10 tips for media practitioners covering tragedies & Restorative Narratives
Kevin Becker (right) at ivoh’s Restorative Narrative Colloquium last week. Photo by Gloria Muñoz.
What do communities need from media in the aftermath of tragedy?
We explored this question at length during ivoh’s Restorative Narrative Colloquium and Retreat last weekend. The event brought together a group of about 40 media practitioners, educators, psychologists, and others interested in the impact that Restorative Narratives can have on people and communities.
One of the event’s speakers — clinical psychologist Kevin Becker — shared tips for media practitioners looking to tell Restorative Narratives in communities that have been affected by tragedy. There are three things, he said, that communities need after tragedies: safety, predictability, and control.
Media makers can take this into account when telling Restorative Narratives. Specifically, they can provide safety by creating a safe space for people to talk about what they’ve been through, and by letting sources know that they are committed to telling their story accurately and fairly. They can provide predictability by giving sources a sense of what the story will be about so that they’re not surprised when they open the paper or turn on the TV. Additionally, media makers can provide control by letting sources know that they have control over whether or not they choose to share their story and over what information they choose to share.
Becker, who has specialized in crisis intervention and trauma for 25 years, shared several other helpful insights during the colloquium and in a follow-up conversation with ivoh. Here are some related tips for media practitioners to consider when telling stories in a tragedy’s aftermath:
1. Familiarize yourself with psychological reactions to disasters. Having a basic understanding of the various phases that follow a tragedy can be helpful in the immediate aftermath of tragedy and in the months and years that follow. During his talk, Becker referred to a related chart that illustrates these phases:
2. Offer up facts. It sounds simple, but in the aftermath of tragedy, people “need information to come from somewhere trustworthy [and] need to know where and how to get resources,” Becker said.
3. Try not to perpetuate the “hierarchy of pain”: Victims may compare their pain to others who experienced the tragedy,” Becker said. “Sometimes people look to others and say ‘at least I’m not as impacted as she/he is. At other times they may compare themselves to others and say something that implies ‘my pain is worse than yours and I need more services/support/resources’ etc. If this heirarchy of pain is rampant in a community it can be an indication that the community may not be recovering very well.”
4. Recognize the importance of the community. Becker suggests looking for ways to emphasize a community’s shared past and present, along with small steps/little bits of progress. Being part of a community can help people make small steps forward, he said: “People need to feel like they’re part of a community. No one recovers in isolation.”
5. View trauma as a magnifying glass. Magnify both the good and the bad that exists in a community so you can take a more holistic approach to your coverage. There may be bad things happening politically in a community, for instance, that could negatively impact recovery efforts. That’s important, but so are successful recovery efforts and the ways in which the community is coming together to find meaningful pathways forward.
6. Be wary of making it seem like communities have “recovered” if in fact they haven’t. “Sometimes it’s easier to tell when they’re not recovering,” Becker said. “They struggle with everything … lots of controversy about all sorts of decisions — money, resources, memorials, hierarchy of pain etc.” Communities that are recovering start to look more like they did before the tragedy. “Looking for the return of/sense of safety, predictability, and control can be good indicators of a positive recovery process,” Becker said.
7. Realize that a resilient community is not the same as a collection of resilient individuals. “In fact, in all likelihood it is resilient communities that are best suited to take care of and provide for all its individual members,” Becker said. “The studies of ‘community mental health’ have primarily been studies of individuals living in communities rather than studies of the communities themselves.”
8. Avoid the misleading cliche “time heals.” “Time doesn’t heal,” Becker said. “Time gives you the opportunity to heal.” Also, communities’ needs change over time, depending on where they’re at in the recovery process.
9. Avoid the word “closure.” There is no such thing, Becker said. “Recovering from trauma is a developmental process; someone who experiences a trauma as a child may revisit and need to reprocess it when their own children reach the age they were or when their children are exposed to a similar (but non traumatizing) event,” Becker said. “The trauma gets digested over time and across time, so ‘closure’ is not really a fitting description and victims/survivors hear it as ‘(s)he’s over it’.”
10. Look for Restorative Narratives as you’re telling day-to-day stories, rather than waiting for a tragedy to strike. Being proactive, rather than reactive, in your coverage can go a long way, Becker said: “If as a journalist you have identified and discussed those things in the community which make it a community — the things that add to the unity and connection — then when a tragedy happens you will have a way to gauge progress, connect to the members, remind people of their strengths etc.”
Keeping these tips in mind when covering tragedies and their aftermath could help improve coverage and — perhaps more importantly — build trust.
The Center for Investigative Reporting’s Lindsay Green-Barber, who served as the rapporteur for the colloquium, contributed notes to this report.