My Wishes for the Practice of Journalism Around Trauma

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by Maria Murriel

As I’ve worked through the Traumatic Stress Studies certificate program, I’ve repackaged my observations and learnings into workshops and talks for journalists interested in practicing “trauma-informed” journalism. I place the term in quotation marks because my time studying with the Trauma Research Foundation has solidified my belief that there should be no other type of journalism. That’s why in this post, I’ll outline my wishes for the way journalism is practiced now, and in the future, as someone with intentional understanding of trauma.

Less intrusive breaking news

My workshops are about reimagining the way we practice journalism now – fast, extractive, pushy – in favor of a practice that’s more authentic to the emotional needs of people involved, specifically the journalists and the people they interview who do not inhabit positions of great power. One of the changes we discuss is creating the expectation that securing an interview with a trauma survivor should take as long as the trauma survivor needs to feel safety in their relationship with the journalist (and should that never happen, that the interview not be pursued).

This presents a problem for breaking news journalists, who just don’t have that kind of time. They often arrive at the scene of a traumatic event and hustle to get “quotes” from anyone around. Often the people they find are in the middle of a trauma response, especially if they were personally affected by the event, and may not be able to give their account accurately or even coherently.

Instead of relying on people freshly affected by trauma to describe verbally what they’re experiencing, I wish for journalists to learn to read the physical signs of trauma that can often tell a much more real, more dignified story for the survivor.

Ethics informed by human needs

The question that comes up most frequently in workshop is: What are the ethical boundaries of practicing trauma-informed journalism? 

This is referring to the lines journalists Must Not Cross to avoid conflicts of interest in their reporting, which would invalidate both their story, their credibility, and potentially wreck their career. An example of this: Often, people in crisis want journalists who will profit from the story to provide some kind of assistance – money, a ride somewhere, some food. This is, at the very least, frowned upon by most newsrooms, so in workshop we talk about how to prepare an interviewee to detach from us after the interview.

If practicing trauma-informed journalism means creating more safety for the interviewee, developing a more organic relationship, setting the expectation that interviews might be triggering, and potentially offering aftercare for those triggers, how can a journalist remain a neutral party in this process? How can journalists avoid inadvertently stepping into the role of untrained therapist? How can we avoid causing the traumatized person more harm?

I never offered a clear-cut answer to these questions because, frankly, I didn’t know the answers. I was certain there was a big block of paraclinical training missing from the equation. That as we poked at people’s traumas for hours, with our very intrusive and factually driven curiosities, we were lacking the soothing salve to help our source seal up their wounds again. How could we offer support to a traumatized person after an interview if we are not clinically trained? And how could we ensure distance in the aftermath?

I posed these questions to Bessel van der Kolk, co-founder of this organization and renowned trauma researcher. His response was simple: Just be human.

“Dealing with suffering is something we all do,” he said. “Nobody’s qualified [to handle trauma]. You don’t learn to be human in a PhD program.”

Our empathy and common emotional sense will get us a long way in caring for the traumatized people we interview. I want ethics codes across newsrooms to encourage journalists to feel for their sources, and relate authentically to them. In terms of aftercare, some journalists worry about the ethics of staying in touch or developing relationships with sources after the interview is done. Van der Kolk suggests keeping in touch is part of the deal we make when we ask them to share their deepest with us. And I’d like newsrooms to go a step further, and develop ethics codes that don’t forbid their journalists from offering material help to their sources in crisis, to whatever degree seems reasonable. It’s only human.

More training and support for journalists

To accomplish these improvements to our profession, we have to become so much more attuned to the need for them.

If the ask is to notice the signs of trauma in a person’s body language, we have to learn what those are. We have to be taught not to go out looking for quotes, but for evidence, verbal or not. We have to be taught to consider factual the visible, physical experience of feelings. We have to become emotionally intelligent as a job requirement.

And if the ask is also to empathize, and to provide support to a reasonable degree, we have to be supported enough to have the bandwidth for that. It is an occupational hazard for journalists to experience vicarious trauma and emotional overwhelm. It should therefore be a non-negotiable requirement for employers of journalists to provide professionally trained emotional support. It’s not much different from clinical supervision: We go out, and we interview people about trauma. We might even record it, and then spend hours listening to it over and over again. Then we spend even more hours writing and editing the story of that trauma. At the end of it, doesn’t it make sense we should have someone to help us process it all?

Maria Murriel is a journalist pursuing the Trauma Research Foundation’s trauma studies certificate. She is co-founder of Pizza Shark Productions, a podcast network and production house working toward radical inclusivity in media. She lives in New Orleans, where she works on storytelling as a healing practice. Read more at mariamurriel.com.

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