6th November 2019
By Tom Law

Do your job, do it well, do no harm 

Jo Healey, author of “Trauma Reporting: A Journalist’s Guide to Covering Sensitive Stories” (Routledge)

Jo Healey 

No matter what their beat, journalists who are reporting day in and day out for newspapers, online, radio and TV, are regularly working closely with people who are emotionally fragile. 

Our current culture is to practise on the grieving public until we reckon we get it about right. We rarely share with each other the skills we acquire and we rarely talk about our experiences. We seem to be the only professionals invited into these homes, with no formal training to be there. Nor is dealing with vulnerable contributors generally part of student journalism training. It is a risky state of play. 

Over the past thirty years, 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, crafted and delivered training to hundreds of journalists and students in how to work professionally with people who are emotionally vulnerable. 

I believe we tell our stories best through the people they affect. I therefore put people who chose to speak to journalists at tough times in their lives, at the heart of the training. On film, parents whose children were killed, survivors of sexual abuse and children whose parents died, all of whom chose to tell their sensitive stories, spell out constructively what helped and what harmed when working with reporters. 

The response to the training has been overwhelming and led naturally to writing the book. It arose out of the feedback from the training sessions and follows the process of what we, as reporters, do when a tragic or emotive story breaks 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.  

“It is absolutely fundamental that journalists treat vulnerable contributors sensitively and with respect,” Louis Theroux explains in the book Trauma Reporting: A Journalist’s Guide to Covering Sensitive Stories. 

Lucy Williamson, the BBC’s Paris correspondent, who has covered around a dozen major terrorist attacks, talks about 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 of Reuters 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, when covering stories on the Grenfell fire, the Orlando shootings, child labour in Brazil and many more for the BBC’s flagship current affairs programme Panorama, he will keep 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.

“In these kinds of stories, you’re talking to decent people who are trying their best to recover from something  or deal with something, and I think there’s nothing to be gained  from upsetting them unnecessarily,” says Louis Theroux, “I do try where possible to extract some positives.” 

It is fair to say the guide has been built on a bedrock of goodwill from the journalism community internationally and from the families and individuals who chose to speak to us at difficult times. They describe what they need from us to be able to share their stories with us most effectively. 

Melody is a survivor of childhood rape who waived her right to anonymity after her stepfather was jailed. She describes why it is important for reporters to explain and involve interviewees like her in what they are planning to film. “I definitely needed to know why they were doing it….Someone who’s been a victim of abuse, they’ve already had too many people making them do things without explanation and it wasn’t pleasant.” 

How best should we approach people? How best should we interview and film with a grieving parent, a survivor of sexual abuse? What should we bear in mind when re-visiting people’s stories, or talking to them in court or at inquests? How best should we work with children who are hurting? What harm may 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? 

Anne Eyre is a survivor of Hillsborough and co-founded Disaster Action representing families involved in nearly thirty 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.” 

BBC Breakfast’s Editor Adam Bullimore says, “This book is full of vital, sensible and practical advice. All journalists, especially those just starting out on their careers, would benefit from absorbing this clear, thoughtful and much-needed guide.” 

Child Bereavement UK have been actively involved in both the training and the book, “Families we have supported tell us the way they are treated by the media can have a massive impact on them. We welcome the level-headed and practical advice in this important book which will increase the confidence of reporters and reduce any unnecessary distress for families.” 

The Dart Centre for Journalism and Trauma has also been involved. Dr Cait McMahon of Dart Asia Pacific has written the chapter on self-care for journalists:  How we can protect ourselves and each other from the impact of covering trauma. 

Training hundreds of journalists, has shown me how many can feel vulnerable when faced with spending time interviewing, filming and writing about people who are suffering. It is also clear that it matters to them that they don’t exacerbate people’s trauma. 

There cannot be a one-size-fits-all when dealing with people’s reactions and emotions, but there can be good practice which reporters can adapt, so that they do their job, do it well and do no harm. 

Trauma Reporting: A Journalist’s Guide to Covering Sensitive Stories by Jo Healey (Routledge) 

Jo will be expanding her training beyond the BBC to news organisations, media outlets, freelancers and universities in the New Year. Read more at https://traumareporting.com/