Why we need more media makers to be ‘builders’ who tell stories of resilience
In a New York Times column earlier this week, David Brooks wrote about how to support people who are suffering from trauma and loss. The column is drawn from a compelling Soujourners piece written by Catherine Woodiwiss, who is recovering from a serious car accident and whose younger sister was killed in a horseback riding accident a few years ago.
The “art of presence,” Brooks and Woodiwiss explain, is complicated and nuanced. It’s not about saying “I know how you feel,” or “you’ll get over it”; it’s about sitting by someone’s side through the dark and uncomfortable moments. Though not directed at journalists, Woodiwiss’ advice holds valuable lessons for media professionals.
Woodiwiss makes a distinction between builders — who are there for you over long periods of time — and firefighters — who sweep in when something bad happens and then go away. When enduring trauma, it’s best to have both builders and firefighters by your side, she says:
In times of crisis, we want our family, partner, or dearest friends to be everything for us. But surviving trauma requires at least two types of people: the crisis team — those friends who can drop everything and jump into the fray by your side, and the reconstruction crew — those whose calm, steady care will help nudge you out the door into regaining your footing in the world. In my experience, it is extremely rare for any individual to be both a firefighter and a builder. This is one reason why trauma is a lonely experience. Even if you share suffering with others, no one else will be able to fully walk the road with you the whole way.
A hard lesson of trauma is learning to forgive and love your partner, best friend, or family even when they fail at one of these roles. Conversely, one of the deepest joys is finding both kinds of companions beside you on the journey.
Covering trauma is an inevitable part of the job for many media professionals. When school shootings, natural disasters and scandals happen, the media swoops into communities to cover them. In essence, they’re firefighters who help by reporting stories that inform the public about what happened. These stories are important, but over time they can make people feel like the world is a cruel and callous place.
Playing off Woodiwiss’ idea, what if more media makers were firefighters and builders?
Journalists who follow up on tragedies usually do so on anniversaries or when new information surfaces. If journalists made a bigger commitment to sticking with the story — by following one individual, family or community over an extended period of time — they could tell more stories about recovery. Too often, these stories get pushed aside because journalists are strapped for time and resources, or because they’re unsure of the return on investment. And sometimes, sources are reluctant to talk to or trust them.
I have a hunch, though, that if more journalists were builders, the public’s hardened view against them would soften over time. If more media professionals covered stories about resilience, they could do a great public service by helping people learn how to bounce back after times of tragedy.
Some news organizations’ efforts suggest this idea isn’t as utopian as it sounds. The BBC is one of the news organizations that sees value in resilience reporting. Its Media Action project is geared toward showing how the media can improve humanitarian responses and increase resilience. The BBC explains:
We aim to increase people’s ability to secure food and water, improve their economic security and opportunities, reduce their risk to disaster, and increase their ability to survive and cope with humanitarian emergencies. Media and communication can help build the resilience of people vulnerable to shocks and long-term trends by providing information, by changing attitudes towards risk and innovation, by supporting dialogue that will facilitate positive change and by encouraging greater accountability in service provision and policy making.
Additionally, the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research has been studying the factors that make someone resilient. With funding from the Rockefeller Foundation, the Center is sponsoring a nine-month-long fellowship “to train a reporter to take a rigorous look at the academic literature on resilience,” the Columbia Journalism Review reported in November. Trevor Tompson, director of the Center, told CJR that the fellow will study data analysis and social sciences research to learn how to tell more nuanced stories about resilience:
A lot of the coverage of disasters had to be pretty anecdotal … There’s a lot of storytelling, but it’s hard to connect it to the big picture. … If [research is] not accessible to journalists for news then we’re missing a huge opportunity to get that information out there to people who could really use it. … This fellowship is a win-win kind of arrangement.
If more media makers covered resilience, they could play a more instrumental role in rebuilding communities — something the Knight Foundation has recently given news sites funding for. This type of coverage could not only help communities in need, but give the general public reason to believe the world is a better place than most headlines make it out to be.