Faculty Q&A: Fall ’21 Pollner Prof Jan Winburn on Traumatic Reporting

By Kathleen Shannon

Fall 2021 T. Anthony Pollner Professor Jan Winburn stands outside Don Anderson Hall on the University of Montana campus. Winburn is teaching a seminar on trauma and reporting this fall and advising the student newspaper, the Montana Kaimin. Photo 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. 

Q&A With Podcast Superstar Nora Saks, MA: ‘You Can Be Pretty Creative About What You Do With This Degree’

Nora Saks is the host and reporter for MTPR’s podcast, The Richest Hill which, follows the past, present and future of a famous Superfund site in Butte, MT. The podcast was named one of the “Best Podcasts of 2019,” by The New Yorker magazine and it has become popular in and outside of Montana.

Nora Saks graduated from the University of Montana’s School of Journalism with her MA in Environmental Science and Natural Resource Journalism and Richest Hill was born out of her master’s thesis.

Graduate student Sierra Cistone chatted with her about the podcast and her time in graduate school. An edited transcript of the conversation follows.

Nora Saks is the host and reporter for MTPR’s podcast, Richest Hill photo credit: Grant Clark

What made you want to pursue a MA in journalism?

I spent about a decade almost as an organic farmer … and I think over time I realized I was interested in subjects like food justice and farming, but really what I enjoyed more than anything was listening to the farmers and hearing about their life experiences and backgrounds. And, that mostly got me interested in storytelling.

Eventually, I realized, ‘what is a job I could do that would let me keep learning, would let me talk to lots of people and walk a few steps in their shoes and have all kinds of adventures but do it with a purpose?’ And, I think that’s ultimately what led me into journalism.

Is there a class that was really helpful for practicing skills that you use today?

I remember Investigative Reporting being pretty helpful … that was when we had just the worst smoke season and Seeley Lake was just inundated with wildfire smoke. I am pretty interested in public health and environmental justice. So, Joe Eaton who is the instructor of that, taught us some good investigative reporting and research basics and then I decided to focus on the health impacts of prolonged exposure to wildfire smoke. I think having that class was a baseline for doing that work and I ended up getting two stories on NPR that were born in that class.

How did your idea for Richest Hill get started?

When I was reporting the radio documentary for my master’s it was on a much smaller piece of this puzzle. That was what my project [master’s thesis] was on and throughout that process of reporting that for months I realized “oh there are a lot of things happening right now in Butte around Superfund, not just what this activist group is focused on.” 

And, that’s what made us think, “oh this is a much bigger story…”

What was one of the biggest take-aways from the early episodes of producing Richest Hill?

There were a lot of people involved but I think some of the people who showed up in some of the early episodes come back. You never really know if you’re doing a project like this, who you are going to want to come back to and who might end up being a bigger presence.

So, I think keeping those relationships for your sources solid and up to date and as trustworthy as you can is pretty important if you are doing a long project.

Nora Saks interviews Mark Thompson with Montana Resources for Richest Hill. Courtesy photo.

What would you say to anyone considering pursuing a graduate degree in environmental journalism at UM?

For me the people and the relationships that came with those other students and the faculty — I probably didn’t really appreciate fully at the time and I’m only now beginning to understand how vital they are. 

I guess to anyone who’s worried about putting themselves in a box by doing this degree, I would say you don’t need to worry about that… Having an area of specialty or expertise is really useful and the coursework I did in school, as well as the research I did on my own in reporting, I think it’s actually really broad and kind of exciting in that way..

I think there are a lot of directions you can go with it and you don’t need to worry about getting pigeonholed and you can be pretty creative about what you do with this degree.

 

Q&A with Parker Seibold, ’17: Breaking Into Breaking News

Parker Seibold spent 2020 covering COVID-19, California’s fires, reopening of schools and other daily news for the Monterey County Weekly. Seibold graduated from the J-School in the Spring of 2017 and found an internship at the Missoula Independent the summer after school and later worked for the Missoulian. In a recent Q&A with graduate student Sierra Cistone, Seibold explained that her journey into being a hard news reporter was not something she had planned while still at the J-School.

An edited transcript of the conversation follows.

Did you plan to be a breaking news reporter when you were in the J-School?

I did not. Breaking news always kind of stressed me out and I felt like I would never be good at it. I wanted to work on feature stories and anything I could spend a lot of time on. Now, I love breaking news and I think some of my strongest work comes from news assignments. 

What have you learned about covering breaking news through your work at the Monterey County Weekly?

I’ve learned a lot about how to be prepared to cover breaking news, especially wildfires. But I primarily cover more basic news because we are a weekly. I try to have all of my equipment easily accessible pretty much all the time. I also have a better grasp on how to do quick research about something so I can have a basic understanding of what is happening and know who I should be talking to when I get to an assignment. Knowing how to get that information makes a big difference in how efficiently I can cover breaking news. 

The Dolan Fire in Monterey County, CA. Photo courtesy of Parker Seibold.

What made you first interested in photojournalism?

I’ve always been interested in photojournalism. I think I was interested in it before I even really understood what it was. I always loved looking at, and felt I connected with, photos in magazines like National Geographic. I first said I wanted to be a photojournalist when I was in the fourth grade and got my first camera around the age or 12 or 13. From there my understanding of and love for visual storytelling grew. 

Covering schools reopening after COVID-19 lockdowns in Monterey, CA. Photo courtesy of Parker Seibold.

How did the J-School prepare you for the work you do now?

Exactly how their motto says they would. I learned by doing. The J-School and the professors there have high expectations of students and want you to go out and do journalism for a reason. They’re preparing you for the real world which is competitive and fast-paced. 

Covering COVID-19 in hospitals in Monterey County, CA. Photo courtesy of Parker Seibold.