The Intermediary

A former reporter wants to end traumatizing coverage

In October 2017, Louise Godbold published a blog post accusing movie mogul Harvey Weinstein of sexual assault. In the post, Godbold referred to an event that took place “in the early ’90s” involving an “office tour that became an occasion to trap me,” followed by unwanted overtures and physical contact. At the time of her post, the list of women to publicly accuse Weinstein of assault and harassment was growing rapidly. Soon, details about Godbold and her experience began to appear in news reports alongside similar details from other accusers, who eventually numbered more than eighty people. (In 2020, Weinstein was convicted of sexually assaulting two women and sentenced to twenty-three years in prison.)

Godbold, who now directs a nonprofit focused on education about trauma and resilience, fielded numerous interview requests, and repeatedly recounted the story of her abuse—an effort that quickly began to take a toll on her. “I have to tell you, I’ve been traumatized, retraumatized, by some of the conversations I’ve had with people wanting interviews,” Godbold told Amy Goodman of Democracy Now. “I know these are good people, and I know they would be trauma-informed if they could be. They just don’t have the information.” 

Recently, Godbold met with Tamara Cherry, a former crime reporter, for a very different interview. Over Zoom, Cherry, who is based in Saskatchewan, asked Godbold about her experience surviving a high-profile abuser and speaking about it publicly. In navigating the swell of press attention, Godbold told her, “I began to realize that there was a lot that the media could learn about interviewing trauma survivors.” She described her participation in a documentary film project, for which she sat in a mostly dark room under bright lights and fielded questions for more than three hours without a break. She felt her stomach clench in response to the darkened room; after the interview, she felt overheated, thirsty, and helpless. “I didn’t have the wherewithal to think, ‘Why does this feel so intimidating?’” Godbold told Cherry. When the film was released, she was disappointed to see herself on-screen for just forty-seven seconds.

Cherry gave a sympathetic nod. “Be a storyteller, not a story taker,” she said. An edited version of their conversation later appeared on the website of Pickup Communications, the public relations firm Cherry founded to advocate for trauma survivors.

Though Cherry does not call herself a “story taker,” she describes some of her previous journalistic work covering violent crimes in the greater Toronto area as damaging for subject and reporter alike. She recalls coaxing a woman who’d survived a homicide attempt into an on-camera interview, and the guilt she felt; locating a man at a bar in order to ask him questions about his wife, who had been murdered just hours earlier; and breaking the news of a sibling’s violent death to a man whom she’d reached on his office phone. “People are laughing, talking about whatever stories they’re working on,” she says, describing the latter episode. “And there I am, at my desk, talking on my landline to someone who’s just found out that his sister’s been murdered. I felt like such shit.” When she decided to end her fifteen-year reporting career in 2019, she says, “I had to work through a lot of the guilt I felt when I thought about how much harm I had done.”

Tamara Cherry. Photo by Carlos Osorio.

Part of that work has involved documenting the news media’s impact on trauma victims and survivors. In May 2020, Cherry began a series of surveys and interviews with seventy-one people who had survived traffic accidents or shootings, some of whom Cherry had previously covered herself, about their interactions with the news media. Of those respondents, fifty described their first experiences with the news media as negative. They spoke of trying to dodge an endless stream of calls from reporters in the immediate aftermath of a loved one’s death, or hiding from aggressive reporters. Over half of the respondents said their interactions with the media contributed to their trauma. One respondent, Heather, wrote of her experience dealing with interest from multiple reporters after her husband, a police officer, was killed on the job: “I am shy and private, and the exposure and invasion of my privacy, my family, my children, [my husband]’s death added to the trauma and has changed me forever.”

Cherry also surveyed twenty-two reporters who had covered traumatic events, most of them at least once a month. Most told her they had received little to no training in covering traumatic events, and were not sure whether their newsroom had guidelines for covering trauma survivors. Most, too, were uncomfortable with contacting survivors in the immediate aftermath of traumatic events, and recounted numerous negative effects in their own lives—“including PTSD, vicarious trauma, thinking about death more than [the] average person,” she later wrote in the Journal of Community Safety and Wellbeing. She added, “While some of the journalists acknowledged the harm that their interactions might cause, so too did there appear to be an acknowledgment that a viable alternative was lacking, to the detriment of both survivors and journalists.” 

In a recent interview, Cherry put it even more bluntly. “It’s not okay that a trauma survivor, at a most confusing and scary hour, is dealing with reporter after reporter after reporter knocking on their door,” Cherry says. Nor is it okay to send journalists with no formal trauma-related training to scenes of recent tragedy. “We’ve got to change the way we’re doing things,” Cherry says. “The system is sick, and it needs to be remedied.”

 

You’re just jumping from one tragedy to the next. This is how it’s always been done.

 

Much of our current understanding of journalism’s complex relationship to trauma is rooted in East Lansing, Michigan, where, in the early nineties, journalism instructors at Michigan State University collaborated with a state victims’ alliance and Frank Ochberg, a psychiatrist and trauma-science expert, to create a small program dedicated to helping journalism students more sensitively report on victims of violence. That program, now called the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma and housed at Columbia University, expanded as researchers spent more time investigating the intersections of trauma and journalistic practice. Following the 2001 terrorist attacks at the World Trade Center, the Dart Center offered support programs for New York reporters. The next year, a study of conflict reporters from six major news networks revealed that reporters “had substantially higher rates of serious depression and post-traumatic stress disorder than did reporters who did not cover wars,” according to the New York Times. At the time, Ochberg told the paper that the journalism industry was “a decade or so behind” in recognizing the impacts of trauma on its practitioners. 

“Reporting is more trauma-aware than it used to be, even if we have a lot further to go,” Bruce Shapiro, executive director of the Dart Center, says now. “We now understand there’s a different tool kit for interviewing people who’ve had the power of safety taken away from them than there is for interviewing politicians or police captains or corporate executives.” A significant portion of that tool kit has been created by the Dart Center, which has published numerous guides detailing the science of trauma—a “complex and ambiguous noun,” one guide cautions, which can refer to a range of injuries and events, and should be used with care, so as not to “pathologize ordinary grief or distress.” (The Dart Center is based at the Columbia Journalism School, which publishes CJR.)

Marissa Evans, who covers health and communities of color for the Los Angeles Times, remembers reaching out to her first trauma victim. It was 2013; Evans had just graduated from journalism school and was working as an intern at the San Diego Union-Tribune when she was tasked with contacting the relative of a man who’d drowned in a hotel pool. Her current beat at the Times often requires that she interview people who have survived trauma; last month she interviewed the relatives of Emmett Till for their thoughts on the journalism industry’s debate, post-Uvalde, over the value of publishing images of murdered children. Evans has trained herself in trauma awareness from watching other colleagues, she says, but “a lot of it has been on the job, on the fly.”

This individualrather than institutionalapproach is part of the problem Cherry sees with journalism’s current relationship to trauma. In her experience, “no one ever mentioned the word ‘trauma’ in journalism school,” Cherry says. “It’s still not largely talked about. You’re just jumping from one tragedy to the next. This is how it’s always been done.” 

In 2017, Natalee Seely, an assistant professor of journalism at Ball State University, surveyed 254 newspaper journalists and found 53 percent said they’d received no training in trauma literacy. “Novice reporters who are unsure of how to interview crime victims and unaware of the potential effects of trauma…thus may be more vulnerable to burnout, guilt, posttraumatic stress disorder symptoms, and unhealthy coping habits,” Seely wrote. “Exposure to trauma reporting strategies and lessons in higher education can foster ‘trauma-literate’ journalists and editors, resulting in a healthier workforce and possibly a more humanized newsroom culture.” In a 2019 survey of forty-one accredited journalism schools, professors Gretchen Hoak and Adrienne Garvey found 85 percent of programs included at least one lesson on trauma-informed journalism, though only one of those schools devoted an entire course to the subject. Recently, CJR asked the US News & World Report’s ten top-ranked undergraduate journalism programs whether they included trauma as a topic in their curriculum; all said yes, in some form. 

In 2019, Moni Basu offered a course called “Reporting from Ground Zero” to her students in the University of Florida’s journalism school. Basu, a veteran journalist whose work includes ten years as a features reporter for CNN, had “covered some very difficult stories, from rape to sexual assault to murder to wars” during her career, she says. “No one really stopped to say, ‘Hey, maybe we should give you some training before we send you off to a war zone.’” After covering the Iraq War for several months, Basu received a fellowship from the Dart Center, where she learned about the impacts of trauma on the brain, as well as interview techniques and self-care tips. “That was the first time anyone talked to me about precautions I should take when speaking to people who had been traumatized,” Basu says. After seeing her students deploy to cover parts of Florida hit by Hurricane Michael—“going out with no go-kits or training at all about how to speak to people who’ve just lost their homes, their whole lives upended”—she proposed her class, which quickly reached capacity. “Reporters are starving for this kind of instruction,” Basu says. “I really don’t know why this kind of training hasn’t taken place on a wider scale.”

Evans, the LA Times reporter, teaches an online class through the University of Minnesota called “Reporting on Trauma in Modern Times”; in it, students analyze stories of high-profile tragedies to discuss differences in coverage, and learn about the media’s role in the historical trauma of marginalized groups to better understand how journalists are subsequently perceived. “It’s the class I wish I had when I was coming up in college,” Evans says. The students, she says, are engaged and open to talking about trauma in a way she hadn’t experienced as a J-school student. “We haven’t yet had a paradigm shift in the industry to better incorporate trauma-informed practices into our work,” she says. “I think we’re getting there now, but it took a global pandemic. It took mass shootings. It took seeing people of color dying on video at the hands of police. It took all of these very large and traumatic news cycles for us as an industry to say ‘Hey, maybe we do need to be more trauma-informed.’”

Since 2019, the LA Times has offered Dart Center training to its news staff, according to Hillary Manning, the paper’s vice president of communications. News staff also receive structured training in the form of occasional peer-led sessions, and “a fair amount of coaching and support on the fly,” Manning wrote in an email to CJR. At BuzzFeed News, a new training guide issued to editorial staff in January provides a number of trauma-informed tips, says Albert Samaha, the site’s inequality editor. “We have a paragraph reminding reporters that our expectation is: this is a tough job mentally, it’s okay to take time off if you need it,” Samaha says. Another guideline is to be careful not to contribute to the trauma of others. “This is not a job where we want to get all information at all costs,” Samaha says.

Jo Healey, a veteran journalist for the BBC who wrote the Trauma Reporting guidebook and worked with unesco to provide guidance for journalists covering traumatic events, calls it “baffling” that such training hasn’t been part of journalists’ foundational education. “You wouldn’t send in a health professional to work with people who’ve suffered something horrific in their lives, to ask the sort of probing questions that we ask, without some sort of training,” she says. Cherry, she says, “is working with survivors to give them the voice they deserve. Allowing journalists to listen to what survivors are saying and how our current practices may impact them will be of immense benefit to our industry.” 

 

In her research, Cherry found that 75 percent of survivors reported at least one positive impact from their interactions with journalists—an outcome that she believes is crucial to reporters’ own sense of well-being.

 

Cherry has continued to interview trauma survivors about their interactions with journalists; her interviewees now number more than a hundred, and include survivors of sexual assault and mass violence, as well as parents of missing or dead children. She is compiling her work into a book, The Trauma Beat: The Case for Re-Thinking the Business of Bad News, which is also, in part, a memoir of her own experiences covering traumatic events.

Through Pickup Communications, the PR firm she founded after leaving journalism, Cherry facilitates interactions between survivors and journalists on a pro bono basis: sometimes she’ll reach out to survivors whose stories have just hit the news to see if they need support navigating the swarm; other times, survivors will find her and ask for her help. In 2020, a Toronto resident asked for Cherry’s assistance in bringing attention to her son’s unsolved murder on the anniversary of his death. Cherry drafted a press release, accompanied by photos she cleared for media use, that put the case in the news again. Sometimes, Cherry works with survivors of violent events to craft statements for use by police as they search for fugitives—work for which Pickup Consulting is paid by the Bolo Program, a nonprofit that helps police across Canada amplify unsolved cases. 

More recently, Cherry spoke at a press conference on behalf of parents whose teenage son was killed in 2018, and whose killer remains at large. The conference was intended to renew public attention to individuals on Canada’s most-wanted list. Cherry read a statement from the parents, who made clear that renewed media attention wasn’t uniformly helpful. “Seeing the face of the man who killed our son all over the news and social media will cause us to relive that nightmare all over again,” Cherry read from the statement. “But this is also driving us to release this statement because this man must be caught.” The statement was picked up by local and national outlets, and the family did not appear on camera—an experience that many would rather not have.

Cherry speaks at a press conference. Source: Bolo Program.

Cherry has also made Pickup Communications a hub for trauma-informed education from figures such as Godbold, whose interview with Cherry appears on the site in an edited form, alongside similar testimonials from other people. Following the May mass shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Cherry drew on those testimonials to engage the news cycle and urge reporters to practice trauma-informed journalism. Godbold’s voice was there, reminding reporters of the physiological response to trauma and urging tact in questions; she explained that, for any survivor, “Every time you’re making me go over my story, you’re contributing to me being less able to handle stress and being more likely to get stuck in that stress response.” Cherry also shared an interview with Elynne Greene, manager of Victim Services and Human Trafficking for the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department, who advised journalists to know when to walk away. “You might start a story that looks really great and then you realize, ‘I don’t know, maybe this person isn’t ready to tell their story,’” Greene said. Cherry shared more tips of her own—“Take no for an answer,” “Create safe and predictable environments.” She reminded survivors that they were not obligated to speak with journalists, and can offer a video or written statement in lieu of an interview should they wish to.

Trauma survivors are neither uniformly nor exclusively damaged by their interactions with the press. Reporters might actually benefit survivors through their work, depending on their approach. A team of media researchers interviewing sixteen survivors of the 2007 shootings at Virginia Tech found that, although criticism was more common, nearly all offered positive feedback about some of the journalists they’d encountered, specifically those who behaved with sensitivity and compassion and made the effort to create a human connection. Cherry’s own research found that 75 percent of survivors reported at least one positive impact from their interactions with journalists—an outcome that she believes is crucial to reporters’ own sense of well-being. “You have to take care of the people you’re reporting on in order to take care of yourself,” Cherry says. “I’m glad we’re finally starting to talk about self-care and mental health and trauma exposure in this industry, but it’s like these newsrooms and journalism institutions are still resistant to figuring out how we can take care of the people we’re reporting on.” 

In the days that followed Uvalde, national news outlets described survivors and their families moving through “a sea of TV cameras and tents as a crowd of reporters did live television hits in front of the school,” and a vigil during which they “struggled to grieve amid the clicks of cameras”—details that suggest an industry’s ongoing anxiety with its own impacts, little alarms that never quite prompt systemic change. 

“How is it that we have all these trainings on trauma-informed reporting and then see interview after interview of bereaved parents in Uvalde?” Godbold asked on Twitter. “Trying to change that,” Cherry replied.

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Deborah Bloom is a freelance journalist based in Portland, Oregon, who covers breaking news and stories about mental health, culture, and the environment.

TOP IMAGE: Tamara Cherry in September 2015. Photo courtesy of subject.