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Journalism students aren't usually this grim when a news reporting class begins. Today, though, they face the "trauma unit," an experience they've heard will test them in ways that few, if any, of their college courses do.

University of Washington advanced news-reporting students are doing work few of their peers around the country ever experience: Exploring how post-traumatic emotion can affect the people they will interview.

Unsmiling faces and guarded body language tell us that the students are uneasy as we brief them about trauma, talk about the inevitability that journalists and traumatized persons will meet, and consider how to make interviews humane rather than hurtful. Although the subject raises pulse rates for some students, the three speakers are open, helpful, and not threatening.

Then we ask the students to write about the session. Their comments are courteous, a bit abstract and stilted, and deferential to the speakers. Few students stop writing, though, before they ask the burning questions: "How do you start asking questions and what would be a good starting question to ask?"

A few days later, the students face the test that was implicit in the friendly briefing about trauma: They take turns interviewing a trauma victim played by a skilled actor. For two hours, every student moves closer to understanding how the shock waves of a traumatic event roll out over victims and then over those who come to talk to victims. Their dutiful notebook notations about reporters retraumatizing a victim become a vivid reality.

After two hours, we debrief the group orally, allowing the actors, interviewers, teachers and students to talk freely about the experience, to release the tension the exercise inevitably creates. Then students write for a few minutes about the exercise.

The courteous formulations of the previous class are replaced by words finely etched by new emotions. The students speak frankly about how they came to think about humane responses in a classroom crucible offering no escape from peers, teachers, and most important, "the victim."

"At first, I smiled thinking that it wasn't me up there asking questions. If it was me up there, I would have stopped asking questions, tried to calm him down and waiting until he relaxed a bit. But I was scared and uncertain of what to do..."

"[The victim's] excitement made me excited. Questions that I had in my mind didn't apply. I expected something different, like a tearful person that could respond to calming."

"Then I wanted [the victim] to talk to me, as if I could offer him condolences and the help he needs. I wanted to make things right, if only to calm myself down."

"It made me see that a journalist talking to people in a traumatic situation is possible and not a completely evil thing to do."

This regular Stresspoints column, Media Matters, brings news of journalism innovations to ISTSS members. We are particularly interested in advances in media education that equip young reporters to better understand trauma and traumatized individuals. Write to us at StressPoints if you have relevant information. And note that Roger Simpson, guest columnist today, not only teaches journalism courses on victimization, but chairs a new interest area group at ISTSS on victims and the media. You can reach Professor Simpson by e-mail: newsboy@u.washington.edu

-- Frank M Ochberg, MD, contributing editor, media

As students work out their reactions, the tension of a safe classroom paves the way for more humane and effective journalism.