Child deaths, especially those that occur in mass tragedies, are the subject of significant news coverage. Frank Ochberg, chairman emeritus of the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma at Michigan State University, said that journalists have an important role to play in covering child death and trauma.

Journalists Covering Trauma

A pioneer in trauma research shares how news stories can provide solace

Not every child death makes front page news, but the headlines seem to blare details about another one daily. Mass shootings and their anniversaries. Teen suicides. Car accidents. Drug overdoses. Police shootings. Military deaths. And the list goes on.

And just about every time those deaths make the headlines, news reporters place a call, attempting to reach out to the families for comments about their loved ones.

Some might consider those reporters opportunistic as they attempt to contact families at their lowest depths for a quick sound bite. And, certainly, some families won’t want to field those phone calls as they grieve.

Photo courtesy of Frank Ochberg

But in a recent interview with Evermore, Frank Ochberg, chairman emeritus of the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma at Michigan State University, said that journalists have an important role to play in covering child death and trauma.

When done right, Ochberg says journalists’ calls to families and the subsequent news coverage can help families and communities as they mourn the death of a child.

Pioneer, founding father

A trained psychiatrist and a founding father of modern psychotraumatology, Ochberg’s resume is extensive. He is a founding member of the International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies, founder of the Trust for Trauma Journalism, a former associate director of the National Institute of Mental Health and a clinical professor of psychiatry at Michigan State.

He edited the first text on the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder and served on the committee that defined PTSD, according to the Dart Center’s website. He supported school staff after the 1999 Columbine school shooting.

And, through his volunteer work with the Red Cross, he’s helped victims of disasters, such as earthquakes and plane crashes, sometimes connecting them with the news media for interviews.

The Dart Center is dedicated to “informed, innovative and ethical news reporting” on violence, conflict and tragedy, according to its website. It’s touched as many as 10,000 journalists around the world, providing resources to help them do their job well.

Three Acts of Trauma Reporting

Ochberg boils down the coverage of tragedies to three acts:

The first act comes immediately following the disaster or death. Those stories serve a need beyond simply alerting a community to a breaking news event, Ochberg said. People seek out news that’s shocking or sad, he said.

“Unfortunately, there’s something that we can call paradoxical pleasure on the part of the reader in seeing something that is horrifying, but being attracted to it,” Ochberg said.

“It exists in every culture, and it goes back to Bible stories and fairy tales and campfire scary stuff. It’s a way that our species has evolved, introducing our children to terrible themes and images and getting them to laugh about it, giggle about it. We apparently need exposure at an early age to these images, whether they are mythical or real … It serves a purpose,” Ochberg continued.

When the second act comes along, some time has passed. Often, these stories take a step back to look at how a parent or survivor is doing. The Dart Center annually awards news articles like these that are sensitive, thoughtful and ethical in their reporting and writing.

Dart Center 2019 Ochberg Fellows

“Now it’s about the impact of what happened,” Ochberg said. “It could include lessons for others who care about the post traumatic stress disorder; good ways that communities or families have healed; ways a troubled family failed to heal.”

The third act of coverage is reserved for those occasions where there’s no good news report or lesson to be learned other than evil happens. Ochberg gives the Holocaust as one example. “In Act 3, you’re not trying to find the silver lining,” he said.

Evermore’s Joyal Mulheron said it’s important for these kinds of stories to acknowledge the ongoing struggles bereaved parents and families face.

“Just because the headlines will move on doesn’t mean the families are,” Mulheron said. “It can be affirming for news coverage to acknowledge this kind of profound grief and how it continues. As one mother put it, bereaved parents make “a daily decision to accept grief and keep going.””

Writing the unspeakable

In the case of a child death, the best stories come when all parties are mindful about the role they play.

And those articles and relationships often begin when reporters contact family members for quotes for a story about a news-making death. Tip sheets for journalists and survivors that were created by Queen’s University Belfast, which the Dart Center links to on its website, spell out what should happen next.

Journalists, for example, should avoid cold-calling a family and find a go-between instead. They also should be prepared to take no for an answer. “Remember,” it says, “that your request will evoke powerful and painful emotions, which may include anger.”

Victims and survivors, the tip sheet recommends, should feel free to say no to an interview or to decline to answer specific questions that they find intrusive. It also recommends that interviewees take care of themselves and have a friend or family member there to support them once the interview is over.

When it works, victims, survivors and family members can find some solace and journalists can write a story with deep impact.

“So often, a person who has been traumatized and aggrieved lacks the language to explain themselves to others,” Ochberg said. “… Being scared speechless is true. Some people lack fluency when we need it most.”

He added: “We have to encourage the journalists, both the mature journalists and the up and coming ones, … that they give words to what many people find unspeakable, but are necessary to communicate.”