Reporting On Traumatic Events

Listen to “Reporting On Traumatic Events”

I’ve grown weary of the ceaseless onslaught of criticism of journalism, especially from those who seem to derive their critique solely from their politics. Not only is it shallow and myopic, I worry that the good work of reporters is lost in the blitz — good, solid work day-in and day-out. Like the reporting of NPR’s Debbie Elliott.

I was reminded of her dedication to the craft back in November when a shooter entered a church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, opened fire, and killed 26 people – including children. Debbie was one of a team of people sent by NPR to cover the tragedy. As I listened to her reports on NPR, I wondered: How do you do that? How do you, a stranger with a microphone, show up to a small, traumatized town and ask questions? As Debbie told me in this episode of HowSound, “In some ways you feel like this pariah who is here at this darkest moment for this town and you’ve got your microphone out trying to get the story.”

Debbie’s reported on many traumatic events. Hurricane Harvey, for one. The marches in Charlottesville, for another. Along the way, she learned a quite a few strategies to avoid being a pariah. She lays out some of them on HowSound.

If you expect to report a distressful story, be sure to visit the website for the Dart Center for Trauma and Reporting. They are an incredible resource. Here are a few other resources here at Transom:

Reporting Trauma After the Boston Marathon


Anatomy of a Code Blue

Diary of a Bad Year: A War Correspondents Dilemma

A Life Sentence: Victims, Offenders, Justice And My Mother

Life Is Not A Story: Lessons From Making A Personal Documentary


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  • Andrew King



    Whoa. Thank you for publishing this. I’m pretty new to journalism. I’m from Houston and got my lucky break as a freelance videographer when I got to cover three hurricanes in a row for some very big outlets. As soon as I got back to Houston from PR, I had to jump in my car and cover the Sutherland Springs shooting.
    It was tough. I had just arrived back to Houston after four grueling, and sometimes emotional, weeks in Puerto Rico. I felt super drained. Especially in PR, I totally had to take moments to just cry a bit in the corner.
    I really wasn’t prepared to handle the emotions of the shooting. During the 3 hour trek from Houston to Sutherland Springs, my emotions where all over the place.
    I grew up in a small baptist church and this felt very real and intimate. Trying to imagine how I could possibly ask them the hard questions was a bit overwhelming.
    On top of it all, the moment I arrived in SS, my personal life, which had been on hold since August, blew up in spectacular fashion.
    And then I was faced with being part of the media onslaught to this tiny town. It was disturbing, and still haunts me. Even though I tried to take a very kind approach, it was still really tough to not feel guilty.
    There’s this huge sense of competition between the outlets and the journalists to be the first, which leads to some very poor decision making by some reporters on the ground. Reporters weren’t afraid to interrupt an intimate interview WITHIN a home. Not just semi obscure outlets either. Reporters for the biggest names in the business would literally waltz into a home, uninvited, and try to take over an interview. There was this shocking sense of entitlement, and a complete disregard for the subject’s privacy and humanity. It was mind blowing.
    It made me seriously question my new line of work. Was it even worth it? Does the public really need to be a part of all these horrific and intimate moments?
    I’ve taken some time away from journalism since then to recover a bit, and to study my craft a bit more.
    Once I got outside of what was happening for a bit, I remembered that I love telling stories that people can relate to. To me, it seems like I get to provide this avenue of human connection, and maybe someone who sees or hears a story I told won’t feel so alone.
    With some hindsight, I see that when I get to talk to someone who has been through something, if I’m human about it, they get to connect with me and feel a litte less alone, and then a whole audience gets to connect and maybe feel less alone. And I think that’s the key.
    If we maintain our humanity when dealing with such a tender situation or experience, we get to provide a bit of healing for everyone involved. It seems so cheesy or corny, but I’ll be damned if it isn’t true.
    Thanks again for posting this. I needed it.

  • Rob Rosenthal



    Andrew — Thanks so much for sharing your compelling story. I have nothing but admiration for reporters filing stories from traumatic events. It’s no easy task. I also greatly appreciate your perspective: “…If I’m human about it, they get to connect with me and feel a litte less alone, and then a whole audience gets to connect and maybe feel less alone.” Well put. Best, Rob

  • Debbie Elliott



    Yes, Andrew I agree that if we keep our focus on sharing those human connections, and working in a fashion that treats people with respect and compassion, then there’s a great benefit to telling these very difficult stories. Thanks for your thoughts. Deb

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