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With the increasing media coverage of crime and disasters, many journalists and photographers have given great visibility to victims of traumatic events. Frequently, the insensitivity of journalists toward the victims they report on has been criticized. After the 1999 Columbine shootings in Colorado, for instance, the media came in, took photos and left. Parents and other family members of those who were killed or injured were left to cope with the disaster on their own. Likewise, in the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, one family was particularly distressed by a newspaper photo of their fatally injured daughter being carried away by a rescue worker; no journalist bothered to find out who she was when her image was captured.
In response to exploitative media coverage, victims' advocacy groups demanded that journalists report responsibly and interact with victims sensitively. Journalists have also been critical of the ways they and their colleagues report on victims; many reporters recognize that they lack the proper skills to interact with those who have suffered from tragic events.
The media have been addressing these concerns by instituting programs to train journalists on how to cover tragic events and how to interact more sensitively with victims. Carrie Rentschler, an assistant professor in the Department of Art History and Communication Studies, looks at how this trauma training has been integrated into journalism programs, providing journalists with a new victim-identified perspective.
This training serves both victims and journalists by improving interviewing styles in stressful situations, which leads to better reporting. In turn, audiences relate better to victims whom they see, hear and read about in the news. A new style of journalism has emerged.
This preperation also increases journalists' sensitivity to victims, ensuring that the coverage will not harm the victim any further than the event itself already has.
"This approach stresses a non-confrontational orientation to news reporting that would allow victims to tell their story their own way without confusing, upsetting, or argumentative questions," says Rentschler. These programs include videos, interview scripts, role-playing exercises, and examples from the past, such as Columbine, to teach students a psychological approach.
Victims' advocacy groups also offer trauma training at journalism conferences where psychologists and stress specialists explain what victims experience as a result of a tragedy. These conferences help both rookies and seasoned journalists who did not have trauma training available to them in the past.
Rentschler's interest in this training lies in how these programs educate reporters to approach people from a victim's perspective rather than with the objective of informing the public. "I am interested in the ways that news reporting in this training is modelled as a form of therapy," says Rentschler. This new type of training has resulted in a genre of reporting that appears primarily in print news called "profiles of life."
Profiles of life are commemorative news stories about individual victims who are all linked by the same fatal event. According to Rentschler, "while the stories focus on the individuality of the killed victim, they are published in collective formats that suggest that victims share a collective experience of victimization." Many examples of such profiles emerged after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. This new approach demonstrates the more explicitly victim-identified perspective and the increasing sensitivity of journalists. While profiles of life and trauma training are relatively new developments whose full implications remain to be seen, according to Rentschler, "it is clear that there is a lot at stake in the portrayal of victims in the news. Understanding the news industry's own investment and training in this portrayal might help us understand some of the industrial, economic and moral dimensions of these stakes."
Deborah Rubin is a WARM-SPARK writer. WARM-SPARK (Writing About Research at McGill-Students Promoting Awareness of Research Knowledge) is a program Supported by the VP Research Office, Associate Vice Principal (Communications), the faculties of Agricultural & Environmental Sciences, Arts, Engineering, Medicine, and Science. See www.spark.mcgill.ca for more information and articles.