Reporting on trauma

It's a necessary beat--one that should be done with care

In the wake of widespread criticism of the media’s reporting on rapes in Steubenville, OH, and Torrington, CT, it could be useful to hear how reporters who write about trauma regularly approach their task. Luckily, a panel over the weekend at a conference organized by Women, Action, and the Media discussed just that.

Reporting on trauma, panelists said, is a delicate balancing act—between truthfulness to a source’s experience and the larger narrative; between the fact that news stories are told in discrete chunks while issues like domestic violence are ongoing; between raising awareness and protecting both readers and sources. Panelists included the Dart Society’s Jina Moore, The Nation’s Aura Bogado and Liliana Segura, and Jamilah King of Colorlines.

“Reporting on trauma is very much at odds with our news cycle right now,” said King, relating an anecdote about setting out to report on a rise in violence in Chicago, only to be told by sources that it will just keep happening after she’s gone.

Reporters should tell these stories, panelists said. But they should attempt to buck the news cycle’s demand for short and quick by adding context about the broader issue while noting that each tale is an individual occurrence affecting real people. Bogado, who covers undocumented immigrants (and once was one), noted that each story she reports about indefinite detention is both unique and yet another example of police harming young men of color.

And if a news outlet isn’t amenable to a nuanced story, freelancers should consider taking it elsewhere.

“I’m a freelancer,” Moore said, “so sometimes that means fewer drinks this month, or something. But that’s okay.” Staff reporters should, Segura said, “fight for every word,” especially humanizing details.

Reporters should also honor a source’s perspective on his or her own story as much as possible without making readers feel like voyeurs, Moore added.

“I have to throw out the whole notion of journalistic objectivity when I think about doing these stories,” Moore said. She takes the view that the events she’s recounting should never have happened. “There are a lot of writers and a lot of activists” who push question further, offering commentary or solutions, but “for me right now, I have to stop at ‘this should not have been.’”

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Kira Goldenberg was an associate editor at CJR from 2012-2015. Follow her on Twitter at @kiragoldenberg. Tags: , , , ,