But our audience perceives and evaluates our ethics through our writing. A growing body of research, nicely summarized recently by Quinnipiac University’s Nancy Worthington in her scholarly article, “Encoding and Decoding Rape News,”; in the journal Women’s Studies in Communication, suggests that readers interpret meaning from the structure and style of a story, as well as its content. In fact, journalists have long intuited this. News reporting earns reader trust, or tries to, by conveying the value of impartiality through craft choices. In news pages, we seek out multiple sides of a story and we write in a neutral tone. In this traditional model, impartial narrators—journalists—serve indifferent readers. Our imagined audience is distracted, and our job is to bait them with a headline or hook them with a lead, and reel them in as far as they’re willing to go, all the while illustrating that we take no side in the matters we are reporting.
Trauma changes how our audience perceives our tools—and whether, in their judgment, we use them ethically. “Color” can clang against impartial news voice; attribution can imply doubt; details can seem exploitative. If we falter in tone; if we misuse dark details; if we overexpose survivors, we may lose our readers—and our mission. Whether they realize it, or we acknowledge it, the choices we make in our writing beg a moral question of readers: Do they feel called to witness or do they feel implicated?
If readers feel implicated, they will blame us. After all, it is in their name that we impose the discomfort of our nosy questions on trauma survivors. When Nicholas Kristof, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, named a nine-year-old Congolese rape victim in his New York Times column in January 2010 and broadcast her face in an online video, reader outcry was so strong that Kristof wrote a detailed follow-up on his blog, explaining what his column had not: that he’d secured the girl’s and her aunt’s permission to use the name, and that he’d weighed public exposure in an American newspaper against the likelihood that exposure would reach her village in Congo. When Mac McClelland, Mother Jones’s human-rights reporter, began tweeting, without introduction or explanation, from inside the examining room where a Haitian rape survivor was seeking follow-up treatment, the moral confusion some readers felt was so great that they demanded the magazine cease the Twitter feed. (Full disclosure: I was among those calling, in real time, for that cessation.)
These are dramatic examples of choices that writers and their editors failed to expect readers to notice, but which readers rightly questioned. To prove to our readers that we are responsible journalists, we cannot simply report ethically and well, and then explain all that later. When ethics is a collaboration between journalist and audience, as it is in trauma stories, we have to let the readers in on our work.
How do we do that? Take this NPR story by Ofeibea Quist-Arcton about the sexual abuse of women in Guinea last year, when soldiers killed 157 pro-democracy protestors. Before she even says the word “rape,” Quist-Arcton contextualizes the graphic details we are about to hear: “It was the soldiers’ brutal assaults on women that have so shaken Guineans. They keep repeating: C’est du jamais vu—never before have we witnessed such acts.” This lessens the likelihood that the details we’ll soon hear will feel merely lurid; the Guineans, too, felt shocked, as we surely will.
Before Quist-Arcton quotes a survivor, she discloses her reporting practice, even acknowledging that her questions violate a boundary: “Through an intermediary, I met with some women in a small room in an opposition safe house to talk about their ordeals.” She goes on to admit that her journalism put her subjects at risk: “The woman who arranged the meetings for me was herself terrified that she’d be found out and punished.” Now the audience knows these risks, too. We feel like we—and the vulnerable people we are listening to—are in safer hands when such risks are acknowledged.