Lindsay Kucera/The AS Review

Photo courtesy of Joan Connell & Dart Center for Journalism & Trauma

This week, the World Issues Forum will be hosting Joan Connell, journalist and associate director of operations at the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma. Her presentation, titled “Bearing Witness to Tragedy” will focus on telling ethical, sensitive stories in a world that is increasingly violent.

The AS Review corresponded with Connell via email about her experience with the Dart Center and being a “witness to tragedy.”

The AS Review: What drew you to the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma?

Joan Connell: In the worst of worlds, journalists are cold and detached observers, who violate the privacy, impair the dignity and exploit the suffering of people caught up in tragic events in the interest of bringing back a good story.  In the best of worlds, journalists bear witness to suffering and loss because they are empathetic members of a compassionate community.  They are players– bit players, to be sure, but players nonetheless, in the great human drama of good and evil, order and chaos that has been unfolding since the beginning of the written word.

The idea that I could play a role in advancing a form of journalism that could be a creative and healing force, rather than an exploitative and divisive one, was very appealing.

Review: What is the mission of the center? Your mission as a journalist?

Connell: The Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, a project of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, is a global alliance of psychiatrists, working journalists, educators and mental health clinicians and researchers dedicated to supporting journalists who do the emotionally arduous and sometimes dangerous work of reporting on violence and tragedy. With satellites in Europe, Australasia and Latin America, the Dart Center also works with individual reporters and news organizations worldwide to raise the ethical standard of reporting on traumatic events, with an emphasis on the needs and dignity of the victims.

The Dart Center's work is grounded in behavioral science and mental health research, specifically in the field of traumatic stress studies that had its roots in the Vietnam era, when US soldiers returning home from combat experienced a wide range of symptoms that eventually were identified as post-traumatic stress disorder, PTSD. It's normal for people caught up in tragic events to be traumatized, be they victims of a disaster, soldiers returning from war or journalists who have witnessed distressing events. Most eventually bounce back. But some become stuck, about 30 percent, according to most studies, and need help as they cope with recurrent anxiety, nightmares, flashbacks, substance abuse, alcoholism and a whole range of other reactions.

Counteracting the stigma attached to those who suffer from post-traumatic stress is a major concern. The current thinking of many in the field is that PTSD is a wound, not a disease; it is something that can heal over time.  In fact, some clinicians and researchers talk about the possibility of post-traumatic growth.

Up to now, most research into journalism and trauma has centered on war correspondents, those who willingly choose to go into conflict zones and are able to leave periodically to rest and rebound.

But increasingly, journalists are living and working under conditions of chronic stress, drug wars in Mexico, unrest in Pakistan, civil war in Congo or Sri Lanka, continuing violence in the Philippines, ongoing conflicts in Gaza, Iraq and Afghanistan. We're only just beginning to grapple with how journalists working under these conditions are affected by trauma and what can be done to help them and their families cope with the danger and chaos.

I'm not sure I have an actual “mission" as a journalist. But I do think I have an obligation to clearly and compassionately report without bias on all kinds of events and issues, with the goal of giving people the information they need to make informed and meaningful choices, as citizens and as human beings.

Review: In your opinion, what does it mean to be an "ethical storyteller" or a "witness to tragedy?"

Connell: Journalists are trained to extract information from the powerful: government officials, politicians, police, experts of all kinds. They receive less training in how to deal with the powerless: people caught up in war or genocide, in a hurricane or an earthquake, a rape, a house fire, a terror attack; the parent of a murder victim, the family that has lost a loved one to suicide. But in fact, the ground rules are different when you're dealing with a person who is disoriented, freaked out or bereaved in the immediate aftermath of tragedy. Being an ethical storyteller involves understanding the fragility and respecting the dignity of your subjects. It means being straightforward and honest about your intentions. It means protecting their identities if necessary. It means negotiating clear ground rules for an interview, giving the person the option of going on and off the record, making sure that person understands the implications of sharing his or her story with a journalist, and consequently the world.

It also means remaining focused on the journalism, which is to unflinchingly tell the truth as you find it, in ways that might not be totally pleasing to your subject. A slippery slope, to be sure, and there's no single formula or right way to do it.

It is said that to be a good journalist you have to have a chip of ice in your heart: the element of distance that allows you to be a sympathetic listener, but keeps you from crossing the line of becoming, or pretending to become, your subject's advocate or friend.

Review: How do you feel journalistic objectivity factors into conflict reporting?

Connell: Objectivity is at the core of all authoritative reporting. But it's hard to be objective, say, if you're a hometown reporter embedded in a combat unit whose members are risking their lives every day to protect your own. Hard, but not impossible.

I prefer to think of it as transparency: I make myself as transparent as possible, and that entails surrendering my biases in order to be a lens through which a human story can be compelling and authentically conveyed.

Review: What do you hope students gain from your presentation with the World Issues Forum?

Connell: A tragic event is not told all at once. It is, in a way, a drama in three acts that evolves over time: Act 1 is the event itself: the attack, the crime, the storm, the battle. It requires a certain kind of disciplined reporting: gathering facts, quotes and impressions under deadline and understanding the vulnerabilities of people caught up in the chaos. Act 2 is where the nuance lies: it is the time to go deep, explore motivations and impacts, and make discoveries. Act 3, in the best of worlds, is where the stories of healing are found, where the hope lies, where the injured or bereaved begin to put themselves back together.

You can't do this kind of work and remain sane unless some small part of you believes that no matter what happens, people have the potential to be resilient; that life, in some good way, can go on.

Review: Do you feel the Dart Center is relevant to others besides journalists and educators?

Connell: I think our message about post-traumatic stress and the possibility of post-traumatic growth is of interest and value to the general public.

Tragedies happen in faraway places and they happen at home: troubled soldiers come home from war, people struggle in the aftermath of crime, substance abuse, suicide, and violence of all kinds. Just as journalists need tools to remain resilient in the reporting of these issues, so do teachers, pastors, health care professional, emergency responders and community leaders as they face these issues.

Review: What inspired you to become a journalist?

Connell: Since I was a child, I was fascinated with the people whose job it was to give you something new to think about every day. I wanted to be one of those people.

Review: Is there any advice you would like to give to aspiring journalists?

Connell: Get a good liberal arts education.  Read deeply and widely. Be conversant in world religions, ethics and moral issues. Understand that journalism is a public service.

Joan Connell will be speaking at the World Issues Forum this Wednesday, Oct. 13 from noon to 1:20 p.m. in the Fairhaven auditorium. For information about the World Issues Forum, please contact Coordinator Shirley Osterhaus at Shirley.Osterhaus@wwu.edu.