Covering Tragedy with Sensitivity  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   April/May 2013

Covering Tragedy with Sensitivity    

Thatís what the Journalism Center on Children & Families hopes to foster with its new training module on how to cover the death of a child. Mon., May 6, 2013

By Rachel Rosenthal
Rachel Rosenthal (rrosenthal@ajr.umd.edu) is an AJR editorial assistant and a student at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland.     


When journalists are covering big stories involving the deaths of children, it's easy to get caught up in the chase. The result sometimes is reporting heavier on sensationalism than sensitivity.

In an effort to shift that balance, the Journalism Center on Children & Families on Monday unveiled When a Child Dies, an interactive online "training module" aimed at helping newsrooms do a better job when confronting this disturbing topic.

When a Child Dies offers "an online source that journalists and students who want to take a deep dive into the issue of child death can access for information, ideas, feedback and best practices," says Julie Drizin, editor of the module and director of JCCF, based at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland.

Drizin says the module grew out of a conversation between representatives of JCCF and its primary funder, the Annie E. Casey Foundation. "When a child dies in foster care or the child welfare system, their phones start to ring off the hook, and there can be a strong frenzy in the press to figure out what happened," Drizin says. "So part of what we both wanted to do was call attention to these tragedies and make sure that they are covered sensitively."

The module includes reflections from reporters who have covered child death stories and an interactive timeline chronicling notable deaths and policy developments, as well as multimedia resources offering guidance for established or emerging journalists dealing with this daunting subject. It includes sections on how to interview children, how to interview the families of dead children and how to write a child's obituary.

"It sounded really interesting," says Susan Greene, who worked with Drizin on the project. "Julie and I agreed that there are sensationalized stories that can seep into our culture just from poor reporting. A big part of my role was to choose the four journalists' reflections that would speak to people in understanding how they did their work and how they did it well."

Currently an editor and reporter at The Colorado Independent, a news and commentary Web site, Greene has 22 years of journalism experience, including 13 at the Denver Post. She covered both the Columbine and the Aurora mass shootings.

"Having worked in this stuff long enough, I know where common mistakes can be made and when a journalist could be more thoughtful," Greene says. "This report was about identifying spots for improvement."

Drizin turned to her own "gut instinct" in deciding what makes a useful educational resource. "I asked, 'What do people need to know in order to do a good job?' They need to know how to interview children and grieving parents. They need to know the causes of death for children of different race, age and gender groups and how to tell a story visually."

This is not the first time JCCF has curated a learning module on covering sensitive topics. In 2008, the center put together a similar resource, funded by the Ms. Foundation for Women, on how to cover sexual abuse. The module was recently updated to include the Jerry Sandusky case.

"Our attempt is to try to broaden the circle of learning beyond people who can afford the time and expense of in-person training." Drizin says, "I'm hoping journalists will get engaged in the conversation and give feedback and contribute their experiences, content ideas and questions to keep the module fresh and alive."

Going forward, Greene says she hopes the learning module will breed more thoughtfulness among journalists. "Because of deadline pressure or dynamics in the newsroom, too often journalists don't discuss how we do our work," she says. "We needed a forum in which we can come back and talk about approaches and timing. Journalism is an art more than a science, but a discussion needs to take place."

Drizin sees the module as a component of the center's commitment to disseminating insights on how to cover children and family issues.

"The first thing our new mission statement lists is that journalists do what we do by sharing best practices." Drizin says. "I'm hoping it will become something that news leaders and educators might share with their news staff, to say, 'Here is a resource for you to do stronger work.'"

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