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Montgomery County shooting: Extraordinary story calls for focus on trauma journalism

Classmates, friends and parents of high school students mourn at the vigil for the Flick family at Souderton Area High School on Dec. 22. (Bob Raines — The Reporter)
Classmates, friends and parents of high school students mourn at the vigil for the Flick family at Souderton Area High School on Dec. 22. (Bob Raines — The Reporter)

When a Montgomery County man killed six members of his family and became the subject of a manhunt last December, Digital First Media’s properties in the area put all the resources they could on the story.

That included reporter Eric Devlin, not normally a police reporter, heading to the suspect’s home to cover police activity there — and being told, at one point, that he could be in the line of fire. He tweeted: “Police backed off. Telling everyone to back up for their safety.”

Stan Huskey, the regional content director for several daily and weekly newspapers in the area, knew his staffers’ experiences during the manhunt and its aftermath were extraordinary. He also knew that several DFM journalists had been through training with the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, and asked an editor who’d attended the training, John Berry with the Trentonian, about anything he could share with staffers.

That eventually led to York Daily Record photographer Jason Plotkin and me talking with about 18 people on Jan. 15 about trauma awareness and the peer-support program that soon will be introduced to several additional DFM properties.

Journalists who attended shared stories about difficult stories they’ve had to cover. One noted the feeling of “we could all be in danger” when she went to the scene of a shooting. One talked about the Stone shooting coverage, saying he was too busy during the day to think about what had really happened, and the full weight of the story didn’t hit until later, when he had time to reflect. Others talked about being respectful to survivors.

Jason and I talked about best practices for trauma coverage, including some advice on how to best interview survivors based on what is happening in their brains immediately after an event.

We talked about elements of peer support — that it’s OK to have strong reactions to events like the Bradley Stone story, and how we believe that a journalist-to-journalist support program embedded throughout the company’s newsrooms can lead to better coverage and stronger journalists.

And we talked about what editors can do to help create resilient newsrooms, and what journalists should be alert for if colleagues are troubled by a particular story or by events they encounter as a regular part of their police or court beats.

Geoff Patton, a veteran journalist and the online editor with the Lansdale Reporter, emailed his thoughts on the session, and the peer-support effort:

 “The simple act of presenting DART cracks a pervasive, potentially damaging silence on the part of news staffers that may hold the view that trauma coverage-related stress is to be ignored or repressed.  The fact that you simply started the conversation is a huge leap toward a change of attitude.  DART should be presented to every newsroom, and its basic principles should be discussed or at least touched upon with every new hire or intern.”

Also of interest:

A top York Daily Record/York Newspaper Co.’s goal in 2015: ‘Be a great workplace’