How journalists should cover shootings like Newtown, Connecticut and other traumatic stories: best practices for interviewing survivors

Resources for journalists covering traumatic incidents — from the CAJ

OTTAWADec. 17, 2012 /CNW/ - Media outlets from around the world have descended on Newtown, Conn. this week to cover the mass shooting at the Sandy Hook Elementary School. For many reporters and anchors and camera crews, the story has required them to interview survivors of the shooting, the families, children, and friends and neighbours of the people involved.
The Canadian Association of Journalists has some suggestions for how to interview survivors of trauma and how to get the story, without re-victimizing the victims in the process.
Just a few weeks ago, the CAJ invited experts to weigh in on this specialized form of interviewing, which has become, sadly, a vital skill for today's journalists.
"Journalism and Remembrance: Interviewing Survivors of Trauma" was held in TorontoNov. 20, 2012 at Ryerson University, in collaboration with the Ryerson Journalism Course Union.


The panel included journalist Ted Barris, author of "Breaking the Silence", Carol-Anne Davidson, broadcast journalist and interviewer with the Azrieli Foundation, Andrea Litvack, Social Work program director at U of T, and Kateri Akiwenzie-Damm, Anishnaabe writer, as well as moderator Esther Enkin of CBC News, recently named the organization's new Ombudswoman (she is also Vice-President of the Canadian Journalism Forum on Violence and Trauma.
The panel suggested several key ethical considerations for journalists to keep in mind during these fast moving situations, as well as presented some successful methods for journalists to help survivors of trauma tell their own stories, in their own way, be these old traumas such as the Holocaust or Residential School abuse, or more recent ones such as sexual assaults or serving in the war in Afghanistan.
Give the subject control over the telling of their stories:
"These stories have to be told, but we must always be cognizant that there's a person behind the story.  There is responsibility to not further oppress the oppressed," Andrea Litvack said. "The main thing to remember when you're interviewing victims of trauma is that they are all vulnerable," she added.  "What they've all shared is the experience of being helpless, the experience of intense fear, and the experience of a lack of power."
Remember your reason for doing the interview:
"Good ethics and good craft equals great journalism," Esther Enkin said, quoting Bob Steele of the Poynter Institute.  "When you're mindful and you ask yourself 'what is my journalistic purpose … what is my duty to truth telling, what is my duty to the people that I'm broadcasting to or writing for, but also to the people I'm using in my story?'  The more you think about that … people will trust you and they'll open up."
Use a slower pace:
Ted Barris has interviewed 3,000 veterans over the course of 40 years and is a practiced hand at a more subtle approach.  He shared how that worked when Korean War veteran, Hal Merrithew (now deceased) was telling his story.
"(He) had gone into a minefield to retrieve Canadians …. two of them were dead and four of them were wounded," Barris said.  "In the middle of the story … he fell apart, and I thought it was because I was bringing back all those horrific images to his mind … and I stopped.  I gave him time and space."  It turned out, the veteran was sad because he had never been reunited with the surviving members of his unit.
(Above quotes are taken directly from coverage of the CAJ event by freelance journalist Paula Last and published
Remember their right to privacy:
(from CAJ's Ethics Guidelines June 2012)
The public has a right to know about its institutions and the people who are elected or hired to serve its interests. People also have a right to privacy, and those accused of crimes have a right to a fair trial.
However, there are inevitable conflicts between the right to privacy, and the rights of all citizens to be informed about matters of public interest. Each situation should be judged in light of common sense, humanity and relevance.
We do not manipulate people who are thrust into the spotlight because they are victims of crime or are associated with a tragedy. Nor do we do voyeuristic stories about them. When we contact them, we are sensitive to their situations, and report only information in which the public has a legitimate interest.
We take special care when reporting on children or those who are otherwise unable to give consent to be interviewed. While some minors, such as athletes, may be used to being interviewed, others might have little understanding of the implications of talking to the media. So when unsure, or when dealing with particularly sensitive subjects, we err on the side of seeking parental consent. Likewise, we take special care when using any material posted to social media by minors, as they may not understand the public nature of their postings.
The full guidelines are posted on the CAJ's website and can be downloaded  here.
There is also abundant resource material available from organizations like the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma (Dart's "Covering Children and Trauma" by investigative reporter Ruth Teichroeb is just one helpful guide for those covering events like the Newtown shootings).
The Canadian Journalism Forum on Violence and Trauma'social media sites also provide a good aggregation of advice and commentary regarding the coverage of traumatic stories and for helping journalists also take care of their own health.
The Canadian Association of Journalists is a professional organization with hundreds of members across Canada. The CAJ's primary roles are public-interest advocacy and professional development for its members.
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SOURCE: Canadian Association of Journalists
For further information:
Hugo Rodrigues, CAJ president - 519-756-2020 ext. 2226, 519-535-8680 cell, |