BY SHANNON KENNAN
Reporters and other journalists acquire much of the content they disseminate to the public from the asking of questions. But some questions—and some interviewees—shouldn’t be asked. For example, “Are you OK?” This seems like a ludicrous question to ask a child who has just experienced a school shooting. It is asked because many reporters are unaware of the mechanisms of trauma and the lifetime cumulative effects of traumatic stress. I believe that we need reporters to do the vitally important job of informing the public through what I’m calling a trauma-informed lens.
School shootings are terror-inducing situations for everyone involved. The first reports from the scene often involve images of children and parents crying, and sound bites of what it was like while the shooting was happening. Words, sounds and images of trauma, forever memorialized online.
Every person on the school grounds, as well as their families, friends and loved ones are experiencing trauma. Indeed, virtually everyone within many miles is experiencing some trauma. Journalists cannot tell from looking at
the victims how traumatized they are or how an interview might affect them. There is no single indicator or reaction that identifies if a victim is coping “well enough” to be interviewed. Trauma wears many masks. Shock can look like calmness, but it’s not. Dissociation can look like calmness, but it’s not.
The term Toxic Stress refers to the activation of the stress response system after traumatic events, which can have cumulative, profoundly negative effects—sometimes for a lifetime. People who have experienced previous traumas, such as natural disasters, abuse or the death of a loved one, will experience the school shooting differently from those who haven’t.
A period of extreme distress after a school shooting is
a natural reaction for everyone who learns of it. But some people will go on to develop Acute Stress Disorder, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or Toxic Stress. These can be very long-lasting, but how, depends
Looking at a school shooting through a trauma-informed lens means looking at how the trauma is affecting each person differently and figuring out what each person needs to heal and regain normalcy. But a reporter’s job requires collecting as many interviews as possible in order to have enough material to construct fact-based stories. And, we know that those words, sounds and images of traumatized children are what attract an audience, regardless of medium.
For children, regaining a sense of safety is paramount to their recovery. Children, in particular, need to be with people who love them and will support them in the immediate hours and days after a school shooting. We are faced with a conflict between prioritizing the well-being of victims and prioritizing stories that capture attention and inform the public. The word “and” is of utmost importance. There is an ocean of choice contained in the word “and.”
Using a trauma-informed lens, I recommend that reporters do not attempt to interview elementary or middle school children in the hours or possibly days after a school shooting. The children need to be focused on healing and need to be with care-givers who love them and can help them feel safe again. Younger children do not usually give good interviews or important pieces of information, anyway. Cognitively, they may not be able to respond to hypothetical questions or fact-based questions, and trauma compounds cognitive deficits for everyone, but especially for young children.
High school students are different. As we have seen from the Parkland students following the killings at their school, their trauma quickly turned from anguish to anger and activism. They have put themselves in the spotlight and are organizing to make a change in gun control laws throughout the world. But not all of them are. There are approximately 3,000 students enrolled at Marjory Stoneman Douglas in Parkland and we have seen images of hundreds of them showing up for marches and rallies and a few stepping into the media spotlight to challenge existing norms and laws. Thousands of students across the country held similar rallies. But—and it is a big “but”—there are hundreds or thousands of other Parkland students. Are they marching? Are they still traumatized? We don’t know.
High school students have the cognitive ability to engage with reporters and, as all parents of teenagers know, they have agency to make their own decisions. Reporters using a trauma-informed lens should approach each student individually to determine if an interview is appropriate. High school students also need to feel safe and loved in order to heal. Interviewing at the scene of a school shooting might be too early, but it may be perfectly fine to interview them later in the day—or the next day—and at home rather than at the scene of carnage at the school.
Using a trauma-informed lens, journalists should also prioritize the need for informed consent during traumatic events like a school shooting. Explaining to the child and their family what the positive and negative outcomes of the interview might be and how you plan to use the interview gives them back a sense of agency and the ability to regain some control over their lives. Informed consent can be a small step in the healing process. However, there is one caveat: families are also traumatized and are at times overcome by fear, sadness or grief or even “survivor guilt.” Looked at through a trauma-informed lens, these families should not be interviewed at that time. Their priority should be on safety, reconnecting with loved ones and healing.
The way the interview is conducted matters, too. Interviews with younger children should only be a few minutes long. Older children might be able to participate in interviews up to 30 minutes. Younger children should not be relied upon to give factual accounts. Developmentally, they make sense of and heal from potentially traumatic events in a way that does not always adhere to strict fact-based accounts. Sense-making in younger children can include magical thinking and may overlap reality with aspects of fantasy from other things they have been exposed to.
Open-ended questions are always better because children can construct their own response. Avoid “why” questions because they can be interpreted as value-laden and imply blame. “Why didn’t you run away?” “Why did you go into the closet instead of jumping out a window?” Reflect back on what you heard the child say and give them the opportunity to correct misunderstandings. Journalists can both inform the public and minimize harm to children, but the wellbeing of children should take precedence over getting the interview. There are many other ways the story can be told without putting children at risk.