Editor’s note: You can listen to and download Jan Winburn’s full lecture on Soundcloud here. You can also listen to the full lecture here or with the video below.
By Kathleen Shannon
Jan Winburn, this semester’s T. Anthony Pollner Distinguished Professor, understands why people may be feeling burned out on the news.
“I was not surprised to learn that the word ‘doom scrolling’ was added to the Oxford American Dictionary in 2020,” she said to a crowd of about eighty students, professors and community members in the University Center Theater on Monday, September 27.
But, in her lecture titled “Don’t Tune Out: How the Barrage of Bad News can Make You a Better Person,” she said there may be benefits to staying engaged.
“Research shows that the traumatic and the tragic are avenues to connection and compassion. And what do we need more in this polarized world?” she asked.
Winburn’s interest in trauma reporting began on the worst day of her own life — when she learned her brother, Jim, had died in a military plane crash.
She was at the start of her own career in journalism when she was interviewed by a journalist about her loss.
“[The journalist] was in pursuit of a story like so many, a headline that marks an ending. It was the ending of a search, the end of my brother’s life and the end of our hope. But sometime after that day, and the years that followed, I began to understand personally and as a journalist, that where every headline marks an ending, a new beginning was about to unfold,” she said. “And those were the stories I became interested in telling.”
Frank Ochberg, founder of the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, calls this reporting “Act Two” journalism — “Act One” as the witnessing, “Act Two” as reporting on what comes after. Winburn said this is where journalists have the opportunity to report in a “better and more humane way.”
Act Two journalism “is often the product of what I call ‘slow journalism,’ in which a reporter can give survivors time to process what has happened to them, and perhaps make some sense of it,” Winburn said.
“Let me be clear, these stories do not deny or erase the suffering. But telling them seems [as] important as bringing you the news. They give a fuller, more balanced account of human trauma and recovery. They convey complexity and subtlety. They aren’t just informational. They are experiential. They touch the heart, as well as the head,” Winburn said.
“Sometimes the story can be told within days of a tragedy. More often it takes weeks, months or years. This type of storytelling has its own effect on readers, listeners and viewers. Research has shown that the more information the brain absorbs about a person, the more empathy grows for that person. In other words, deeply told narrative stories—stories that put you in someone’s shoes—can spark feelings of empathy,” she said.
Winburn referred to the work of Harvard professor and social scientist, Arthur Brooks, who has said some people who have been through trauma may later experience “post-traumatic growth.”
“We’ve all known somebody who’s gone through some terrible trial, and yet, says: ‘that was the worst time in my life and it was the best time in my life.’ They’ve survived a devastating trauma, but they report feeling transformed: changed in some positive way,” Winburn said.
Winburn witnessed that very phenomenon in her own family in 2009. Thirty years after her brother Jim died, an Air Force friend of his called Winburn’s family to tell them about the recent local effort to clean up the crash site where Jim had died, which was high up in the Utah mountains. The work crew had found a watch, the owner of which they could identify by a serial number.
It was Jim’s.
Winburn, her parents, and her brother, Jack, took a trip to visit the site two years later. They were guided by locals and followed a GPS to find the exact site — a scar on the mountain still visible after three decades. The family left a small, granite marker on the site. Winburn said she was comforted by the beauty of the place.
“The next morning at breakfast in the hotel, my mother recalled being awakened in the middle of the night on December 3, 1977,” Winburn said. “My father [had been] traveling and she was home alone when the two Air Force officers knocked on the door. My dad listened quietly. He’d always regretted not being there with my mother in that awful moment.”
“But soon, he was caught up in his own reverie. He replayed for us every moment of our journey from Georgia to Utah and Nevada, to the Goshute Reservation, to the peak known as Haystack Mountain. It was, he told us, one of the best days ever.”
Winburn encouraged listeners to curate their news by looking for these “Act Two” journalism stories:
“Students who graduated from this university, people who teach here or have taught here, and students learning the ropes today: they tell these stories. Or, they will. Because these are the stories that matter.”
The Pollner professorship was created in 2001 by the family and friends of T. Anthony Pollner, a 1999 School of Journalism alumnus who died in a motorcycle accident. You can learn more about the professorship here. Winburn is the 28th Pollner professor at the School of Journalism. You can read more about Winburn’s background in Kathleen Shannon’s recent Q&A with her.
Kathleen Shannon is a first-year graduate student in the School of Journalism’s Environmental Science and Natural Resource Journalism Master’s program.