trauma." It was written by two journalism professors, William Coté of Michigan State University and Roger Simpson of the University of Washington.

Through research and real-life examples from newspapers and television, Coté and Simpson do a fine job of helping journalists understand what trauma is, how it affects victims and how reporters can cover stories involving victims in ways that help rather than hurt.

Until now, there’s been little available to assist reporters and editors on the job understand how covering the trauma that arises from violence is different from covering other stories.

"Reporters and photographers get used to whipping out a pen or sticking a microphone or camera lens in someone’s face to get ‘great stuff’ on deadline," the authors write. "Too often they fail to realize that the techniques that served them well in covering, say, a candidate on the stump or a Hollywood or gridiron star, can frighten, overwhelm or anger someone who has just been devastated by a horrifying experience."

You might ask why this kind of information has been so long in coming. Why hasn’t the media figured out that writing about trauma is different than covering other stories?

The answer is that only in the past couple of decades has society come to realize the truths about dealing with trauma. Much of the rising awareness can be traced to studies on emotional injuries suffered by returning Vietnam War veterans and victims of rape and incest.

Before that, the effects of trauma simply weren’t part of anyone’s thinking.

"Physicians traditionally were not taught to treat crime victims differently than accident victims. So it is not hard to understand why reporters working on deadline may not distinguish such differences or reflect an understanding of them in their interviewing and report," the authors said.

The book includes five case studies of work well done and interviews with the journalists who wrote them.

One of the examples comes from The Herald. Reporter Scott North was interviewed about how sensitivity to victims is part of his approach when covering crime. The book also contains one story in a series that North wrote about the unsolved murder of Patti Berry and the effect of the crime on the woman’s family.

Other examples include work by Rick Bragg, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter from The New York Times, as well as Jeff Gradney, a reporter for KING-TV in Seattle.

Joann Byrd, former Herald executive editor and later ombudsman at The Washington Post, was mentioned by the authors for helping with the book and by North for her role in making sensitivity to victims a newsroom ethic.

That ethic continues to be part of The Herald newsroom culture, and the best evidence I can cite is that both copies of "Covering Violence" were grabbed by reporters before they could be placed on the library shelf.

  • Suzanne Ames, who has shared this column with me since January, has left the paper to become the director of communications at Cascadia Community College in Bothell. As public journalism editor, Ames worked hard to help readers understand how the newspaper works and to assist them in accessing the paper.

    For now, I’ll take on her role, so please feel free to contact me with your complaints, comments, and ideas.

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