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Journalists have within their grasp a very powerful tool that needs to be used with considerable care and responsibility. Journalistic narrative has the potential to re-traumatize those suffering from the negative effects of traumatic exposure, or enhance the recovery process.

Of course, news narrative is not the only factor in either of these responses, but it is a significant contributing factor. Human beings integrate experience through narratives, pulling together fragments of information to create a coherent story of their experience. Organizing, remembering, thinking and feeling about a traumatic event—creating a coherent story or narrative about the event—assists the traumatized individual to give meaning to it, to make sense of it. This then gives context to the emotional experience of the individual and contributes to the healing process.

Often, this is why, after a traumatic event, people involved become very interested in the minutiae of the event, wanting to know seemingly unimportant details. These details help build the story of the event to make it coherent and understandable. Therefore, distorted information—whether via the media or other sources—has the potential to inhibit the integration of experience, thus the recovery process.

A journalist colleague states that often when he is writing about the death of an individual, he keeps in mind that his piece will probably be clipped out and pasted in a scrap book as one of the last mementos—the last story—of this person’s life, to be kept by loved ones. He is aware of the power of this.

For instance, stories about the December 2004 tsunami that revisit the devastation and horror are not helpful now that the recovery process has begun. Survivors and the human community need stories of hope and healing, of resilience and the will to survive. It is the substance of these stories that will contribute to the “healing narrative” post-tsunami. This also is true of anniversaries of events.

It is important for journalists to be aware of the potentially powerful impact of what they write. It is imperative that their stories contain accurate information, as inaccuracies will inhibit the creation of a coherent narrative for the surviving individual or community and thwart the integration process of trauma.

Media can serve as a vehicle for healing if journalists acknowledge the powerful emotional impact of what they may write, while still maintaining their professional role of news gatherers and reporters. This will contribute to better journalism and a more connected and integrated media.

Cait McMahon, director of the Dart Centre Australasia, will join a panel at the ISTSS Toronto meeting on “Trauma and Journalism—Storytelling, Narrative and Healing,” Friday, November 4, 4 p.m. Also on the panel are Mark Brayne of Dart Centre Europe, BBC correspondent David Loyn, and journalism professor and author Susan Moeller.

Other ISTSS panel presentations addressing journalism and trauma include:

  • “News Organization Support for Journalists Who Cover Violence” with panelists Roger Simpson, Dart Center executive director; psychiatrist and author Jonathan Shay; Anthony Feinstein of the University of Toronto department of psychiatry; and Chris Cramer, managing director of CNN International, Thursday, November 3, 2:30 p.m.
  • “The Impact of Reporting Traumatic Events: Survivors and Journalists,” with panelists Mary Fabri, director of the Marjorie Kovler Center; Monika Gutkowska, Chicago School of Professional Psychology; Anthony Ibeagha, Torture Abolition and Survivor’s Support Coalition; and journalist Julia Lieblich, a Dart Center Ochberg Fellow, Thursday, November 3, 2:30 p.m.