By Kathleen Shannon
Jan Winburn, this semester’s T. Anthony Pollner Professor, says most journalists will likely report on trauma at some point in their careers. That reporting, in turn, can be traumatic for journalists.
She’s now teaching a class, called “The Worst Day Ever: Writing About Trauma,” which aims to help UM students report on trauma both accurately and compassionately. She’s also advising the students at the independent student-run newspaper at UM, the Montana Kaimin.
While at home in Atlanta, Jan teaches in the University of Georgia’s MFA program in narrative nonfiction writing. Previously, she’s worked at The Baltimore Sun, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Hartford Courant and she spent a decade leading an investigative reporting team at CNN.
UM Journalism graduate student Kathleen Shannon sat down with Jan last week to learn more about her. The following is a lightly-edited transcription of their conversation.
Q: When did you get interested in trauma reporting?
A: I think probably a few years after the biggest trauma that had occurred in my life, which was the death of my brother in an airplane crash. That’s when I really got interested in: how do you talk to people who’ve been through the worst day of their life? And what actually happens after the worst day of their life? That’s what interests me most.
Q: Why do you think it’s important for young journalists to learn about trauma reporting?
A: I think it’s important for young journalists to learn about trauma reporting because very likely, in their first jobs, they’ll be thrown into a situation where they have to report on a fatal car wreck, a drowning, [or] someone losing their home in a wildfire. These are things that are traumatic experiences for people and for young journalists it can be traumatic for them, as well–even secondarily. So it’s good for them to know not only how to approach those interviews but also what impact it might have on them.
Q: What work from your career are you most proud of?
A: That’s really hard because I have to single out one reporter and I’ve worked with so many who’ve done tremendous work. I think a very recent thing I did just comes to mind because it was a young reporter. I worked on contract for an Atlanta newspaper to work with a reporter who basically solved a 40-year-old double murder. The wrong man was in prison, so [the writer] got him exonerated and he pointed the way to the probable suspect. Basically, they’d overlooked this guy because they thought his alibi checked out and the reporter just completely took apart the alibi. So, now that person is under investigation by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation and I think sometime not too far away will probably be arrested for that murder. But, the other guy is out of prison for the first time in 30 years. And the reporter, I must mention, is a guy named Joshua Sharpe. He won the Livingston Award for Young Journalists for local reporting for that story this year and then he also just won a Murrow Award for it. So, I mention that one because it’s just so extraordinary that you have that kind of fairly immediate impact with a story. But, also because Joshua is 34 years old and if you look at the winners of the Livingston Award over history, those are the who’s who of journalism–people whose names you know today. I think it just took such extraordinary effort and belief in [himself], really, that [he] was onto something. It’s called “The Imperfect Alibi” it was published by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Q: What do you think of Montana and the University so far?
A: Well, this morning I was walking my dog and there were police cars with sirens on my street and I was like, “what’s going on?” and it was a bear! They were chasing a bear out of the neighborhood. I was so excited! It ran right past me and my dog! It was 12 or 13 feet away. It was exciting, right? So, I’m in love already with this state and this town and this campus. I mean, it’s so beautiful and people are friendly. I went up to Glacier [National Park] for a few days before school started and I really scored big for my first visit to Glacier: I saw a moose and a bear! So, this was actually my second bear, but this one was much closer. So far, I love it. And the students have really been impressive. People are really passionate about why they’re in this J-School and what they’re wanting to do with their lives.
The Pollner Professorship, which brings nationally-renowned working journalists to the University of Montana School of Journalism each semester, was established to honor the memory of Anthony Pollner, a 1999 graduate of the School of Journalism. After Anthony died in an accident in May 2001, his friends and family created an endowment that makes this professorship possible. In 2014, friends and family expanded the endowment to allow a distinguished professorship in both fall and spring semesters.