Five Ideas on Meaningful Consent in Trauma Journalism

Not everything in these suggestions is practical for breaking news reporters, or in all reporting situations.  But for long-form or feature work of the type that sparked the current debate, I think these are important things to think about.

Many of these ideas — along with examples of best practices — are developed in my piece, “The Pornography Trap: How Not to Write About Rape,” which was published in January in the Columbia Journalism Review.

The Dart Center-Europe also has a very useful two-page tip sheet for journalists reporting on sexual violence, reproduced here.

Five Ideas on Meaningful Consent in Trauma Journalism

1. Meaningful consent comes from the survivor. If your fixer says, “Sure, you can write about her, she said it’s fine,” that’s not enough.  You have to look at the person whose trauma story you want to expose to the world and say to her directly in whatever language you speak, “Here’s who I am. Here’s what I’m doing. I would like to interview you/ride along with you/etc. and write about that for an American audience in a national magazine/American listeners to national radio/etc.” We work through translators all the time. But translators do not have the power of consent: It is not their story.

If you feel like an idiot re-introducing yourself or re-explaining what you’re trying to do, that’s fine. “I’m sorry to repeat myself, but I want to make sure my purpose is clear: Here’s who I am. Here’s what I’m doing…” And when the translator says, “I already asked her that,” you say, “I appreciate that, but the rules of my job require that I ask her, directly, myself. So if you don’t mind interpreting what I’m saying so that we can confirm this one more time, I would be very grateful.”

In Haiti since the earthquake, this has not been a problem just for or with Mother Jones. Meena Jagannath, a legal fellow for the pro bono Bureau des Avocats Internationaux (BAI) in Port-au-Prince, writes: “In one case, a reporter took an on-camera interview of a five year-old rape victim that was posted to the Internet. The grandmother of the victim told her attorney that the reporter had promised she would get help if she shared the child’s story online. In another instance, a journalist reported the name of a 15 year-old victim she had interviewed at the BAI, claiming that she had consent from a partner women’s organization providing support to the victim.”

It is also, for the record, a problem that goes both ways. In her comments on Danticat’s article, K*’s lawyer, Jayne Fleming, points out that McClelland included in an essay a line about another of Fleming’s clients. Fleming insists in the comments, “Mac did not have my permission to write about this client.”

I have a lot of respect for human rights lawyers. But like translators, or husbands, or doctors, or anyone else, lawyers are not a source of meaningful consent.

2. Meaningful consent is given for specific use. Clarity of purpose is a polite thing when you’re interviewing, say, Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner. It’s crucial when you’re interviewing a trauma survivor. The experience of trauma dis-orders someone’s world – pulls time apart, undoes chronology, and undermines trust of fellow human beings. Good trauma reporting requires that journalists understand and acknowledge those ruptures by going out of their way not to reinforce or replicate them.

Building trust with our sources is a daily task. If we want some juicy piece of some political happening on the record, we’ll be clear with our source about what we want to use and how we want to use it. “I want to quote that email, but I’ll wait till Thursday.” Or, “I want to reconstruct this conversation, and I’ll put the reconstruction in my Times Magazine cover story.” Or whatever.

Unless you have explained your purpose to a trauma survivor, you don’t have meaningful consent. They should know where their story is appearing; who will read it; whether it will be in print, online, on television – or, yes, tweeted – or all of the above. They should also understand all of those media, and if they don’t, you as the journalist have to explain it to them. Otherwise, consent is not meaningful. Think of how many times you’ve felt screwed over by some tiny-print, passive-voice, weird-verb-that-doesn’t-exist-in-common-spoken-English in your credit card agreement or your lease or your student loan. And that’s just business.

3. Meaningful consent is given at an appropriate time. Sure, you can explain Twitter to get a source to let you use it – but not in a crisis situation, like when a woman who can’t speak is trying to get to a treatment center after a rape. There’s no way anyone in that state of can learn how Twitter works – that it broadcasts in real-time, that any tweet lives on the internet (and in the Library of Congress archives) forever, that it can spread real-time information about your identity and your location, etc.
This, too, is bigger than medium. The moment of trauma is simply not an appropriate time to get a trauma survivor’s meaningful consent to participate in a journalist project. (I actually found using Twitter later, so that the Twitter feed unfolds in real time but you’ve structured a story, and consent is clear, one of my more useful suggestions at the time, but the debate blew right past it.)

Lawyers, NGO protection officers and others probably won’t like this, but I do believe it’s possible for McClelland to be in that car with K*. The problem wasn’t that she rode along as K* sought medical treatment after being raped, or even that her consent to be there was murky at the time. The problem is that, given the circumstances, McClelland should have waited and verified the consent she (thought she) had. It is entirely possible for McClelland to ride along in that car and write a feature story about it, later — that is a paradigm of ethical practice. But doing that requires talking with K* afterward about what McClelland can and cannot use from the ride-along. If K* can’t speak while you’re next to her [M’s tweets report that her tongue had been bitten off by her perpetrator], it’s probably best to assume she can’t meaningfully consent to everything happening being on the record.

4. Meaningful consent repeats itself. In fact, that is one of the greatest strengths of long-form journalism: We listen and watch and learn, and then take time to think about what we’ve seen and heard, and then with all that learning and reflection, we can write amazing, moving, perhaps even world-changing works of journalism. We use time to help make meaning.
When we’re working with trauma survivors, we should also prioritize reviewing our story with survivors. We should make sure there is nothing in the story that we will publish – in days, in months, in a year – that surprises, embarrasses, shames, or endangers them.

This is a familiar process to most magazine journalists (newspaper journalism operates slightly differently). We call it fact-checking, and it’s the checks-and-balances of journalism. In fact-checking, we’re usually verifying that we are accurate. We’re also vetting ourselves to make sure that we’re fair. A fact-checker will come to me and say, “You quoted fourteen homeowners whom the bank foreclosed on, but you didn’t even try to get a comment from the bank? What the hell is wrong with you?” The point is, fact-checking helps keep us honest.

In trauma stories, fact-checking is not just about accuracy or about honesty. It’s also about consent: We repeat the details of a trauma story with the survivor in order to make sure that they understand what the world will know about them. Personally, I believe that even at this moment, when you are talking through the details of your final manuscript, the survivor has to have the right to pull a detail, a fact, a quote. Journalists are after “the whole truth” – but the whole truth of public affairs is different than the whole truth of personal trauma. The whole truth of a trauma survivor’s story is what she says it is, not what we want to publish.

That does not mean you cannot talk to a trauma survivor during or immediately after the trauma. It does mean that you have to go back to the survivor to verify meaningful consent afterward. After all, it’s entirely possible, upon reflection, that a rape survivor would decide she doesn’t want you broadcasting the way her doctor humiliated her in her exam room. You may think that’s an important part of the story — that it shows pervasive disrespect for women, say – but she may not want to be known in the world as having been humiliated. At the very least, journalists have to be open to that possibility – and open a conversation about it with the survivor. “Can I write what he said in the exam room?” you ask. And you ask that later.

5. Trauma journalism has different standards.

The ideas I’ve outlined above are examples of refining the traditional notion of consent for best use in trauma journalism. I hope they are ideas whose application goes beyond the controversy at hand.

But there is one element of that controversy I want to go back to: Mother Jones editors have said, “Although we would never allow a politician or a corporate spokesperson to walk back access or quotes, in this case, we wanted to respect the victim’s wishes and were sensitive to the inherent communications problems.”

They were explaining why they agreed, after K*’s November 2010 email, not to use K*’s story. They explain this as if it is an exceptional decision for K*, based in part on the confusion about consent in the first place. I hope that it isn’t an exceptional decision.

The reason to allow K* — or any trauma survivor — to “walk back access or quotes” is precisely that she is not a politician or corporate spokesperson. They are people of power. Not only is K* not politically or economically powerful; she was of journalistic interest literally because of her moment of powerlessness.

This is the fraught territory that is trauma reporting – for Mother Jones, for me, for all those journalists who are prepping their 10-year anniversary “where are 9/11 families” now stories… We write about people’s moments of greatest vulnerability.

That’s what trauma reporting is. And that literally turns journalistic practice on its head. The rules of traditional journalism are written for a game in which the journalist is the disempowered party. Those rules are designed to get as much information as possible from people who, for reasons of self-interest, probably don’t want to give it to us. That’s why we have things like “on the record” – it’s public, no going back. Or “on background” – you can use the information, but you can’t name the source. Or even, “on deep background,” which is “for your edification only, and you can’t print/broadcast any of this.”

These are rules powerful people know. If you interview a State Department official, the first thing they will do is say, ‘This OTR” or “This is on background” or “How will this be used?” And you negotiate the rules. They know how the game works. Indeed, they know that it’s a game.

So we have to rewrite the rules. Trauma journalism requires that journalists acknowledge a major power shift – one that favors the journalists. We have to rewrite our playbook. The premise is still the same – protect the vulnerable – but now, we’re not the vulnerable. Our sources are.

This post outlines some ways I think the power shift affects consent. It is not a comprehensive list of the consequences of the power shift, or a guide for absolutely every reporting situation. So here’s the bottom line – literally:

Trauma changes the rules. Everything about our practice must reflect that.

Thanks for reading.

To get background on the controversy that sparked this post, or to comment on that, please read (and post) here.

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