In the past few days, I’ve swung between devouring stories of bushfire trauma and turning away from them, unable to bear any more. I read not only because I want to know but because I feel I ought to.
There is a duty to attempt to understand something of what people are experiencing and suffering. I also read because, living in a bushfire-prone area, I want to learn.
After reading the gut-wrenching first person piece by Gary Hughes in The Australian, I make a mental note to amend the bushfire plan on our fridge, to remind us each to carry a set of car keys in times of fire. I don’t know Gary but now carry a mental picture of him and his wife sitting in their car, air conditioner blaring, as the fire destroyed their house and beloved pets.
The stories that we share, via the media in its many forms, matter at so many levels and in so many ways. They can help us understand, cope and recover. They can also impede all of those processes.
For those interested in these matters – especially journalists (and their bosses) – I strongly recommend a read of this link from the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, assembled specifically for the Australian bushfires.
Here is an extract from some of the resources:
Tips for interviewing victims:
1. Always treat victims with dignity and respect – the way you want to be treated in a similar situation. Journalists will always seek to approach survivors, but reporters should do it with sensitivity, including knowing when and how to back off.
2. Clearly identify yourself: “I am Joe Hight with The Oklahoman and I am doing a story on Jessica’s life.” Don’t be surprised if you receive a harsh reaction at first, especially from parents of child victims. However, do not respond by reacting harshly.
3. You can say you’re sorry for the person’s loss, but never say “I understand” or “I know how you feel.” Don’t be surprised, too, especially when covering acts of political violence, if a subject responds to your apology by saying, “Sorry isn’t good enough.” Remain respectful.
4. Don’t overwhelm with the hardest questions first. Begin with questions such as, “Can you tell me about Jerry’s life?” Or, “What did Jerry like to do? What were his favorite hobbies?” Then listen! The worst mistake a reporter can do is to talk too much.
5. Be especially careful when interviewing survivors of anyone who is missing, and try to clarify that you seek to profile their lives before they disappeared and not to write their obituaries. If you’re unable to contact the victim or other survivor, try calling a relative or the funeral home to request an interview or obtain comments. If you receive a harsh reaction, leave a phone number or your card and explain that the survivor can call if she or he wants to talk later. This often leads to the best stories.
Tips for writing about victims:
1. Focus on the person’s life. Find out what made the person special: personality, beliefs, environment (surroundings, hobbies, family and friends), and likes and dislikes. Treat the person’s life as carefully as a photographer does in framing a portrait.
2. Always be accurate. Check back with the victim or victim’s representative to verify spellings of names, facts and even quotes. The reason: When you first talk to a victim, he or she may be confused or distracted. Double-checking can ensure accuracy. It also may provide you with additional information and quotes that you can use.
3. Use pertinent details that help describe victims as they lived or provide images of their lives. Example: “Johnny loved to play the guitar in the evening to entertain his family, but it also helped him escape the stress of his job as a sheriff’s deputy.”
4. Avoid unneeded gory details about the victims’ deaths. After the Oklahoma City bombing, certain reporters chose not to reveal that body parts were dangling from the trees near the federal building. Ask yourself whether the images are pertinent or will do unnecessary harm to certain members of your readership or broadcast audience. Also, avoid words and terms such as “closure,” “will rest in peace” or “a shocked community mourns the death.” Use simple and clear words as good writers do for any story.
5. Use quotes and anecdotes from the victim’s relatives and friends to describe the person’s life. Especially those that tell how the person had overcome obstacles. Seek current photos of the victim (but always return them as soon as possible). This way, you know what the person looked like in life.
Tips for covering traumatic events in your community:
1. Understand that your coverage of a traumatic event will have an impact on your readership, viewers or listeners. Remember that the tone of your coverage may reflect the tone of the community’s reaction to it. Thus, you should establish policies that affect your coverage: For example, consider coverage of public memorial services for the victims, instead of private funerals. And, if you do cover private services, call the funeral home to ensure that you will not intrude.
2. Write stories about the victims’ lives and their effect on your community. These are short stories about the victims, their favorite hobbies, what made them special, and the ripple effect of their lives. In many cases, victims’ relatives want to talk when they realize that the reporter is writing these types of stories. In 1995 after the Oklahoma City bombing, The Oklahoman called these stories “Profiles of Life.” The Oklahoman also did “Profiles of Life” after the record F-5 tornado outbreak in May 1999 that killed 44 people and the plane crash in January 2000 that killed the 10 members of the Oklahoma State University basketball team and staff. After the September 11, 2001, World Trade Center attack, The New York Times called its short stories about the victims “Portraits of Grief.” The Asbury Park Press called its stories “In Tribute.” These short stories can be published daily in a similar format until all of the victims have been featured. They sometimes lead to bigger stories, too.
3. Provide forums on what people are thinking, especially words of encouragement. Offer lists for ways people can help and how they have helped. Frank M. Ochberg, M.D., executive committee chairman of the Dart Center for Journalism & Trauma, says, “Journalists and therapists face similar challenges when they realize their subjects are at risk of further injury. Techniques may differ, but objectives are the same: to inform about sources of help.”
4. Find ways people are helping, including acts of kindness, and report on them throughout the recovery process. This may provide hope for the community.
5. Constantly ask these questions: What does the public need to know and how much coverage is too much? When does a medium become infatuated with a story when the public is not? A community is much more than a mass killing or disaster. The coverage must reflect that.