— scott blanchard (@scott_blanchard) May 16, 2014
When traumatic stuff happens in a community, journalists are some of the first on the scene, along with the cops, fire fighters, paramedics and other emergency workers.
These tragic events that end and disrupt lives can propel a journalism career forward. The phrase “great story” invariably slips from some journalist’s lips (usually out of earshot of those for whom the trauma is evident). We often cover these stories, though, without a full understanding of what trauma is, how it works and its impact on those who experience trauma, including the journalists who cover it.
At a workshop for Digital First journalists this month in West Chester, Pa., Bruce Shapiro, executive director of the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, led an exploration of the uncomfortable issues of how we get great stories from tragic events and how we process the trauma that we experience.
Scott Blanchard and Jason Plotkin, York Daily Record journalists, organized the workshop and helped Shapiro lead it. They proposed this training to me after attending a Dart program as winners of honorable mention for a Dart Award for their coverage of the lasting impact of a violent, traumatic event. I supported their suggestion and Claire Gaval, Digital First Media’s Vice President of Learning and Organization Development, helped make it happen.
Scott blogged about the workshop yesterday. I was able to attend only the first of two days of training, and Bruce told participants the workshop would be off the record, to encourage people to talk freely. So I won’t blog much about the workshop itself (though I encourage others to consider holding similar workshops).
What I will do here is share some of my advice from years of reporting and editing on stories about disasters, murders, sexual and domestic abuse and other traumatic situations.
Some of these are tips or anecdotes I shared during the workshop. Others I thought of during the discussions but kept to myself because I thought it was more important for others to talk. I’m not on the front lines of our coverage of traumatic news, and the point of the workshop was to get those on the front lines talking, so they could learn from each other about covering these difficult events and about dealing with the personal impact of that coverage.
Interviewing trauma victims
In my reporting days, I talked to many grieving relatives, to survivors of rape, child abuse, genocide, domestic violence, disasters, war, refugee camps and terrorist attacks. I interviewed people about being molested as children and about molesting children. I interviewed them about abortions, addictions, firings, failures, discrimination, suicide and murder of loved ones, excommunication, sexual orientation and other personal and sometimes-secret matters. Some of those may not have met the medical definition of trauma, but all of them were difficult, personal topics that people don’t discuss readily or easily with strangers, especially strangers bearing notebooks, cameras or recording equipment.
Here’s some of my advice from more than 30 years covering stories of trauma as a reporter and editor:
Never say no for someone else. This is one of my cardinal rules of journalism (and life) and I’ve mentioned it multiple times in this blog. It especially applies to interviews about trauma. You will assume (and often be right) that the disaster survivor or grieving mother won’t want to talk to you. But it’s her story, not yours. Tell her you’d like to tell it. When she says yes, respect that she has honored you and tell her story well. When she says no, respect that decision and offer to tell it at a later date if she wants to.
Listen. Active listening is always an important interviewing skill. It grows in importance when interviewing people who have experienced trauma. I’m not saying that questions don’t matter, but the questions you ask probably contribute no more than 10 to 20 percent of the success of an interview. Your listening skills can contribute to 50 to 80 percent of the success of an interview, especially if it’s about a traumatic matter. (Yes, those don’t necessarily add to 100 percent; other factors such as setting also contribute.) You can ask exactly the right question and never get the right answer unless you’re listening well. But if you’re listening well, a character will answer questions you didn’t know enough to ask.
Share control. Reporters like to be in control during an interview. But a troubling part of many traumatic experiences is the loss of control during the event that caused you to want to interview the person. The more you yield control in the interview, you better the interview is likely to be (though the character is not likely to get to the important stuff as quickly as you would prefer).
Be flexible on recording and taking notes. Some characters will be intimidated by recording equipment or cameras or even notebooks. Assure them of your desire to quote them accurately and get your facts straight, and sometimes that will make them comfortable with your tools. But sometimes an initial conversation without a recorder or camera, or in an extreme case without a notebook, can help you build the trust for an on-the-record or on-camera interview. I once had a source who wasn’t sure she would go on the record. I turned off my tape recorder, then she asked me to take a long walk without taking notes. She told me in great detail about the circumstances surrounding her best friend’s murder, and actually took me by the friend’s apartment and where the body was found. I never quoted her because she never went on the record and I couldn’t take notes (though I remember one quote more than 20 years later). But our conversation/walk without my notebook was the key to my story and helped me get other interviews and understand the context for what other people told me.
Be willing to negotiate names. In interviewing many survivors of childhood sexual abuse, I learned that quite a few of them had changed their names, some because of marriage, but I talked to more than one man who had changed his name, which probably says something about sexual abuse. I got some of those people to agree to speak for the record if I identified them by their birth names (and noted that they had changed names and that I wasn’t using their current names). For some survivors of sexual abuse, we agreed to identify them by a middle name or a childhood nickname (and say that’s what we were doing). I won’t use fictional names, but I’m willing to protect the privacy of people whose trauma I want to write about.
Let the character choose the setting. Where and when you interview make a huge difference in the effectiveness of interviews about difficult topics. Some people will be most comfortable talking in their own homes. Others will feel like you’re intruding if you talk in their homes. You can suggest a possible location, but ask the character where she would like to be interviewed and respect her wishes. A rolling interview can be effective: starting in a person’s place of business, then going out to dinner or lunch and finally ending up at the person’s home (the familiarity and rapport you build earlier in the rolling interview minimize the intrusion of coming into the home as a stranger). Many will not want to go to the place of the crime or the traumatic event. Suggest it, but don’t insist on it.
Find the “Walmart sack.” As I explained in an earlier post about an interview with a domestic abuse survivor, people have things (photos, journals, letters, videos, etc.) that can tell their stories (or parts of the stories) better than they can. Learn what those things are and get the character to trust you with them. Objects relating to the story can also trigger memories, emotions and anecdotes that will give you a better interview.
Seek verification. Every person’s perspective is limited and every person’s memory is flawed, even the vivid memories of important events. Without saying that you don’t trust someone, ask for ways to help you verify what someone is saying: journals or emails at the time that might give you fresher memories, videos that might provide confirmation (or more detail) of a person’s account of events, eyewitnesses, official accounts.
Use third parties. Some people won’t respond directly to your request for an interview. But you might be able to reach a family member, pastor, funeral director, neighbor or co-worker to help you land an interview. I spent 10 months cultivating a niece of the domestic abuse survivor I mentioned above before finally landing the interview.
Consider unusual arrangements. In some difficult interviews, I have (with my editors’ agreement) given characters unusual latitude in deciding the terms of an interview. I have let people decide after the interview whether it would be on the record. I have promised to read a finished draft of a story to a character before publication (making clear that I would decide how the story was written; the technique caught mistakes but never a prompted a substantive rewrite).
Welcome a wingman (or woman). Often a person you are interviewing about something traumatic will want a friend, relative or counselor along for moral support. Welcome them. Some will interfere with your interview and you will need to deal with that. Most will support the character and help you have a better interview. A few will be good interview subjects themselves. I remember an instance where the woman who came along for moral support actually gave me a much better interview than her friend.
A good story is worth waiting for. As mentioned above, one of my best stories came after cultivating a source, through her niece, for more than 10 months. For various reasons (some my editors’ fault, some perhaps my fault), we didn’t pursue Nebraska angles to the Oklahoma City bombing as aggressively as we should have after it happened in 1995. Six years later, as Timothy McVeigh’s execution approached, I was able to tell the stories of people with Nebraska ties who died in the bombing. They were good stories to tell even six years later (and some people who talked to me then might not have talked immediately).
Ask about them, not just about what happened to them. I seldom start the interview with the awful stuff. I start out asking the mundane. I want to know about the person’s life, not just to make small talk, but to give me understanding and to provide context for my story. They seem to appreciate the context and the recognition that the person is more than just a victim. I will talk about family, school, work and such things before we get to the trauma. Often it is the character who steers the interview toward the trauma. When he’s ready, and when I have some context.
If they ask about you, answer. Some people will ask about you. That’s OK. It says they see you as human and they are more likely to share their deeply human stories with you if they see some of your humanity. Don’t say that you understand. You are seeking to understand. But if you acknowledge some challenges and tragedies in your own life, you make a human connection that will help you have a better interview. Showing your humanity doesn’t obligate someone to reveal themselves to you: I told you about my cancer; now you have to tell me about your rape. In fact, you shouldn’t liken your experiences to theirs (even if you’ve experienced something horrible). Even though trauma follows pattern, each trauma is unique to each person who experiences it, and likening your experience to someone else’s is likely to come off as minimizing the horrible truth they are trying to absorb and handle. But a human connection is critical to getting a good interview about traumatic experiences. And human connection comes from small talk (Did you go to the same university? Do you have children the same age?) and from personal talk about the difficulties you have faced. If the character wants to go there, tell some of your story, then shift the conversation back to their story.
Dealing with your trauma
I’m not going to contend that I endured trauma as profound as journalists who have covered some of the worst stories of journalism: war, mass murder, terrorism. But I’ve covered stories that haunted me. Some advice on dealing with those stories:
Talk about your emotions. The notion that journalists should be “objective” (a misguided notion, as I’ve noted before) feeds a notion that we should act like objects. We’re not objects; we’re people. And people are affected by the traumatic things we see and hear about. Talk with an editor, a colleague, a spouse, a friend or a counselor about the stories that affect you emotionally. Sometimes articulating your feelings helps you take the edge off them. If not, it will alert someone to watch for signs that you’re not dealing well with your own second-hand trauma.
Exercise. Working out is always a good idea. It’s a really good idea after you’ve had a difficult interview. Whether you run, walk, play basketball, hit a racquetball or do yoga, physical release can help you release some of the tension of the trauma you shared.
Enjoy. Do something you enjoy, whether that’s playing with your children, taking a walk or drive in a beautiful place or enjoying a romantic getaway with your spouse or lover.
Follow-up. You don’t have to develop long-term friendships with the people whose traumatic stories you tell. But you shouldn’t be a hit-and-run journalist either. Touch base after your story runs or after the interview but before the story runs or both. Your interview or your story might have triggered some memories or research (or conversations with others) that might make your story better or might provide follow-up stories. Maybe you’ll just feel better watching someone’s condition improve (and maybe that’s a follow-up story). This isn’t guaranteed to make you feel better. You might learn that your interview or story triggered nightmares. That’s tough to hear. But you need to learn the cost of this kind of journalism. I believe on balance that following up helps journalists feel better about how we exploit people who have endured trauma.
It’s OK to act human. I have cried and laughed with the characters I have interviewed. I hugged a woman who was absolutely distraught, on her knees on the floor, embracing a large portrait of her dead daughter. Don’t let your emotions take over the interview, but don’t stifle your humanity.
Seek help. If a story takes too much of a toll on you, talk to your editor at least, and probably to a counselor. Take a break from work (or from serious stories) if you need to.
Advice from Bruce Shapiro
The workshop was off the record, so I’m not quoting any of the other participants, but Bruce has agreed that I can publish these pieces of insight and advice he offered:
- Hostile or inconsistent management is a risk factor for journalists showing post-traumatic stress disorder.
- “One of the hardest and most important things for trauma reporting to do is admit complexity.”
- Distress and trauma aren’t the same thing. Be careful that the distress you’re worried about is your subject’s and not your own.
- Sleep is highly associated with resilience and sleeplessness is highly associated with PTSD symptoms.
- Build into every day some time to do “something that gets you away from that story.”
- “Pace your trauma load.”
- “Really beware of isolation” (also beware of isolation in appraisal of your work). Isolation a powerful risk factor for psychological injury.
- “Embrace connection.” Social connection is the best predictor of resilience in the face of trauma.
- Untreated PTSD is among the most persistent psychological disorders, also one of the most successfully treatable.
- “Suffering in silence is the one thing you don’t want to do.”
Related posts from my blog
Getting personal, my old workshop handout on getting and telling intimate stories.
Updated lessons from old stories: Check for video documentation, a happy story, but the lesson about checking for documentation and memories being fallible applies to trauma reporting, too.
Resources from the Dart Center and elsewhere
Victims and the Media Program, Michigan State University
Eric Nalder’s Loosening Lips is geared for interviews in investigative journalism, but some of the techniques, but many of the techniques, particularly the “slow motion” suggestion, are helpful in interviews relating to trauma (but don’t push that if a trauma survivor isn’t emotionally ready to interview in that detail).
What other links should I add that are helpful for journalists covering trauma (or dealing with their own trauma)? What are tips you have from your experience in covering stories of trauma.
— Markell DeLoatch (@markellPO) May 15, 2014