When tragedy unfolds, journalists are never far away. Wars erupt, planes crash, citizens are murdered, car accidents shake up communities, deadly diseases spread, presidents become perpetrators — and reporters are there to witness and tell.
Journalists, it is said, write the first draft of history. We chronicle the death toll, talk to survivors and investigate the emergency response. We gather snippets of truth and piece them together until a picture emerges. A picture, most of us would argue, that is based on the best facts obtainable at the time.
But journalists, often less consciously, also write the first draft of emotional history. Those elements of our past which carry into the present: the impact of violence and tragedy on people and their lives — on their sense of security, their actions, their visions for the future.
When the levees break and a city and its nation are trapped for a day in the silence of shock and disbelief, it is journalists who first tell the story. When a school shooting is over and the victims are buried, it is journalists who lead the collective search for meaning. When soldiers are back from the battlefield but unable to return to their pre-war selves, it is journalists who narrate the aftermath of combat and connect the individual’s experience to the community.
This conference was designed with two questions in mind: What do we know about reporting the stories of trauma? And what role do journalists play in the process of finding narratives, meaning and justice in the face of atrocity?
For most journalists, investigating emotional truth is a daunting task. “The republic of trauma,” to use Pete Hamill’s term — he will set the stage for our discussions Friday morning — is one of ever-changing, competing narratives: Did that rape really happen? Whose war-truth is being told? Whose suffering was worse?
When covering aftermath, journalists rarely have solid facts on which to rely. They have to weigh competing accounts. They need to be familiar with the scientific, social and political dimensions of trauma. They need to be prepared to listen to devastating stories and save their valid questions for later. They need to dare get close to the people they cover. They need to anticipate how they might be affected by what they hear and see. And they need to understand that the narratives they end up telling have an impact on how the story continues.
None of this is part of basic journalism training today.
By hosting this conference, the Nieman Foundation hopes to explore what journalists can learn from poets, novelists, photographers and painters but also historians, psychiatrists and trauma researchers about narrating stories of trauma, recovery and resilience.
Over the next two and a half days, we hope to work toward a definition of trauma journalism and guidelines for how to best practice it. We hope to inspire a generation of journalists equipped with the emotional literacy and eloquence to narrate tragedy and violence in new ways.
We are particularly indebted to the Dart Foundation for the generous support that allows us to present this conference to you. We also thank our co-sponsors, the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma and The Dart Society, for assistance and support in the planning of this event.
Bob Giles and Stefanie Friedhoff
Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard