reporting trauma

Do your job, do it well, do no harm

Jo Healey looks at how to work with vulnerable and traumatised interviewees


ocumentary maker Louis Theroux sums it all up: “It is absolutely fundamental that journalists treat

vulnerable contributors sensitively and with respect. In my book Trauma Reporting: a

journalist’s Guide to Covering Sensitive Stories, Theroux details how, along with other journalists, he works with interviewees who are sharing painful experiences from drug addiction, to alcoholism, to adoption, to autism, to facing death. As journalists, reporting day in day

out for newspapers, online outlets, radio and TV, many of us regularly work closely with people who are emotionally fragile. Yet we appear to be the only professionals invited into their homes with no training in how best to do this. Our outdated, risky and potentially

harmful tradition of practising on the grieving or hurting public, acquiring expertise by trial and error, needs to change. Over the past 30 years as a journalist,

I have covered hundreds of people’s sensitive stories. Over the past five years, alongside my work as a reporter for BBC TV, I have researched, developed and delivered training to hundreds of journalists and students on how to work with people who are emotionally vulnerable. I have learned that getting it right is a huge concern for reporters.

The response to the training has been overwhelmingly positive and led

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to me writing this guide. It follows the process of what we do when a tragic or sensitive story breaks or emerges and it is our job to work with the people at the heart of it. It applies good practice at each step of the way. How best should we approach people

to share their sensitive stories? How best should we interview and film a grieving parent or a survivor of sexual abuse? What should we bear in mind when revisiting people’s stories, or talking to them in court or at inquests? How best should we work with children who are hurting? What harm can we do with our style of questioning and why? What phrases should we use or avoid when writing our stories? How can we get the best out of our interviewees and avoid distressing them further? What should we do if they cry or break down? Lucy Williamson, the BBC’s Paris correspondent, who has covered around a dozen major terrorist attacks, explains in the book how she approaches people at the scene of a traumatic event. Her key advice is to be a human being first: “No story is worth a person’s mental health or a person’s life, not yours and not theirs either.” Humility is the key for Helen Long,

operations manager at Reuters Video News, who reported extensively on the refugee crisis: “It’s a privilege to hear people’s stories and for them to open up and share their pain. Never abuse that.” Richard Bilton tells how, after

covering stories on Grenfell, shootings, murders, child labour and many more for Panorama, he keeps in touch with

his interviewees after the broadcast. “You are doing your job then going home. Their lives have been potentially ripped apart,” he explains. “Journalists should never, ever, make

their subjects or sources feel powerless,” adds Jina Moore of the New York Times. Parents whose children have been

Buy at a discount

TRAUMA REPORTING: a Journalist’s Guide to Covering Sensitive Stories by Jo Healey. Publisher Routledge is offering journalists and students 40 per cent off the price – enter the code TR230 at the checkout on its website. The reduced price is £14.99. Many thanks to the

NUJ Journalists’ Copyright Fund, which provided a grant that allowed me to take a few weeks of unpaid leave to complete the book.

killed, children whose parents have died, survivors of sexual abuse, survivors of disasters and terrorist attacks – all of whom spoke to journalists at tough times – are central to the book. Generously, they offer insight and constructive advice to reporters based on their experiences of being interviewed, filmed or written about. They spell out what helped and what harmed. Anne Eyre, a survivor of Hillsborough, cofounded Disaster Action, which has represented families involved in nearly 30 disasters worldwide. “Dealing with personal tragedy is hard enough but dealing with the media often compounds the pain, trauma and powerlessness of uninvited experiences. It doesn’t have to be like that. The insight and guidance in this book reflect compassionate, ethical and professional practices that can only benefit journalists as well as those they work with and for.” There cannot be a one-size-fits-all approach because people react in different ways to a traumatic event, but reporters can adopt good practice so they can do their job, do it well and do no harm.

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