National Emergency: An overview of trauma-informed journalism in practice

Nashia and Kate seamless

By Carolina Murriel

I’ve been facilitating trauma workshops for journalists for a couple years now, and at first, implementing trauma-informed practices seems daunting to every group. Many journalists work under pressure from tight deadlines and limited resources, so newfangled processes and considerations can understandably feel like piling more onto an already full plate.

By the end of a workshop, I’ve generally convinced the group that trauma-informed journalism is not only worthwhile, but possible. How do I win them over? I tell them it’s really not that hard.

To demonstrate the accessibility of trauma-informed journalism, I’ll share how my production team at Pizza Shark approached reporting on emotionally taxing public health topics like dismal carceral health care, systemic lack of mental health crisis resources, and disparities in disaster relief efforts for our new Audible original podcast, National Emergency.

Slow down (where you can):

At the height of production for National Emergency, everyone on the team was feeling the frenzy. The show is hosted by two incredible ER nurses in New York City, one of whom is also a nurse in a jail. Coordinating schedules for interviews and voiceover recordings was a round-the-clock task. Conducting the interviews brought up all sorts of difficult feelings – especially for our episodes on carceral health and the country’s astronomical Black maternal mortality rate.

Every week, we had a team meeting with a packed agenda. Quickly it became clear we were not prepared to dive in to said agenda at the start of each meeting, because everyone had so much to offload about the breakneck pace of our vulnerable interviews and voiceovers, and the heart-wrenching research that accompanied them.

We decided to start each team meeting with a short mindfulness exercise. The term “mindfulness” is off-putting to some people, many of whom I believe to be journalists, so we presented it without introduction – “OK, everyone. Before diving in, let’s pause for a second and take a few deep breaths together.” Our team members had the choice of closing their eyes or lowering their gaze while we inhaled through our noses for a count of four and exhaled through our mouths for a count of six. Or they could simply sit quietly and not do it at all.

While there was some hesitation to embrace the breathing, everyone reflected back on it as a helpful respite.

Talk about it:

Most of my teachings around trauma-informed journalism, and storytelling in general, center on clear communication of realistic boundaries and expectations for everyone involved. For example, before interviewing a trauma survivor, a journalist can give the person a heads up that the interview might bring up complex, difficult feelings, and that the interviewee might want to plan for aftercare once it’s over. That communicates a clear expectation of what it will be like to consent to an interview. A realistic boundary might be that the journalist won’t be able to console the interviewee post-interview, but will provide support by sharing which quotes from the interview are selected for publication, honoring the interviewee’s agency.

Although this is a standard way to interact with interviewees who are private individuals, the communication of these expectations and the boundaries surrounding them is rarely explicit. Making it explicit is what bumps this interaction up to a trauma-informed journalism practice.

Make space for feelings:

Traditionally, journalists are trained to be “objective” in their reporting, which often translates to an arms-length approach to individual interviewees’ experiences, including their emotional responses. The attainability – and desirability – of objectivity in journalism is increasingly debunked. For our purposes here, “objectivity” toward traumatized interviewees’ lived experience and emotional reality is conducive to retraumatization and exploitative journalistic practices – in other words, it is unethical.

For National Emergency’s episode on mental health care systems, we interviewed a woman who had been a patient in two psychiatric ERs. We made sure to start the interview with a check-in: Are you feeling up for this? Are our hosts feeling up for this? Please let us know if something feels unmanageable. Clear communication.

During the interview, we made sure to pause with her, asked if it would be OK to delve into XYZ, and at the end, we went over what the next steps of the process would be. Once our interviewee was gone, the production team stayed to debrief, commenting on whatever parts of the conversation had struck them the hardest. These moments of aimless conversation may or may not be editorially useful, but they are certainly helpful in carrying the emotional load of production.

National Emergency, a podcast about what happens when our national issues walk into the emergency room, is out now exclusively on Audible, produced by Pizza Shark.

Carolina Murriel is a writer, ceramic artist, audio journalist and death doula in New Orleans. She teaches trauma-informed clay building and storytelling, and she helps elders capture their legacies in the form of oral histories. Her and co-founder Isis Madrid’s award-winning podcast studio, Pizza Shark, works toward radical inclusivity in media. Carolina writes about family, immigration and living with complex PTSD and major depression on Substack.

Photo Credit: Audible National Emergency

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