November 6th, 2009
02:46 PM ET

The echoing pain of traumatic news events

By Caleb Hellerman
CNN Medical Senior Producer

Yesterday I gave a short talk at a meeting for psychologists and others who work with people suffering from psychological trauma. Our panel was about how the media handles stories about mental illness. It’s a topic that felt especially poignant a few hours later, when a gunman shot and killed at least a dozen soldiers at Ft. Hood, a U.S. Army post in Texas. The alleged gunman: a military psychiatrist. At this point we don’t know what led to the shooting – was it a premeditated terrorist attack? A case of workplace rage? Was the gunman unhinged by fear of his upcoming deployment? Did he suffer some kind of a breakdown after hearing too many stories from traumatized soldiers?

Those are mysteries we’ll have to unravel in the coming days. What’s clear is that many people at Ft. Hood – a virtual city of more than 30,000 people – have just been through a terrifying experience. That doesn’t mean they'll develop a pathological condition – like post-traumatic stress disorder – but especially if they witnessed the shootings or lost loved ones, they are at risk for lasting problems.

Beyond that, news coverage of a violent event can itself be deeply painful for readers and viewers, especially if they’re trying to recover from an unrelated trauma of their own. At our panel yesterday, people raised some issues that I hadn’t much thought about. Reader comments, for instance. Two clinicians pointed out that people sometimes post hurtful comments online, which can re-traumatize the people being written about – for example, a rape victim in a crime story.  A handful of news organizations, including CNN, moderate message boards and eliminate comments that are overtly offensive or full of profanity. But one very animated audience member – he described himself as a former reporter – said that’s not nearly enough. He thinks it’s a disgrace that any news organization would publish anonymous reader comments – that it only encourages damaging words.

What do you think? How should news outlets like CNN strike a balance between telling the story, getting feedback from you and not making life worse for the people we cover?

About this blog

Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.