Sunday, March 15, 2020

Amid traumatic threat, seminar discusses trauma reporting

(DERRY AND BELFAST, NORTHERN IRELAND)-As we bumped elbows in greeting, an odd gesture done in lieu of hand-shaking, it occurred to me that the two trauma reporting seminars that we did last Thursday in Derry and Friday in Belfast may be the last such face-to-face seminars in Northern Ireland for weeks, even months, thanks to Covid-19.
At BelfastMet trauma reporting seminar
(Photo by Allan Leonard)

While attendance at the Derry event was low, the Belfast seminar at BelfastMet College’s E-3 Campus was well attended. Most of the Belfast attendees were BelfastMet students.

At the outset, I was worried that the minds of both the participants and attendees wouldn't be focused on the subject at hand, but instead on the Covid 19 virus. I know my attention seemed divided. However, the workshops’ energetic presenters and inquisitive attendees soon disabused me of this notion.

The first presenter, journalist Kathryn Johnston, talked about her murdered friend and reporting colleague Lyra McKee, and about how journalists continue to operate under threat in Northern Ireland. Johnston said McKee would “have been the first to look and those who shot her and ask why.” Later, Johnston would discuss the establishment of a bursary (scholarship/grant) in Lyra’s name to support young journalists engaged in depth reporting. Details about the bursary are still pending, she said.

Paul Gallagher, WAVE trauma centre (Photo by Allan Leonard)
Paul Gallagher, a Queen’s University lecturer, Ph.D. candidate, and survivor of “Troubles” violence that left him without the use of his legs, then discussed trauma and victims. He talked about how victims are not homogenous, and indeed the appropriateness of using the label “victim.” (Gallagher, who also works with the WAVE Trauma Centre, doesn’t mind being called a victim since “it doesn’t define me.”) He talked about how the clock stops on one’s previous life after a trauma, and how victims are often vulnerable and stigmatized. He led an interesting discussion about how journalists can exacerbate trauma, and what role, if any, journalists have in repairing trauma. Gallagher finished by sharing his tips for more responsible trauma reporting including validating individual experiences, helping to create a trauma-informed society, and two themes I would discuss later—giving victims back their voice, and countering dominant narratives about victims.

Peace journalism pioneer Dr. Jake Lynch from the University of Sydney discussed several concepts of peace, including justpeace, defined as a process of peaccebuilding that includes adaptive processes, structures, and practices grounded in relationships and characterized by low violence and high justice. He also discussed peacebulding gaps like the difficulty in transferring grassroots peacebuilding energy and ideas to decision-makers and elites higher up the food chain. Later, Lynch presented ideas about how media can structure itself to favor justpeace. He cited several examples from Northern Ireland showing media already doing this, including View magazine’s victims issue. Lynch finished by discussing media effects, and a study he led that demonstrated the efficacy of the peace journalism approach in creating societal opportunities for justpeace.

In a presentation on covering anniversaries and marches, journalist Alan Meban led a discussion about the phrases used in such coverage (flashpoints, sectarian, controversial), and shepherded an interesting critique of several stories, one of which discussed the anniversary of a “Troubles” bombing, while the other covered a gay pride parade using hateful, stereotyping language like “flamboyant.”

I presented on socially responsible trauma reporting, and shared with the crowd several pillars of such reporting. (See below)
Good student feedback at BelfastMet's E-3 Campus
(Photo by Allan Leonard)

Journalists and Shared Future News editor Allan Leonard showed the attendees many platforms that display more responsible trauma reporting coverage which offers counternarratives and the voice of the voiceless. These include Peace Direct, Café Babel, France 24 (FOCUS segments), NVTV from Northern Ireland, Northern Slant, and Shared Future News (

After the BelfastMet seminar, it dawned on me that, tragically, there will probably be more victims being created both in Northern Ireland and the world, and that our seminar, sadly, could not have been more timely. On this count, I fervently hope I’m wrong.

The Northern Ireland peace journalism project was sponsored by the US Embassy-London and the US Consulate-Belfast.


Ask yourself these questions: What does the public need to know, and how much coverage is too much? When do reporters become obsessed with a story when the public is not? A community is more than a mass killing or disaster or conflict.

1. Always consider the impact of your reporting. Don’t gratuitously make things worse for the people whose stories you report, or for the general public. 
2. Accuracy is paramount. First rumors can be dramatic and exaggerated. Facts can be slippery in mid-crisis. Inaccurately quoting a victim can be traumatic. Check, double check, triple check facts.Make sure the person knows you will have to check the facts. Go back over the interview with them.
3. Journalists should thoughtfully select the images they use, understanding that they can misrepresent an event, exacerbate an already dire situation, and re-victimize those who have been traumatized.
4. Don’t prematurely jump on the “blame” bandwagon, or to conclusions, and consider the impact of “blame” reporting on traumatized victims and the public. Later, journalists should lead societal discussions about solutions (without advocating for any one solution).
5. Don’t intrude. The National Union of Journalists (UK) code of conduct says, a journalist “does nothing to intrude into anybody’s private life, grief or distress unless justified by overriding consideration of the public interest. Be honest and clear about what you are doing. Identify yourself.
6. Avoid inflammatory, sensational language that exacerbates or fuels conflict or trauma. Never embellish stories. 
7. Do your research so you know the background and be sensitive to contested narratives and language.
8. When reporting about conflict or trauma, journalists should give a voice to the vulnerable, marginalized voiceless in their societies—women, youth, minorities, the poor, etc.
9. Journalists should reject formulaic, stereotypical coverage and instead offer counternarratives about the trauma, its impact, and those affected.
--From: ; NUJ Trauma Reporting Handbook, and developed from principles of peace journalism by Steven Youngblood

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