There’s a debate raging about Mac McClelland’s reporting for Mother Jones last fall from Haiti. If you haven’t followed it, a personal essay for GOOD magazine about McClelland’s struggle with PTSD after spending time in Haiti ignited strong feelings – about the relationship between journalism and essays, about neo-colonial representations of the developing world, and other things. All worthy big issues -- bigger than this one article -- but I'd like to focus on something else: Consent.
The debate on that question requires some background. Herewith, background:
Haitian novelist and MacArthur Fellowship (aka “genius award”) winner Edwidge Danticat wrote this online piece for Essence that sparked a debate about whether McClelland had permission to use the story of a rape survivor known as K*, and when she got that permission, and for what. Danticat took particular offense to McClelland’s decision last year to live-tweet K*’s trip to get medical attention.
Much of the debate has focused on whether McClelland had consent to ride along with a woman known as K* as she sought medical attention after being raped, in September 2010. Mother Jones’ editors have said that McClelland got consent from her fixer/driver. The editors say that the driver told McClelland that K* said yes.
All sides seem to agree that McClelland's found K* through her driver, after getting permission to ride along as he took K* to treatment. K* has a lawyer, Jayne Fleming, from a pro bono clinic. Fleming says in the comments the driver called Fleming to clear McClelland for the ride along. Fleming wrote in a September 2010 email that she said yes, provided McClelland reviewed facts with her prior to publication. Fleming says she did not and would not have granted permission for Twitter.
Here's something to keep in mind: the editors and the lawyers weren't there. McClelland insists, also in Essence comments, that the driver gave her consent, and that in following days K* and her family did not act in a way which suggested the consent was not "credible" (McClelland's word, in Essence comments). K* has not spoken about the ride-along consent, except to retract three months later any consent that may have been given. The driver has said nothing.
In November 2010, K* hand-wrote McClelland a note, sent as a PDF to McClelland by K*’s lawyers, asking McClelland never to use her story. I’m quoting that note in full, from the Essence site, because it’s the only time in this whole drama that we hear K*’s voice:
You have no right to speak of my story.
You have no right to publish my story in the press
Because I did not give you authorization.
You have no right. I did not speak to you.
You have said things you should not have said.
On Consent: Moving from debate to discussion
I can’t imagine that continuing a debate about when McClelland got access to what and through whom will satisfy anyone, least of all K*. It doesn't seem to me that there's much to dispute about K*'s note itself: the injunction against continued use seems like it should have applied to the GOOD essay. I'm not very interested in debating either of those things.
I'm interested in the very important conversation I think this controversy gives us an opportunity to have. That conversation is about meaningful consent.
Last year, when I kicked off a debate about this here (and here and here), I suggested that letting K* tweet her story herself would have resolved, in real time, some consent questions, including those that have this week resurfaced. Clara Jeffery, a co-editor of Mother Jones, replied on Twitter, “Right, like she has a smart phone and a twitter account.”
If she doesn’t have those things, does she understand what’s happening? If she doesn’t understand, do you really have consent?
And that, for me, is precisely the bigger point here: The standard for trauma journalism isn’t letter-of-the-law consent, as it is in so much other journalism. The standard is meaningful consent.
So I’ve worked up some ideas on meaningful consent. Not iron-clad, of course, but I hope they are constructive things to be thinking about. These are ideas I've gathered in three years of work interviewing trauma survivors in Rwanda, eastern Congo, Sierra Leone and Liberia. They have been refined by very helpful guidelines from the Dart Center on Journalism and Trauma, and by many wonderful conversations with its Ochberg Fellows, in my cohort and in others. (Though of course this and all my work, and errors, and blind spots, etc., are my own.)
To save you an incredibly long blog post, here’s the executive summary. The list, with analysis, is here.
- Meaningful consent comes from the survivor. Not a driver, a husband, a social worker, a doctor, a lawyer...
- Meaningful consent is given for specific use. The story, the audience, and the medium are explained, understood, and agreed to by both parties.
- Meaningful consent is given at an appropriate time. That time is very rarely in moments of or immediately after crisis.
- Meaningful consent repeats itself. Long-form or feature journalism has time to go back to survivors and talk through how the story will appear. It also has that obligation.
- Trauma journalism has different standards. Trauma journalism inverts our usual relationships with sources and makes us the most powerful people in the room. Our professional rules aren’t built for that, so we must adapt them.
PS: To take it back, literally, to the top: McClelland's recent essay focused on vicarious trauma from her professional work, and she spoke movingly of the isolation she felt in dealing with it. Many journalists experience the vicarious trauma McClelland described. The Dart Society, a companion group of journalists working with the Dart Center on Journalism and Trauma and its founder Dr. Frank Ochberg, can be a wonderful place for support for journalists facing similar challenges, from journalists who've been there. We welcome you. Please be in touch.