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A story, but also a human. Reporting trauma.

journalism training

Reporting trauma.

There’s a deadline, you need an exclusive, the editor is hassling, you need them to talk, you need the soundbite, you feel pressure, a sense of urgency and then relief, you just desperately want them to say something you can use,and then a sense of relief when they finally do talk.

You leave, write and edit your piece, file it, move on.

That is the reality of journalism, we burst into someone’s life, usually when something truly terrible has happened to them. We approach them as professionals, we need a story, we need words, pictures, soundbites. We are in a hurry, worried about our career, needing to impress, needing to hit the deadline, not wanting to fail. We are full of adrenaline, in a rush, and blocking our our emotional responses to get the job done.

Do you ever actually stop and consider the impact of what you are doing?  Really, ever? 

Now, imagine being that person. Imagine being the one whose life has just completely turned on it’s head, who is not thinking straight, who cannot comprehend the enormity of what they are facing. And imagine having a microphone under your nose, with someone asking for a comment. You are fragile, emotional, overwhelmed, in a dark, dark place, and to add to the trauma, there are journalists ( people you’ve usually only seen represented in films and on TV as pushy, relentless, compassionless beings) and they want you to speak to them. It’s daunting, overwhelming and likely to add to an already awful scenario. 

Our job as journalists is not to make it worse. I’ve yet to meet any journalist who has ever wanted to do that. We understand we have a responsibility to treat people decently, and with care. But it’s easy to become blindsided in the rush for the exclusive, the tears, the killer quote. 

There is a way to get your interview, but be full of compassion at the same time. I should know, I did this time and time again in my 20+ year career as a journalist, covering stories from the 9/11 attacks to kidnappings, murders, and abductions. I became known as someone who could usually get the toughest interviews to get, and I usually did. I didn’t ever resort to that typical image of a pushy journalist, pressuring someone for an interview. I took a very different path.

In 2004, a British man, Ken Bigley, was taken hostage in Iraq. Along with many from the world press, I descended on Liverpool, and on a tiny terraced house, where his mother lived. In her 80s, her world had been shattered by the news of her son and the video of him in captivity. Everyone wanted to hear from her, wanted an interview with the family who had so suddenly been thrust into the spotlight, at a time of exceptional trauma. 

The family decided to make a public statement to appeal for Kens release. Via the police, they asked the media to remove themselves from the front door of the house. Ken’s mother was weak, and frail and listening to the reporters through her front door, warning of his impending death. It was too much to cope with. 

We were the only organisation to do as they asked. We moved our satellite truck down the street, after discussing it with the news desk in London. We treated the family with the respect they asked for. As a result I was chosen by the police to be the pool reporter to go to meet the family and record the statement. 

I met them in a faceless room, with a few chairs and a desk. Ken’s mother, Lilly,  instantly grabbed my hand, wanting to talk, wanting me to know about her son and her desperate fear for his safety. I spent time with the family and then we attempted to record the statement. Lilly, could not get her words out, through the tears and emotion, she struggled. I couldn’t help reaching out to her to touch her hand as she tried again. It was a human response. The clock was ticking, my phone was silently shouting at me, as news organisations desperately wanted the interview were calling, I was watching the clock, but I knew that the only way to achieve the statement, was compassion and understanding. But more than that, I just saw an old lady facing something unimaginably tough. I was human first, journalist second. 

I left with the interview, every outlet got the story, and we all made our deadlines. I left Lilly after she held my hand and thanked me for helping her. The family went on to turn to me time and again during the ordeal, which lasted months. They trusted me to treat them with respect and dignity. To this day I am in touch with them, bonded through an ordeal of unimaginable proportions. They weren’t just a story, they were humans facing a desperate plight. 

It is too easy to rush in, not deliberately being heartless or thoughtless, but wrapped in our own need to deliver and do our jobs, and leave a bad taste. We are all guilty of forgetting our “story” is someone else’s nightmare. 

I hope in some way I can now help better prepare journalists for this task, using my own experiences and expertise.

I teach trauma reporting as a guest lecturer, teaching undergraduates how to use techniques which get the story, but also allow those finding themselves in the midst of it, some dignity. 

I teach the techniques which have worked for me time and time again, the ways of working which allow you to be compassionate as well as a journalist. There are actionable steps you can take, ways to think and approach people and ultimately gain the interviews you want.

If you’d like to know more, drop me a line: cat.hepple@gmail.com

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