At the University of Washington, journalism students face some difficult assignments. On this particular day, a young journalist knocks on the door of a house where the mother of a recently killed child lives. The journalist’s goal is to get a photo of the daughter to go along with her article. Behind the student is a small group of peers and coaches observing how she composes herself, how she addresses the mother, how she handles the situation. And in that group is Roger Simpson, a journalism associate professor at the University of Washington and this year’s recipient of SPJ’s Distinguished Teaching in Journalism Award. Simpson and the others watch the journalism student as she talks with the “mother” – a trained actress portraying someone who has just lost her daughter. The mother fetches a photograph and somberly hands it to the journalist, who then places it on the ground and jumps into a round of questions. The mother reacts: One of the things left of her daughter is this precious photograph, and this reporter just dropped it on the ground! “Students are rarely engaged on an emotional level,” Simpson said. “Even though they’re talking to actors their emotions are pushed.” The exercise allows students to learn how to interview people who are clearly traumatized by an event, be it a death of a loved one, sexual abuse, a fire or an accident. Rather than lecturing the students in a classroom, Simpson learned early on that teaching trauma required the interactive use of drama. When the young journalism student placed the photograph of the grieving mother’s daughter on the ground, several of the observers took note and, after the acting was over, talked with the student about what she did. By placing the photo on the ground – instead of holding it – the journalist broke the trust of the mother. “[Students] remember because they personally rose to the occasion,” Simpson said. “They say later that it was a profound experience. They were required to respond in an emotional way.” Where
other teachers might simply tell the students what to do, Simpson patiently allows them to learn from their own mistakes. “He has high standards, but he would step aside and let the students learn on their own,” said Migael Sherer, a teacher and consultant to the Journalism and Trauma Program at the University of Washington. “He will wait for the right moment. He seizes the moment when students are ready.” Sherer has known Simpson since the early 1990s, when Simpson was grappling to figure out how to teach his ethics students to deal with stories about sexual assault. He started working at a Seattle rape counseling service agency to understand the trauma victims experienced. He asked the director of the agency for help, and the director asked Sherer if she would speak to Simpson’s class. “What has struck me at first is that he didn’t assume he knew all the answers,” Sherer said. “He knew victims and survivors were a virtually unheard voice.” Simpson also met with trauma scientists at the Virginia Mason Medical Center in Seattle, where he realized that journalists are affected by covering trauma the same way police officers are when they investigate a horrific car accident or the murder of a child. Eventually, with Sherer’s help in writing up a curriculum, Simpson had the class cognitively prepare for the interactive drama, which is warned to be emotionally shocking. The drama used actors in the UWOnCue, a University of Washington drama team that aims to make a difference in communication through art. Jim Boggs, a doctoral candidate in communications, created UWOnCue shortly after he arrived at the university from a stint in the Peace Corps in Zanzibar. Within two minutes of a scene, there is a lifetime of experiences, Boggs said. “A picture is worth a thousand words, and experience is worth a million,” he said. “A sidewards glance, a hesitation before an answer – there’s a huge communication there.” Simpson uses this technique to teach his students that journalists are not people who hide behind a notebook or tape recorder and go unaffected by the stories they cover. Hiding emotions behind the mighty pen could re-traumatize a victim. “Journalists are not only learning skills but also how to deal with the public in an ethical way,” said Kevin Kawamoto, an assistant professor at the university. “Part of being a professional journalist is being an ethical journalist. You can cause damage not only to individuals but also to the public’s perception of journalists. Roger teaches students not to lose the public’s trust.” Simpson’s use of interactive drama is catching on among teachers, said Kawamoto. Schools in Colorado and Oklahoma have asked for input in implementing their own program. Journalists in those cities have seen violence in the Oklahoma City bombing and the Littleton, Colo., high school shootings, and they are realizing the toll that such traumatic events can have on reporters. In a new book, co-authored by Simpson and William Coté, called “Covering Violence: An Ethical and Practical Guide to Reporting about Victims and Trauma,” research showed that professional journalists remembered in vivid detail their first profound memory of a fatal car crash, even years after it happened. They could still smell the burning rubber, Simpson said. They supplied enough information in the survey that suggested they may have symptoms of trauma. As an extension of Simpson’s work, The Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma was created at the University of Washington. Simpson is the director, Kawamoto is the vice-chairman and Sherer is the Dart Award director. The Center focuses on training journalism students, but it also collaborates with professional journalists. The Center’s Web site, www.dartcenter.org, has an online curriculum with quizzes and other resources available. Kawamoto said he knows the work of Simpson and The Dart Center is having an impact. “More and more journalists are coming up to us and saying they know what we’re talking about,” he said. “They’ve never really dealt with it before. They keep moving on from one traumatic story to the next. Some have healthy coping methods while others do not. Those who do not compartmentalize what they see, and they become desensitized.” According to Sherer, understanding the effects of trauma will slowly influence the way journalists work. “It sounds simple, but it’s really difficult,” she said. “We’re really changing the culture of journalists.”
Stanley Dankoski is a correspondent for The Union Leader newspaper in New Hampshire and is a recent graduate of the University of Maine.