A different take on trauma

A longstanding mantra in newsrooms everywhere: If it bleeds, it leads. That mantra may or may not still ring true, depending on your point of view and your preferred media outlet. But one undisputed fact: a new field of study has emerged that looks at the intersection of journalism and trauma. And one of this field's foremost leaders is based in our own backyard.

The Dart Center for Journalism & Trauma, based at the University of Washington, is equal parts advocate, educator and think-tank. Its mission is to improve the quality of reporting on trauma and conflict while also raise awareness in newsrooms of the science and psychology such coverage has on the journalists telling the stories.

Now Bruce Shapiro, a veteran journalist who's currently a contributing editor at The Nation, has taken the helm at the seven-year-old center. What's truly remarkable about Shapiro's background, though, is this: In August 1994, Shapiro was stabbed and seriously wounded while he had gone out for coffee with some friends.

A man named Daniel Silva entered the New Haven, Conn., coffee bar and pulled out a hunting knife, randomly stabbing seven people. Everyone survived, and Shapiro later wrote about the stabbing, its press coverage and the politics of the crime-victim movement in an essay that was a finalist for the National Magazine Award.

Shapiro, 47, who will be shuttling between Seattle and his home in New Haven, spoke recently from an office at the UW's Department of Communication.

Q: How did the stabbing affect your journalism?

A: "I had been writing about crime and criminal justice. I suddenly went from being a reporter to being the story, which is kind of a profound experience. But it also gave me a certain sense of what it's like to be one of the people who we tell stories about, and what it's like to put your story in the hands of a journalist and have it either told well or told badly.

"I had both kinds of experiences. Some reporters were respectful and others called me in the hospital. It made me think a lot about the power of journalists, especially when it comes to somebody who has been traumatized.

"The first story I wrote [for the University of Chicago's school paper] was about someone who died in pretty awful circumstances. And no one ever said to me, 'Here's how you talk to the family members, her friends. Here's how you take care of yourself.' "

Q: So how should journalists report on crime victims? A: "Journalists do not need to have cut-and-dried questions and formulas for talking to every victim in every circumstance. But there's a set of questions we should be asking so we avoid re-traumatizing people, so we gain trust and reward it. It makes better journalism.

"[After the stabbing] I came to realize that if you build a relationship of trust with people, if I gave my subjects a certain kind of control, asking, 'Do you mind if I start taking notes? Do you mind if I now talk about the crime?' you are almost always rewarded with far more information. This isn't about being nice and sensitive, but it's also about getting a much better story."

Q: What do you think of today's coverage of crime and violence?

A: "I've seen a lot of very thoughtful magazine reports on the psychological issues of returning Iraq War veterans. You didn't see those stories after Vietnam. In a lot of reporting on Hurricane Katrina you saw extraordinary insight from some reporters that this would be a long story. Not just a [one-] day story but that this would be something that would have an effect for years.

"On the downside I think the 24-hour news cycle and cable TV news have really promoted not just tabloid reporting on crime and spectacularly gruesome events, but the need to be constantly arousing people with new horrors that are focused on obsessively. Without a lot of concern for what it might mean for victims and their families and for what it might mean for us as a society.

"Where it becomes a problem is if certain parts of the media focus on the most horrifying details, it can actually create a distorted sense of society. Take crime, for instance: If you look at crime statistics, the most violent and horrifying crimes are the ones least likely to affect us. The most important source of violent crime: domestic violence.

"Part of the job of journalism is to tell society the truth. But we're not doing that job if we focus on the most titillating details."

Q: Where's the line between balancing someone's privacy with the public's right to know?

A: "The line is probably going to be a little different for every story. But clearly there are some events that have no particular public resonance ... where someone is just a private citizen and something bad has happened.

"But then you have private individuals who get caught up in the public events of history. And sometimes history writ large: Sept. 11, or soldiers in Iraq.

"Even then I'd have to argue that families have a right to grieve privately. I think as journalists we never lose by giving people a lot of latitude in whether people should talk to us. It's not about what story you tell or not tell. It's about how do you approach the whole question about private trauma as news."

Q: So what is the definition of news?

A: "Traditionally news has been defined by the idea that there are certain newsmakers out there whose voices matter. The president opens up his mouth, it automatically matters. But what if there's more to news than that?

"Most people if you ask them 'What's the most important news in your life?' very often it's the school their kid goes to. Their workplace. It's about whether their neighborhood park is clean. So part of it has to do with a grassroots definition of news in which we see people as experts in their own lives. And we think about news beginning at that level of experience."

Q: Knowing what you know now, is there a story you would have reported differently?

A: "In the mid-1980s, I covered the killing of a woman in a domestic assault, and I remember going to her wake and talking to her family. But the way I approached them and the way I wrote it, it wasn't really about them. They were just objects in a story about some big social issue. I used them as sort of an illustration, and that was very exploitative. I don't know [now] if I would have been at the wake at all. I would have done a lot more listening and a lot more thinking... "

Florangela Davila: 206-464-2916 or fdavila@seattletimes.com