Sensitizing Reporters: Panel Says Those Covering Traumatic Events Should Be Aware of the Effect Their Interviews May Have on Victims and Their Families

Article excerpt

REPORTERS COVERING TERRORIST bombings, murders, hostage crises, kidnappings, rape cases and other traumatic events should be sensitized - beginning in journalism school - to the effect of their interviews on victims and their families.

This was the theme of an unusual conference recently at the University of Washington in Seattle that brought together media professionals, psychiatrists, journalism professors and victims' advocates to discuss the impact of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PFSD) on people touched by violent crimes and catastrophes.

Moreover, the experts said, journalists themselves may suffer from PTSD, a fact attested to by some of the reporter-attendees who recounted how they had been emotionally affected by particular stories they had covered.

"The recognition of PTSD and related conditions enhances not only the professionalism of reporters, but also earns the respect of their readers and interviewees," said one speaker, Dr. Frank M. Ochberg, a Michigan State University psychiatrist.

There should be a degree of "humanitarianism" in every victim interview, added Ochberg, who teaches in MSU's Victims and the Media program in the school of journalism.

A similar program is conducted at UW's School of Communications under the direction of Professor Roger Simpson.

Both schools have conducted on-site workshops on the subject at newspapers and meetings of media organizations.

Most people are unprepared for trauma, "just as most journalists are unprepared to talk sensitively to victims, or to deal with their own responses," said Simpson, who coordinated the UW conference.

His view was supported by Bruce Shapiro, associate editor of the Nation, who was stabbed along with seven other people in a New Haven, Conn., coffee house by a berserk customer.

Noting that the 1994 incident received major treatment in the media as far away as Europe, Shapiro said that, with a few exceptions, most of the reporting was "exploitive, intrusive and inaccurate."

Shapiro said he was only a few hours out of surgery and barely able to speak when calls came from television stations and reporters sought entrance to his hospital room.

Two other victims, the journalist continued, were "ambushed" by a TV crew as they emerged from a doctor's office and later rousted from their beds by other reporters.

Adding to their misery, Shapiro said, was the New Haven Register's printing of the home addresses of all seven victims. The paper told him it was "policy" he recounted.

A serious problem, according to Shapiro, is that both journalists and victims regard themselves as adversaries in a disaster situation.

"As reporters, we talk about getting the interview as though it were a commodity," he said. "Victims feel intruded upon and harassed by us. And many people see this exploitation as a lack of press credibility. This need not be the case. At a certain level, victims and reporter are partners. Reporters are storytellers and victims have stories to tell."

Care in reporting rape cases in text and headlines was stressed by Migael Scherer, herself a rape victim, who works with Simpson's UW program.

"Your words change people's lives for better or worse," she told journalists and editors. "Whatever you say about one rape victim affects all rape victims."

A reporter must respect a rape survivor and treat her healing as "sacred ground," said Scherer, a free-lance writer who has written a book about her experience, Still Loved by the Sun.

She suggests that media coverage include checking with local sexual assault programs on how they can educate the public on the issue, and "recognizing the therapist as an expert on the impact of sexual assault. …