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A reporter revisits the fundamentals for series on childhood trauma in D.C. schools

A reporter revisits the fundamentals for series on childhood trauma in D.C. schools

Picture of Jonetta Barras

One of the things I learned very early in my career as a journalist was this: There is always more to the story than what appears on the surface. That essential philosophy is what sent me searching for the answer to a simple question: What was happening to the young people in Washington, D.C., that was causing many them to miss an excessive amount of days from school?

Truth be told, I don’t think I would have even asked that question were it not for the controversy around the city’s public high school graduation rate. News reports I read had failed to provide the crucial why. While I wanted to fully appreciate the issue, I didn’t make a move to help solve the mystery. Instead, I remained ensconced in my cave, mostly writing opinion articles about public policies and, since I am being honest, throwing spitballs from the sidelines.

I can’t tell you what, exactly, catapulted me out of my complacency. Perhaps I was annoyed that no one was serving the answer to my question. Eventually, I left my cave. I was, I reminded myself, a reporter. I began asking questions and sought data. Those preliminary findings prompted me to apply for the 2018 National Fellowship.

That adage — a little bit of information can be dangerous — is true. After doing my cursory review of the landscape, I was certain I knew what was happening. Two days into the Center’s training program in July 2018, I knew I had been rudely awakened. I knew I didn’t know nearly enough, and that the answer to my question was far more complex than I had ever imagined.

I knew trauma was playing a starring role in public school absenteeism in Washington, D.C. I had no idea of the frightening levels of trauma being experienced by children in the city or across the nation.

As I reported my fellowship project — “Between Academic Success and Failure: Unresolved Trauma” and my community engagement project, which included a three-part print series, a community forum and a television special, I came to this most disturbing conclusion: the District of Columbia, like most urban areas, was focused on the trauma caused by gun violence. Each day, however, thousands of children are experiencing trauma and toxic stress unrelated to guns. They are experiencing it in their homes and in their schools.

Fortunately, I eventually was able to make that point. Getting the data, I needed, and finding the people who could offer greater insight, was not easy, however.

I began by asking multiple agencies that had health or mental health-related programs the same questions and for copies of similar data. I hit a roadblock almost immediately, with the spokesperson for the deputy mayor of education stepping in to run interference. Using a previously established relationship with the deputy mayor for health and human services, I was able to get much of the information I sought, comparing it with data provided by the education official. Leaders from the public schools and the Office of the State Superintendent promised to respond but didn’t. I persevered, returning to their door repeatedly, hoping to persuade them to participate, and drilling down in the data I had been provided. It was a reminder of an early lesson I learned when I first became a journalist: Never give up or getting tired of asking for what you need to perform your job as a reporter.

I cross-referenced every piece of information I received from the District government, checking facts from one agency against those provided by another. I combed websites for consistencies and inconsistencies. I also evaluated how government officials framed the issue with what had been said or written by representatives from national organizations at work on trauma.

I also had a great group of advocates who helped me fill in the gaps, as did teachers and parents. Many of them had been pleading for the District government to take the issue of trauma more seriously. They welcomed my arrival and provided me what I needed to establish a foundation for the series I wrote, which offered insight into what was working, what wasn’t working and what the local government needed to do to end — or at the very least reduce — childhood trauma in the nation’s capital.

I must confess that as I got deeper into what was happening locally, I was somewhat embarrassed that I hadn’t seen the prevalence of trauma in the city. I should have. After all, I grew up without my father. My single mother consistently struggled with having enough money to buy food, to pay rent, to give my siblings and I some of the material pleasures of childhood. My teen years were spent in one of the most notorious public housing complexes in the country. The Desire Project in New Orleans, Lousiana, belied its name; there was nothing desirable about it, except that it prevented many low-income families from being homeless. Soon after graduating high school and as I prepared to go off to college, I realized I was pregnant and unmarried. I was 18 years old.

For years, I struggled to steady my life, to find the path to success. If the Adverse Childhood Experiences Study had been conducted back then, I certainly would have had an alarming score.

Despite that personal history, I initially failed to recognize those conditions in the lives of District children. While I may not have identified such adversities during my childhood and youth as traumatic, I knew they had wreaked measurable havoc in my life. Still, I did not make the connection.

The second lesson was that there is always, always more to learn about an issue. The third revelation I had as I worked on the trauma project was that I had forgotten we have more in common with each other than we don’t. That fact — the commonality between us — when solidly anchored and properly deployed in journalism, is what helps connect journalists with the individuals we are covering — individuals who have stories that are instructive to others, stories that provide empathy and that empower.

Perhaps if I had come to that realization sooner than later, I may not have had the difficulty I did connecting with the community of youth I needed to tell my story. When I began the work, I reached out to established community-based groups. Many of the leaders were people I knew. While they promised to introduce me to individual students and youth, none materialized. I have yet to discern what made them reluctant. Perhaps they did not trust that I would handle the children’s stories with care. Maybe they thought I would be your typical reporter, parachuting in, creating havoc, and leaving as soon as the byline was published.

There is often some truth to that perception. Distance, we have been told, is necessary to be objective in our reporting. Objectivity can be overrated, particularly with a story about childhood trauma.

Fortunately, brainstorming with my senior fellow mentor and my community engagement adviser, I developed ideas for overcoming those obstacles and managed to connect with students, teachers and others who took me inside their world. It was a world that some did not want others to know they traversed; a world that others were afraid they lived in; a world others were trying to change but had lost hope in ever improving it and the children who lived there.

When I connected with young people who were traumatized and listened to their stories, I knew they were not unsalvageable people, unworthy of the public’s time or attention, undeserving of the taxpayers and the government’s investment in their futures. I knew, too, that a slow and consistent destruction of childhood in America is in process. That destruction was happening in plain sight.

I came to recognize that for decades I had summarized problems in D.C.’s public schools as emanating from a poor curriculum, poor teaching and insufficient funding. Those were aspects of the larger problem. Working on my fellowship project forced me see and touch the trees. No, I mean really touch them: to see the bark, peeling, brittle; to see the soil that had not been watered; to see the battered leaves lining the ground.

It reminded me of an experience I had had years ago as a writer for a weekly newspaper — The Washington City Paper. I had just left daily reporting and was now at an institution that valued writing more. I was, however, still primarily focused on getting the facts. The editor at the paper sent me out to cover a story involving a morbidly obese man who could not get to the hospital because he couldn’t get ambulance service. I went to the man’s house and spoke with him. I returned to write and file my story. I was pretty satisfied with what I had written.

My editor called me into his office; he asked me about the color of the walls in the room where the man’s bed was located, was there any art work, the view from his bed, which was in the living room. These essential elements were not included in the story. I could not recall those details with any specificity. It took me three trips back to that house to satisfy my editor.

That man was more than just someone stuck in a bed. He had a made a world for himself from that vantage, which I needed to help readers to see and understand in order to appreciate his dilemma.

Working on my trauma series reminded me of the importance of the details. Getting into the weeds, deep into the forest, is critical.

Children were arriving at school deeply wounded. They returned the next day with those wounds aggravated by what had happened in their home and in their communities. What did those wounds look like? What kind of bandages did the children create for themselves in order to navigate the world? As Davon Harris, a senior at Richard Wright Public Charter School in Journalism and Media, put it, “We each walk around with secrets, with private traumas.” I didn’t want to distance myself from their reality nor did I want to enable readers to put the paper down and walk away without having some kind of emotional response.

That last fact, retaining an emotional level of involvement, made the reporting somewhat difficult. There was so much material that never made it into the story. So many individual stories that could not be condensed, without cheating the storyteller, without in some way diminishing the story. There were times, far too many, where I found myself fighting my editor in order to remain faithful to the project I had proposed. I know we journalists sometimes find ourselves in fights with our editors, even on ordinary stories. The big ones, the ones where we are hoping to truly inform, enlighten and perhaps alter circumstances require a willingness, I think, to go to those proverbial mattresses. So, the fifth lesson: Don’t back down from a fight over the mission of the work.

Equally important, however, is to make sure you are actually battling for the story you intended. In other words, it’s important not to get lost in the story.

This supposed to be an essay about lessons learned from the field. The ones I have highlighted earlier are those that will most stick with me. They seem so basic to the work of journalism, and yet I realized as I worked through the project that I had either forgotten these fundamentals or I had compromised so many times in the course of my career that I may have been only half-committed to them.

There were, of course, many teachable moments. For example, social media can be a very effective tool in locating individuals and following the crumbs they provide to make additional connections. When I hit that brick wall and was so frustrated by my inability to find the kind of student or family I wanted, my fellowship adviser pushed me to use Facebook, Linkedin and other social media sites. I received responses from two parents who led me to others, and they led me to still others. Most of us know this but may not take advantage of this option as frequently as we should.

When a report requires the person being interviewed to excavate parts of their lives, patience is paramount. Sometimes no means no. Sometimes no means give me a minute to think about it. Always leave the door open for a reluctant source to return.

The facts for human interest stories are important, obviously. But helping readers fully understand the meaning of those facts, the consequences of those facts in their own lives, in their families, in their communities, is what can drive change. Readers who feel personally invested do more than write letters to the editors.

I am unsure that any of the insights or lessons I learned will help anyone else walking this road in the future. I hope it will. Maybe it’s just enough to know that other journalists seeking to tell these personal stories stumble and fall. We pick ourselves up and continue our journey, knowing the most important thing is that we tried to help people see what we saw, and care enough to improve the lives of those who may be suffering.

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U.S. children and teens have struggled with increasing rates of depression, anxiety and suicidal behavior for much of the past decade. Join us as we explore the systemic causes and policy failures that have accelerated the crisis and its inequitable impact, as well as promising community-driven approaches and evidence-based practices. The webinar will provide fresh ideas for reporting on the mental health of youth and investigating the systems and services. Sign-up here!

The USC Center for Health Journalism at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism is seeking two Engagement Editors and a social media consultant to join its team. Learn more about the positions and apply.


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