Sensitizing Reporters p. 13

By: M.L. STEIN 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 (PTSD) 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 freelance writer who has written a book about her
Panel says those covering traumatic events should be aware of the effect their interviews may have on victims and their families 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."
Her list of don'ts in reporting rape include:
? Putting in details that identify the victim.
? Asking victims, "Why did you do that?"
? Use of such terms as "the accuser" or "alleged victim." Instead say, "The person reporting the rape."
? Printing the entire police report. "Think of the victim."
? Publishing the assailant's name and address when it could identify the victim.
Scherer also urges: "Stop making such a big deal about false reports; only about 2% of sexual assaults are false, the same rate as for most other violent crimes."
Joan Byrd, former ombudsman for the Washington Post and a visiting UW professor, agreed that the media tick off both victims and readers by their coverage of crime and disaster victims.
One thing newspapers and television should do is explain the rationale for the story and pictures, she said.
"Say somewhere that this person wanted to tell his or her story and why," Byrd said. "People have the feeling we're forcing them to see things they don't want to see and they can't find any reason why they should see them. They want the media to show respect for victims and not invade their privacy and dignity."
Ochberg said one of the aims of the MSU and UW programs is to assure reporters "they will get a better story if they have a sense of comfort and expertise in interviewing people who are distressed. We are not urging news reporters to become victims' advocates.
Another psychiatrist, Dr. E.K. Rynearson of Seattle's Virginia Mason Medical Center, advised journalists interviewing crime victims to avoid "speculative input" such as suggesting a murder may be the act of a serial killer, that a neighborhood or school should have better police protection or that a murder victim must have been a "risk taker."
"All these leading questions are meant to elaborate a reporter's potential story," the expert said. "Instead, they run the risk of distorting and further complicating the story of a traumatized person."
Rynearson contended that a reporter loses his or her "professional boundaries by assuming the role of personal confidant, advocate and finally, co-investigator."
In one actual case, he recalled, the mother of a slain child became suicidal over police failure to solve the crime. She also became enraged at a reporter to whom she had confided, accusing her of being incompetent and uncaring, the psychiatrist said.
Rynearson further warned journalists against dwelling on the re-enactment of a trauma when talking to a victim, pointing out: "The highly traumatized person is barraged by recurring re-enactment themes which will persist for many months. This is commonly associated with nonrecovery."
Ochberg, who has served as a crisis management consultant to the FBI, Secret Service and the National Security Council, advised reporters to allow victims being questioned as much control over the interview as possible, as well as explaining their journalistic objective.
The reporter, he went on, might start by convincing a robbery victim, for example, that he is really interested in her story and that readers would benefit by knowing the kind of impact such a crime has.
The reporter, Ochberg said, need not offer a "journalistic equivalent" of the Miranda warning in dealing with trauma, but he might explain to the victim that the interview has benefits for the community and may benefit him.


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