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YDR staffers use new video to focus on trauma journalism challenges

When I read a blog post from the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma about a new video called “Getting it Right: Ethical Reporting on Traumatized People,” the words of Roger Membrey, an Australian man whose daughter had been murdered, hit me squarely:

“Look, we are not a commodity. Our daughter is not a commodity and her murder is not a commodity. These are real-life situations and trauma and we just feel we should be talked to by journalists in a way that is a discussion that is not going to impinge on our right to grieve.”

Out of his family’s pain comes powerful insight for every journalist who writes about a traumatic event or interviews a trauma survivor.

The YDR has a long history of working hard to respect survivors who want to tell their stories, and those who don’t. Our relationship with the Dart Center has deepened our knowledge of and commitment to best practices in coverage of trauma and conflict. In the past week, staffers have covered a murder-suicide in Springettsbury Township, a murder in Wrightsville, the death of an on-duty fire policeman, and the suicide of a man in Hopewell Township.

This week, reporters and editors who are often involved in such coverage watched the 20-minute video (you can see it below) and then discussed what resonated with, and what challenged, how we handle these most difficult assignments.

What resonated?

  • the importance of getting the facts right — the spelling of a name, for example.
  • the idea that the survivor knows where the line is about when he or she wants to talk, and no longer wants to talk.
  • be human (be honestly empathetic; be respectful).
  • look at the situation from outside yourself; understand the role you are playing in the survivor’s life at that moment.
  • tell the story of how someone survived; ask what their story is.
  • do research, if possible, before talking to someone.
  • let a survivor know what to expect from what you are doing — that the story will be in print and online, that it will be on social media, and so on.
  • report for depth and seek more than one voice to tell, for example, the story of someone who died in a car crash.

What challenged us?

  • some survivors want to review a finished story before it runs. News organizations generally don’t do that because it raises the possibility that subjects of a story will attempt to influence how the story is written. We know from our training with the Dart Center that one way a journalist can help a survivor tell her story is to give her some control over the process. So, try to find a compromise: For example, review with the survivor the key facts of the story and how the story is put together.
  • a survivor (and journalist) in the video suggests giving the story subject the opportunity to change his mind about participating in the story. Journalists generally do that early in the story process and during the interviewing phase, but may be more reluctant to do so once the story is finished and ready to publish. Journalists could consider changing that approach when dealing with trauma survivors.
  • a key part of the video is about the “media scrum,” when, during a high-profile incident, many journalists surround a survivor in a public place, such as outside a courtroom. How do we handle the scrum differently and better? A YDR reporter talked about a recent incident in which he hung back from the media crowd, and when it dispersed, he approached the person and asked for an interview. The person appreciated the respectful gesture and talked with the reporter.

We’ll keep digging in to issues about trauma journalism. These kinds of discussions, where staff comes together to talk about what works and what we can do better, are vital in helping us improve at a difficult and important part of our job.