Fellowship winner aims for trauma-informed journalism

2018.02.23

Louisa Taylor didn’t mince words in her post urging her friends in the media to attend a free symposium on trauma-informed journalism in Ottawa on March 3.

“Too many of you have no clue how to talk to vulnerable people. I learned by trial and error — you don’t have to,” wrote the former Ottawa Citizen reporter and now Director of Refugee 613.

“While I mostly see sensitive, well-informed interviewers, I also see professionals oblivious to the harmful impact of their approach and their questions. Sometimes you leave damage in your wake and you don’t even know it. By all means, tell your stories, but do it better.”

Matthew Pearson

Matthew Pearson

Which is, in fact, part of the mission that Matthew Pearson is on as the winner of the 2017 Michener-Deacon Fellowship for Journalism Education. The city hall reporter, who is on leave from The Ottawa Citizen/Sun, is developing teaching materials for instructors and resources for newsrooms. He is based at Carleton University’s School of Journalism and Communication while he works on the four-month project.

His interest in trauma-informed journalism was heightened by the horrific 2013 collision between an OC Transpo bus and Via Rail train that left six people dead and dozens injured.

Pearson, a member of the Ottawa Newspaper Guild (CWA Canada Local 30205), has three goals: to help journalists better understand what trauma is; to help report traumatic news stories responsibly; and to give newsrooms the tools they need to help journalists who themselves might have been traumatized in the course of their work.

CWA Canada is one of the sponsors of a symposium Pearson organized for “journalism students and working journalists to acquire new skills to cover traumatic incidents and report on people who have experienced trauma.”

Trauma survivors, journalists and a psychotherapist will share their experiences and expertise during the free day-long event at Carleton University.

A focus group last month with newsroom employees at the Citizen was the first of eight Pearson has held this winter as part of his research. He will travel to Toronto and Winnipeg for more focus groups, as well as continue interviewing current and retired reporters, journalism educators, and trauma experts.

“What I’m hearing,” he said, “is that meaningful training on how to cover traumatic incidents doesn’t exist and reporters, particularly when they think back to the start of their careers, often feel ill-equipped to interview people who have experienced trauma. There’s also often a lack of follow-up with reporters after they have covered something difficult, so that’s something I’d like to help newsrooms build into the culture.”

(This article incorporates portions of a story by Blair Crawford published in a recent edition of the Ottawa Newspaper Guild newsletter.)

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