UCC Mainstream Online

Writing about trauma is its own trauma

Mainstream staff share experiences on traumatic media coverage

Provided by Anna Gutermuth, Flickr
The job of a reporter is to provide information that documents the human condition as part of a historical record. When that job requires writing on trauma, reporters can experience trauma themselves.

The public’s perception is that reporters are unfazed by the words they write. Truthfully, nothing is as hard as giving bad news, as journalists almost universally agree.

The UCC tragedy was one such event where information needed to be readily available for the public. However, the college’s community relations team, whose office had been in Snyder Hall, were locked down at the fairgrounds while over one million hits per second bombarded and shut down the college’s website.

Two staff members on The Mainstream, UCC’s student newspaper, started attempting to provide information to the public on the Mainstream Facebook page while being locked out of their news room and their website. Within minutes of the incident, Mainstream staff sent out active shooter alerts, knowing the campus alert system had failed. The task was more than grueling.

The situation was so overwhelming, so exhausting that some Mainstream staff members soon quit the term completely. Others are still unable to write about the trauma.

Normally, the role of a journalist is to release news. How do journalists, however, inform the public while also attempting to inform themselves on a topic this personal?

Frantic and distraught, on Oct. 1 Mainstream staff members tried to simultaneously reach friends who were on campus, answer a barrage of phone calls and texts and posts, listen to police scanners detailing the classrooms affected and the numbers injured while trying to write coherent warnings and notices. And they were still in shock.

Yes, the job of the reporter is to write on the trauma others seek answers to. And, yes, it is the most difficult task a reporter can be given.

“I remember sitting there on Sunday, watching something stupid on TV, and I remember looking at my boyfriend and saying ‘Oh, my God, we have to write about this. How are we going to do this?’ It was this sudden realization, this deep concern, that not only were we the victims, we were also the people who were going to have to help others understand what had happened,” says the current Mainstream editor Alicia Graves. Graves adds, “How do you do both? We all feel violated by what happened here.”

With the school in chaos and the main website down, on Oct. 1 The Mainstream’s Facebook page turned into an important outlet for public information. As one journalist commented on the page, the student newspaper was initially the only voice coming from the college itself.

Prior to Oct. 1, the page had averaged between 50 and 150 hits per day. On Oct. 1, that number quickly jumped to 139,000, and then the counter turned over. One post had over 68,000 readers. Thousands of comments from people worldwide poured in. Even national websites such as “Inside Edition” used information directly from The Mainstream’s Facebook.

Most of the comments were supportive, but some were derogatory. An individual using the moniker Chris Stone continually found his way around Facebook’s block function, commenting on posts, trying to insist that the shooting never occurred, that it was a false flag.

On Oct. 12, Facebook then deleted almost all of The Mainstream posts and comments from Oct. 1 through Oct. 5 without notification.

Facebook’s decision to delete was just part of the confusion that ensued. While the few student writers attempted to report details, the perception of UCC as a safe haven was turned upside-down. But there was a job to do.

“Journalists must accept their role of documentation. [They] document human emotion, the human condition,” Sung Park, University of Oregon multimedia professor, said at the UNESCO Crossings Institute Conflict Sensitive Reporting panel discussion on Oct. 23 at UO.

The Dart Center for Journalism & Trauma explains that reporters are a type of first responders.

What journalists do stands on a larger scale. These are the people who tell you what is wrong with the world. Sometimes they possess no solutions, and sometimes they have little control over the information they are given to write on. Writing about trauma can perpetuate it, but that is the sacrifice journalists make.

The journalist’s job is to report facts, no matter how horrendous they are. They have to create a historical record of events for others down the line.

Tom Brokaw, the former host of “Today,” was tasked with covering the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. “We spent a lot of hours on this desk trying to make sense of what was happening,” Brokaw said while guest-hosting an edition of “Today” in 2014. “I think what the audience didn’t fully appreciate . . . was how much we didn’t know.”

Adapting with the story is a challenge for reporters whose stories change as new facts are gained. The audience sits dependent on the journalist’s words while following a human being who processes tragedy the same as anyone else.

For The Mainstream, another challenge has been dealing with staff changes and new staff shortages. This term 10 students are tasked with reporting the doings of a whole community college. Staff have had to jumble into new positions and demands due to the Oct. 1 incident. Notably, before the tragedy, the staff had met for only one class session, not even enough time to learn each other’s names.

Personally, I was informed of the shooting 15 minutes before CNN broke the story to the world. Immediately, I called the newspaper’s adviser, Melinda Benton. The voice that greeted me seemed unaware of the tragedy, and my own voice shook


"There have been so many diffrent levels to deal with," Graves said. "focusing on what information needed to get out and what stories to tell helped me help others." -Alecia Graves

to reveal the information. Even without looking at her face, I knew this news to be devastating, unbelievable.

I followed up with several calls to people I knew were on campus. One friend I learned was safe, barricaded in a room with other students and staff and still caught in lockdown. Neither of us knew if the situation had ended or if it continued until Benton got on the police scanner.

The Mainstream website then informed me, like many others, when the shooting ended, and later gave the full scope of the tragedy.

These are difficult words to write. Each scratch I place on the paper is more than the composition of letters into words and words into sentences. Behind every single mark there is a true, emotional heft. Writing about trauma is to return to it, and unfortunately this is no singular tale.

On top of the difficulty of writing about these memories, I must face that what a reporter writes will massively influence a community. As the Dart Center notes, “Journalists face unusual challenges when covering violent or mass tragedies. They face the possibility of being a first responder to a violent event. They interact with victims dealing with extraordinary grief.”

The Dart Center also notes that a journalist’s traumatic stress is similar to firefighter or police officer first responders. Horrible tragedies in the past have been covered and pass, and the next news story erupts. Journalists are expected to flow with the news, even if they have not moved on emotionally from their previous stories.

Graves also worries about the burden.“There have been so many different levels to deal with,” Graves said. “Focusing on what information needed to get out and what stories to tell helped me help others. And yet, trying to put my two articles together last issue gave me some of the worst writer’s block . . . . I literally stared at my computer screen for almost an hour, [but] trying to put something into perspective is very difficult.”

The Dart Center handbook gives tips for dealing with trauma to reporters. Accepting personal or group counseling gives the greatest benefit; receiving encouragement also helps. Journalists need to know that their work has helped inform the masses. Staff should also seek assistance if needed.

The effects of Oct. 1 are still felt throughout the college, however. Even the Mainstream reporters who retrieved information early on have yet to be relieved of the trauma caused by the event. “To be perfectly honest, I’m still trying to figure out how to deal with everything,” Graves said. “Some days are okay; some moments are good. And then I have a panic attack and feel like I am right back at square one.”

Many outside of UCC have offered their support to the Mainstream staff. Peter Laufer, UO media professor and the James N. Wallace chair of journalism, and Tim Gleason, journalism professor, met with the Mainstream class and discussed how best to deal with situations like the shooting. Both offered any help they could give, and in the weeks since have provided the newspaper with recording equipment and provided a university student to assist. Laufer hosted the panel on trauma and invited the class.

Their most important advice was to ask, “What is the story and what does the public need to know?” In these moments, great care must be placed in not allowing someone else to control a story or to allow criticism to change your words, they taught.

The Dart Center also recommends that writers of trauma go through a debriefing. “Recognize the need for a debriefing forum or the opportunities to articulate emotions in the aftermath of a school-yard massacre or World Trade Center attacks is not a sign of weakness, as too many journalists seem to think.

“Instead, when done successfully, debriefing fosters strength. The act of articulation -- writing, drawing, painting, talking or crying -- seems to change the way a traumatic memory is stored in the brain, as if it somehow moves the hard drive to another place.”

The further along The Mainstream staff have gotten, the more accountable we have become. We at the Mainstream will continue to write and inform the students on topics that need discovery. Writing is trauma, but it is also healing.