An Introduction

on April 20, 1999, at Columbine High School in Colorado, two teenagers killed a teacher and 12 students, and wounded 23 others.

on April 16, 2007, at Virginia Tech University, a college senior killed 5 faculty members and 27 students, and injured dozens more.

The two shooters caught on Columbine's high school's security cameras in the cafeteria.
The two shooters caught on Columbine’s high school’s security cameras in the cafeteria.

Both of those events not only dominated news around the world for days, but convulsed high school and college campuses throughout the United States with questions about how media should report on violence aimed at children and college students.

Many criticized the coverage of the ongoing siege of students at Columbine that was shown live on TV, and questions were also raised about the repeated airing of mobile phone footage of the attack at Virginia Tech on multiple websites and TV news programs.

In the aftermath of such events, you would think America’s best journalism schools—those that train students for careers in the nation’s top print, broadcast and online newsrooms—would have turned to teach their students how to responsibly cover violence and conflict.

You’d be wrong.

U.S. journalism schools have been slow to teach their students how to cover violence, how to deal with the trauma of survivors, or how to manage their own personal and professional responses to such situations.

In 2009 ICMPA conducted the largest study to date of 106 accredited journalism programs across the U.S..  ICMPA found that 3/4 of those schools did not yet offer stand-alone courses dedicated to teaching students how to cover violence and trauma.

The study did find that the vast majority of surveyed educators agreed that their students should be taught how to cover violence and trauma — not just of school shootings, but of the kind of stories that most journalists will cover repeatedly throughout their careers: urban crime and traffic accidents, domestic violence and natural disasters, missing children and returning veterans, international wars and home-grown terrorism.

So why didn’t faculty members at these top schools teach students how to cover violence and trauma?

Many reported they felt unqualified. The study found that only faculty with prior working-journalism experience felt sufficiently confident to tackle teaching such topics. In fact faculty who had formerly been journalists themselves were more likely to include modules on how to cover violence or how to interview victims in their classes than their faculty peers who had never worked outside of academe.

There were additional problems mentioned by the survey respondents. Many educators believed that they also lacked sufficient time in their classes to add modules on covering violence. Some also noted that even if they were to try to teach such topics, there were insufficient resources to give students. The educators expressed a desire for a central clearinghouse of information, syllabi, projects, and assignments related to covering violence and trauma.

Curricular materials for trauma journalism have been scarce, especially for stand-alone courses. The ICMPA study also undertook an analysis of curricula materials used to teaching reporting on violence. The materials tended to emphasize three topics

    1. the moral, ethical, and professional responsibilities of journalists in covering traumatic events.
    2. how to interview victims
    3. how war and conflict have been covered

Many core issues related to covering violence and trauma, such as being a first responder or dealing with trauma and stress reactions remained essentially unexamined in US classrooms.

At the close of the survey, ICMPA conducted over 20 interviews with working journalists to get a sense of how those currently in the profession see the importance of training in covering violence. Those journalists who were interviewed confirmed that for them and their peers covering traumatic events can negatively affect their professional and personal lives. Some revealed that memories of covering trauma have lingered and are not easily suppressed. Most of those journalists who were interviewed agreed that trauma training should be made an essential part of career preparation, but many were skeptical about the effectiveness of journalism curricula on the issues.

Researchers at ICMPA used an online survey of 57 questions to examine the experience and attitudes of 623 faculty members at over 100 US universities and colleges with journalism or mass communications programs, departments or schools accredited by ACEJMC (Accrediting Council on Education in Journalism and Mass Communications). To supplement that survey, ICMPA researchers also analyzed related syllabi and curricular material submitted by some of the surveyed faculty and interviewed working journalists.

This study was funded by the Dart Center. The study’s findings and conclusions do not necessarily represent the views of the Dart Center.