Putting community trauma into context

“Trauma is everywhere, even if the communities we serve don’t always use the t-word to describe their experiences.”

In his pep talk during our first team meeting of the year, my editor told us that, amid all the hopes and likely chaos of the 2020 election cycle, “people are depending on us.” The idea resonated with me so much I wrote it on a bright yellow Post-It note and stuck it on my computer as a reminder for the challenging days that would come.

In 2020, those days haven’t stopped. By March, coronavirus was slowly overtaking communities and hospitals and upending our lives, personally, professionally, and financially. By May, George Floyd’s cries of “I can’t breathe” while suffocating under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer were heard around the world; the chaos of unrest overran cities for days. By August, the West Coast was burning from wildfires and the South was getting pummeled by hurricanes. By October, election fatigue was near-universal, and November brought the stress of waiting on election results. By December, we’d lost 281,000 people and counting to COVID-19, many of them mourned only at a distance.

It’ll be years before we’re fully able to process how 2020 has forever changed our lives. In 2021, I predict newsrooms will have to bolster their trauma-informed storytelling to help communities understand how they survived this devastating year. Newsrooms will have to put people’s trauma into context so their communities can acknowledge what they’ve endured and begin to heal.

Trauma-informed reporting is often front and center in stories about survivors of sexual assault, mass shootings, or other major crimes. But in 2021, newsrooms will have to understand that trauma goes well beyond that harrowing subject matter. They will have to build a better foundation of helping readers, viewers, listeners, and online visitors understand what the depths of community trauma looks like on an everyday basis.

Newsrooms have to take a step back and reexamine what they understand trauma to be. Trauma is everywhere, even if the communities we serve don’t always use the t-word to describe their experiences.

Trauma takes many forms: collective grieving for victims of the pandemic; health professionals experiencing chronic stress; communities of color bearing the pains of the impacts of systemic and institutionalized racism in their lives; children’s routines being upended with online learning and little access to their teachers and friends; job and wage losses forcing people to make tough decisions to survive; the pangs of fear when rent cannot be paid; the devastation of a small business owner closing their storefront; videos and pictures of grocery stores wiped out of toilet paper and other necessities; and upticks in crime as pent up emotions, economic desperation, and more come full circle.

Newsrooms must keep the core of these traumas in mind when considering how they interact with community members and how stories are framed, presented, and shared in real-time. With newsrooms still reckoning with how they’ve perpetuated harmful narratives about the communities they report for, marginalized people whose traumas are often forgotten must be ethically centered but never exploited. It will also be important for newsrooms to prevent retraumatizing the people whose stories they’re trying to tell.

While the media industry has been pummeled by layoffs, furloughs, and buyouts, newsrooms can find creative ways to prioritize trauma-informed storytelling. They can seek help from resources like the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma. They can reach out to local therapists, mental health practitioners, community colleges, and universities to provide virtual seminars on how to consider trauma when approaching people. They can also engage with community advocates and activists in their area on ways the newsroom can offer better coverage with trauma put into context. Journalism educators can collaborate with trauma experts on campus to find ways to make trauma-informed reporting part of the curriculum.

In addition, newsrooms must prioritize their own employees’ mental health and helping them understand the effects of secondhand trauma from covering the pandemic era news cycle. Encouraging time off, reminding workers of available counseling resources, and making space for people to process what they’re going through will be critical for maintaining the mental wellbeing of newsrooms.

After all, people are depending on us.

Marissa Evans is the social issues reporter for the Star Tribune in Minneapolis.

In his pep talk during our first team meeting of the year, my editor told us that, amid all the hopes and likely chaos of the 2020 election cycle, “people are depending on us.” The idea resonated with me so much I wrote it on a bright yellow Post-It note and stuck it on my computer as a reminder for the challenging days that would come.

In 2020, those days haven’t stopped. By March, coronavirus was slowly overtaking communities and hospitals and upending our lives, personally, professionally, and financially. By May, George Floyd’s cries of “I can’t breathe” while suffocating under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer were heard around the world; the chaos of unrest overran cities for days. By August, the West Coast was burning from wildfires and the South was getting pummeled by hurricanes. By October, election fatigue was near-universal, and November brought the stress of waiting on election results. By December, we’d lost 281,000 people and counting to COVID-19, many of them mourned only at a distance.

It’ll be years before we’re fully able to process how 2020 has forever changed our lives. In 2021, I predict newsrooms will have to bolster their trauma-informed storytelling to help communities understand how they survived this devastating year. Newsrooms will have to put people’s trauma into context so their communities can acknowledge what they’ve endured and begin to heal.

Trauma-informed reporting is often front and center in stories about survivors of sexual assault, mass shootings, or other major crimes. But in 2021, newsrooms will have to understand that trauma goes well beyond that harrowing subject matter. They will have to build a better foundation of helping readers, viewers, listeners, and online visitors understand what the depths of community trauma looks like on an everyday basis.

Newsrooms have to take a step back and reexamine what they understand trauma to be. Trauma is everywhere, even if the communities we serve don’t always use the t-word to describe their experiences.

Trauma takes many forms: collective grieving for victims of the pandemic; health professionals experiencing chronic stress; communities of color bearing the pains of the impacts of systemic and institutionalized racism in their lives; children’s routines being upended with online learning and little access to their teachers and friends; job and wage losses forcing people to make tough decisions to survive; the pangs of fear when rent cannot be paid; the devastation of a small business owner closing their storefront; videos and pictures of grocery stores wiped out of toilet paper and other necessities; and upticks in crime as pent up emotions, economic desperation, and more come full circle.

Newsrooms must keep the core of these traumas in mind when considering how they interact with community members and how stories are framed, presented, and shared in real-time. With newsrooms still reckoning with how they’ve perpetuated harmful narratives about the communities they report for, marginalized people whose traumas are often forgotten must be ethically centered but never exploited. It will also be important for newsrooms to prevent retraumatizing the people whose stories they’re trying to tell.

While the media industry has been pummeled by layoffs, furloughs, and buyouts, newsrooms can find creative ways to prioritize trauma-informed storytelling. They can seek help from resources like the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma. They can reach out to local therapists, mental health practitioners, community colleges, and universities to provide virtual seminars on how to consider trauma when approaching people. They can also engage with community advocates and activists in their area on ways the newsroom can offer better coverage with trauma put into context. Journalism educators can collaborate with trauma experts on campus to find ways to make trauma-informed reporting part of the curriculum.

In addition, newsrooms must prioritize their own employees’ mental health and helping them understand the effects of secondhand trauma from covering the pandemic era news cycle. Encouraging time off, reminding workers of available counseling resources, and making space for people to process what they’re going through will be critical for maintaining the mental wellbeing of newsrooms.

After all, people are depending on us.

Marissa Evans is the social issues reporter for the Star Tribune in Minneapolis.

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