Telling the stories that have to be told – those of the most vulnerable

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How do you give voice to the voiceless without damaging them in the process? Paula Last reports from the recent CAJ event on interviewing survivors of trauma, explaining how journalists can be sensitive when telling their deeply personal stories

 

CAJ Interviewing Surviors of Trauma panelists with moderator Esther Enkin and event organizers. (Photo: Matthew Wocks)

By Paula Last

At a recent CAJ event entitled Journalism and Remembrance: Interviewing Survivors of Trauma, CBC News Executive Editor (now CBC Ombudsman)* and moderator Esther Enkin began the talk with a question that got straight to the point. 

“How do we give voice to the voiceless without damaging them in the process?” she asked. 

Toward the end, during the question period, former CBC broadcaster Avril Benoît summed up the importance of answering this question.  As former director of communications for Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders, Benoît commented from her perspective as a trauma survivor advocate.   

“The egregious blind spot for journalists, and I have this myself, is that they have an insensitivity to the risk of re-traumatizing a victim through the retelling,” she said.  She explained that after traumatic events, an unhealthy dynamic can arise between journalists and trauma survivors. 

“Once (a trauma survivor) becomes the poster child for victimization … everyone knows that (he/she) is willing to talk, and they expect that (he/she) will.  There is a certain amount of bullying that I’ve observed, which I find shocking,” she said. 

Over the course of the evening, the audience heard that ‘getting’ whom the story is about is crucial before actually ‘getting the story’ because it makes for better journalism.  A panel of experts including 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, shared anecdotes and advice from a deep well of experience interviewing trauma survivors.

Litvack will soon be tackling this issue with the Global Journalism Fellows at the Munk School of International Affairs.  She will be the first instructor for this fledging program teaching the subject of deep interviewing.  Litvack acknowledges that gathering news from trauma survivors is an important part of a journalist’s job, but advises a cautious approach.

“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,” 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.” 

Interviewing a potentially fragile subject requires an approach that draws out the story, rather than seizing it.  Ted Barris has interviewed 5,000 veterans over the course of 40 years, and is a practiced hand at a more subtle approach.  He shared how a slower pace helped him overcome his own assumptions about what Korean war veteran, Hal Merrithew (now deceased) was telling him.

“(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.” 

Barris assumed that he had triggered memories of the event.

“It must have been a horrible night,” Barris said to Merrithew after a long pause. 

“It was the darkest night of my life,” replied Merrithew, “but that’s not why I was crying.”   The veteran told Barris that he’d not seen the two men with whom he’d shared that experience since the very night it happened.  He hadn’t had a chance to debrief, to get closure.  

Litvack praised Barris’s approach.

“You pulled back when you had to.  You used silence when you had to.  You gave (him) control,” she said.

Giving the interviewee control is a shift journalists need to make to get to the heart of the story, while respecting the interviewee’s needs.

“Coercion, even subtle coercion ... is not … acceptable because there’s always potential that you’re going to further damage the person.  And don’t kid yourself, the potential is there,” Litvack said emphatically.  “It is your responsibility … to make every attempt not to trigger the person, but rather to contain them.” 

Journalists may balk at the idea of giving the interviewee control.  Event organizer and CAJ Vice President Ellin Bessner explained why this approach is legitimate when interviewing a trauma survivor.

“The difference between interviewing non-media savvy, coached people and Rob Ford is that there are different rules,” Bessner said. “What  (politicians, CEOs, and athletes) say gets put on verbatim … because they have been trained.  You can have a different approach with trauma survivors because ... they haven’t been trained.”

Survivors of recent traumatic events are particularly vulnerable, not just because they lack experience handling the media.  Litvack explained how to approach these situations.

“If we interview a person immediately following a trauma, remember again … don’t overwhelm them, know when to back off, listen,” she said.  “Do not say ‘I know how you feel’ or ‘I understand’ because believe me you don’t.  You don’t.”

In addition to understanding what needs to happen during an interview, discussion also touched on what to do before and after.  Building and maintaining trust depends on the knowledge you bring to the interview, so doing your homework and understanding cultural differences is critical.  If culture is too big a bridge for you to gap on your own, find a cultural ambassador.  After an interview, journalists can be at risk for vicarious trauma.  Asking for feedback and support from those close to you can help you stay grounded.

What was an illuminating, interesting and at times lively discussion answered the earlier question posed by Enkin.  However, Enkin herself emphasized that a shift in perspective doesn’t just respect trauma survivors, but is how you get the story.

“Good ethics and good craft equals great journalism,” she 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.” 

 

*Editor’s note: At the time of the event, Enkin was Executive Editor of CBC News. Shortly before publication of this article, CBC announced Enkin had been appointed to the position of Ombudsman of the public broadcaster.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this article referred to Avril Benoît as the current director of communications of Doctors Without Borders. This is incorrect. Benoît formerly held that position, but no longer does. We regret the error and apologize for any confusion. 

 

Paula Last is a former health professional and medical librarian, having graduated from McMaster University’s School of Social Work and UofT’s Faculty of Information.  Having been bitten by the journalism bug in high school, her career path took one last turn when she joined the ranks of the Journalism Fast-Track Program at Centennial College in September 2012.  

 

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