Q&A: 2017 Dart Award Winners Offer Advice To Journalists Covering Trauma

Exemplary news reporting on violence and other traumatic events requires balancing personal feelings and journalistic duty; a challenge that takes years of experience to master.

This year’s Dart Award Winners, Samantha Broun, a producer and the managing editor for Transom.org, and Erin Alberty, a reporter for The Salt Lake Tribune, share lessons from their experiences covering trauma. Their outstanding stories are “recognized by the Dart Center for their accuracy, insight, and sensitivity while illuminating the effects of violence and tragedy on victims’ lives.”

Broun’s winning work “A Life Sentence,” is a deeply personal story of a violent crime committed against Broun’s mother and its aftermath. Alberty and The Salt Lake City Tribune team are recognized for their year-long coverage of sexual assault at Brigham Young University.

Broun and Alberty offer advice to aspiring and current working journalists on the complexities of covering trauma. The Dart Center will honor the winners with an awards ceremony, reception and winners’ roundtable discussion on May 3, World Press Freedom Day.

See the event details to learn more. 

1.  What advice do you have for aspiring and professional journalists covering traumatic events?

Samantha Broun: When I started working on "A Life Sentence," it became apparent to me that I needed to be cautious about re-triggering things for my mother (who I’d be interviewing about being brutally beaten and raped by a serial killer) and that I needed to manage my own trauma in re-living these events as well. My advice for others covering traumatic events is - if possible - go slow. Interview people in a comfortable space. Check in with them throughout the interview to see how they’re doing. Believe what they say. Believe what they’re feeling. Have water and tissues nearby. Take breaks. And remember to breathe. 

Erin Alberty: It probably depends on the nature of the event and the nature of the coverage, as well as the medium. 

 

I try to start with a basic mental acknowledgment that the traumatic experience of the person I'm interviewing is a bigger deal than my coverage."

 

Taking the time to honor the person's suffering, even in a breaking news situation, puts me in the right headspace for a conversation that might otherwise be too influenced by my need to get the story. If that agenda appears to be my only concern, the interview will probably go poorly and a vulnerable person will end up feeling exploited.

This all seems so obvious, but I know that in the moment of an interview, I sometimes feel like I'm running a five-ring circus where critical thinking, social-emotional cue-reading, ethical duty, reporting goals, and my own feelings are all urgently competing for my attention. Initially, putting the other person's suffering at the center of my thoughts forces me to slow down.

That may raise some philosophical red flags about objectivity, or where you draw the line: If the subject's suffering is most important, must the photojournalist at a disaster scene put down her camera and take direct action? That's not really what I'm talking about here. Instead, I'm trying to describe a mental and emotional starting point that has been helpful for me to conduct productive interviews.

2. The Salt Lake Tribune received the Dart Award for rigorous reporting on how sexual assault allegations were handled, and Transom was honored for a deeply personal account of a violent crime committed against Sam’s mother. Given the sensitive and emotional nature of these stories, what type of standards and procedures should journalists follow when covering sexual assault allegations and violent crimes?

SB: This was my first time dealing in an in-depth way with such a sensitive topic. The fact that it was my mother I was interviewing added a whole other element. One of the challenges was deciding which details of my mother’s attack and her recovery to keep in, and which to leave out. For my mom, every moment of the five hours she survived were important. I don’t disagree.

But as a journalist, I knew that we would lose our audience by putting in every detail. We needed to give an accurate recounting of what happened that night – one that my mother would ultimately approve of – while not driving listeners away. Having Jay Allison as an editor/co-producer was critical in navigating this terrain. I trusted his guidance in what was important to keep and what would be okay to cut.

In terms of standards and procedures, I think this means respecting those who lived through the traumatic events by not glossing over or exploiting their story. And I think it means not overwhelming your audience as well.

 

Ultimately, when these stories are heard (or read or watched) we want everyone to make it through them from beginning to end – victims as well as a general audience.”

 

EA: It's hard to provide a comprehensive list because cases and sources and stories vary so much. The Dart Center tip sheets are extremely helpful. 

As for standards or procedures, I think the biggest thing is to make sure that both reporter and subject are clear as to how the material may be used and how the source will be identified.

3.  What lessons did you learn after reporting your stories that you hadn’t encountered before?

SB: It took me a while to believe and accept that this piece was going to be, in part, about my own journey of processing this traumatic event. I had never done a personal piece like this before. Going into it, I was concerned I would either lean into my role as producer of the story and shy away from the personal challenges of dealing with this event again or, that I would be so overwhelmed by the personal processing I was doing that I wouldn't find my way to the story. What I learned, thankfully, is that my brain was able to operate in two modes: as Producer Me and Me (Me).

This split was key for me in surviving the nearly three years it took to report and produce the story. Producer (Me) would think about what was good for the piece, handle details and think about the story. Me (Me) was on a personal journey, feeling lots of feelings. Me (Me) was seeking answers and resolution.

The beauty of this, it turns out, is that despite the fact that I was in the field on my own conducting these interviews, I never felt alone. These two parts of me worked together and helped each other through the rough patches. I think the best interviews were those where both parts of myself showed up and were present in the conversation.

EA: I learned better how to recognize when trauma survivors may be triggered in an interview. I understood previously that seemingly benign details or stimuli can be triggering, but I hadn't seen it unfold so intensely in real time before working on these stories. I still wish I knew better how to manage an interview when that happens.

4.  Erin, your stories took a year to report. Sam, your story took three. What tools or organizational tips could you share with journalists who may also be covering long and intensive investigations?

SB: I was fortunate in that my mother had saved hundreds of documents related to her attack and the trial. When I started to work on this, she gave me two huge plastic bins filled with everything from newspaper clippings, to police reports, to court transcripts, to videotapes and more. That helped a lot.

Otherwise, I had one dedicated notebook in which I jotted down every date, conversation, name, or number I gathered that was related to the story. If I made a call about the piece, I would take notes in that notebook. The notebook, as well as all the stuff in the plastic bins, proved to be invaluable, especially when it came to fact-checking the piece later. My tip: Keep one notebook dedicated to your project and don’t leave home without it.

EA: I let sources know from the outset that I wasn't yet certain how the articles were going to shape up. I called them before publication so they would know how their accounts would be used and be aware that the story would be out soon.

5. In your opinion, what are some of the policies that are harming people now, but are not receiving enough attention? Why should the media cover them?

SB: I was very moved by my interview with Charlotte McFadden, Reginald McFadden’s sister. It was obvious to me that she rarely if ever speaks to anyone about her brother or what happened once his sentence was commuted. That she agreed to talk and then spent an hour and a half with me was huge for both of us. It became apparent to me that once her brother was re-arrested, Charlotte was unable to digest what he had done. It was clear to me that this was a traumatic event for her as well.  

On a personal level, I found it healing to sit with Charlotte and to talk about this traumatic event we shared in our lives and the lives of our families. 

 

Meeting her made me wonder about the trauma family members of other violent offenders live with. I’m not sure if there is a government policy related to this. But I do think it’s something that is underreported."

 

EA: I hesitate to call these stories of harm; maybe stories of potential harms that I think deserve further exploration.

I want to hear more about the chilling effect on crime victims who fear immigration action will be taken against them as a result of reporting violent crime. I think it's newsworthy because this is a vulnerable population, and any deterrent to crime reporting is a safety problem for all of us. It seems possible that deportation risks also could shift in the current political climate, making the subject worth revisiting.

Records-sharing arrangements between police departments or other government agencies could pose a privacy problem for victims, witnesses and other persons of interest. Statewide databases for criminal information may be protected by statute or law enforcement protocol, but there is a lot of software out there that facilitates inter-agency sharing of a pretty vast collection of records. That could subvert state records management laws and expose people who have contact with police to an audience they don't know they're agreeing to be exposed to. For example, we learned that BYU's campus police department used such a system to access a student's rape case file from another department – including the sexual assault medical exam report – and shared intimate details with the school’s Honor Code Office.

Frequency of parole eligibility is of interest to me. In some places, frequent eligibility may engage victims and victims' families with perpetrators of horribly violent crimes year after year. On the other hand, infrequent eligibility may weaken an incentive for offenders' behavioral progress.