The American Society of Journalists and Authors (ASJA) posted online a recording of a panel discussion from its 2014 conference on how to tell the stories of trauma survivors with grace and dignity.
It was an interesting panel discussion and I enjoyed hearing the recording even though I could not attend the session. Dave Cullen wrote a book about the Columbine shootings and discussed how he approached people to interview about one of the most deadly mass shootings in history. He noted that sometimes going through an intermediary would help him connect with someone and convey sensitivity to the person he was approaching.
Cullen discussed his personal struggle with post-traumatic stress as a reporter. He talked about reaching out to the families who lost loved ones or survived the massacre and how he approached these grieving and traumatized families. He also talked about what was challenging to write and how it personally affected him to walk through trauma as a storyteller.
Alia Malek is a civil rights lawyer and a journalist with Al-Jazeera who compiled oral history narratives about post-9/11 prejudice and hostility. She notes that you have to understand the communities you are working with and that sometimes giving people the opportunity to be heard is empowering. It lets them know that their stories are documented for posterity and recorded for others to hear – it gives meaning to their suffering. She offers advice about interviewing trauma survivors and forging connections.
Malek also pointed out that when observing journalists overseas working with interpreters as they sought interviews, that a common mistake she saw others make was to make eye contact with the interpreter, and not the actual subject being interviewed. She says it is important to be self-aware of your own biases and challenges in covering the story, especially if you are facing cultural or language barriers.
Amy Dockser Markus, a Pulitzer prize winning staff writer with the Wall Street Journal noted how very hard it is to tell the stories of trauma while on a daily deadline to publish and talked about her work covering people coping with serious or fatal illnesses. She spoke with people over a period of six years for a project dealing with trauma. She notes that trust cannot be built with immediacy.
You can have chemistry with sources, notes Markus. When you are following people for a long time, they may start to see you as a friend and it becomes very complex for the writer and the subject. It’s not a friendship, but calling it a “source” does not seem appropriate or fitting either, especially when sources form a relationship with a reporter that may feel emotional in nature, even though it’s not a personal friendship. Ultimately, the author’s loyalty is to the story, and a writer might end up cutting someone out of the story that he or she really like and who may not be pleased to be removed from the story.
One of the more interesting sections in the recording, is when Markus discusses how to draw boundaries between personal life and work, when the work is emotional and has many parallels to the author’s own life. I also liked her commentary on her feelings about people who complain about minor things. As a trauma survivor myself, I also find it annoying to hear people complain about small struggles in life. My definition of a true struggle or terrible day was dramatically re-calibrated by my own experience, and this is not an uncommon feeling among trauma survivors.
The panelists also discussed the challenges with war reporting and how some of them have approached processing emotions and trauma. The moderator asked for examples of poor news coverage of trauma survivors. It would have been nice to ask trauma survivors their opinions on that one, instead of just journalists. Someone also might have wanted to point out to the moderator that saying trauma survivors would have been more appropriate, at least in some instances, than trauma victims, which he said repeatedly. The people who have survived trauma have endured, and even speaking to tell a story, can be a rejection of victimhood.
Ami Neiberger-Miller is a public relations strategist and writer. She is the founder of Steppingstone LLC, a virtual and independent public relations practice near Washington, D.C. that provides public relations counsel, social media advice, writing services, and creative design for publications and websites. She blogs frequently about media relations, social media, public relations and other issues. She also reviews books on her blog about public relations, nonprofit life, work-family balance and social media practice. Follow her on Twitter @AmazingPRMaven.