When I became a journalist, I knew I wasn’t signing up to simply write happy human interest features. I knew I would be reporting on death and disaster, and I started preparing myself to handle tragic situations.
But it wasn’t until a gunman opened fire in my newsroom on June 28, 2018, that my crash course in trauma began.
In the coverage of the mass shooting that left five of my colleagues dead — the deadliest attack on journalists in America — I was able to start healing by feeling heard. I went from writing our front page centerpiece to becoming it. I had one of CNN’s only uncensored f-bombs (Robert DeNiro copied me in September). I was a Time Magazine Person of the Year.
I was also bribed, falsely quoted, harassed and continuously retraumatized by reporters who didn’t know how to handle my story.
As I’ve become an unfortunate expert, I want to share a few lessons from the worst days of my life.
No matter how sensitive you are as a reporter, there are just some things you can’t think of until you’ve been through a certain type of trauma. One of those things is ringing the doorbell.
Door knocking is uncomfortable for subjects and reporters, but traumatized people aren’t just bothered by reporters showing up at their door. In the first days after the shooting, unannounced visitors made me feel like my brain was on fire. Before the feelings of paranoia start (Is this someone trying to come finish the job? How many people have my address?), the DAH DAH DING of my parent’s Ring doorbell blaring through the house felt as violent as more gunfire. For me, almost all noise became loud after the shooting. So noises meant to be loud, like a doorbell, immediately put me into a state of panic.
Door knocking becomes unavoidable when it comes to covering disasters. If you can, exhaust all efforts to reach a traumatized subject via the internet or phone before showing up to their door. Try a neighbor’s door to see if they can connect you first. And please, don’t ring the doorbell.
Bribes are risky at best. I got flowers and morning show producers showing up with breakfast. It’s hard for journalists to gain trust with potential sources, but you don’t know how flowers or other gifts are going to be received. I had a reporter who tried to get close to me by constantly texting me. The floral arrangement she sent to my house was the last straw.
Going from reporter to story subject meant I was always given condolences before reporters asked questions. I knew it was all sincere on some level. But it became hard to distinguish what was genuine from reporter to reporter, or what acts of kindness implied that I basically owed people interviews because I was in the business. Other subjects hopefully won’t have to determine if requests from reporters are out of camaraderie or exploitation, but sending flowers or showing up on doorsteps with bagels in the hope of getting a morning show interview still feels in poor taste to me.
Do your homework. You can avoid re-traumatizing someone by letting them know that you’ve seen or read their other interviews, and that you’re not going to make them retell what happened to them. Instead, you’d like to focus on another part of their perspective. Watch, read and listen to as many interviews they’ve already done as you can. Know all the facts of what happened to them and what they’ve already told people. Scour their social media. Try as hard as you can to keep them out of the dark places they don’t need to go.
Use the details you’re given, not what you assume. I had a reporter I trusted through mutual colleagues try and recreate the scene of my shooting. In doing so, she made up details like a pool of blood coming out of my coworker that never existed and my hands shaking as I texted my parents. When I asked her editor how she could have printed something so graphic and exploitative, she said she wanted to show how brave I was. That’s not the way to do it.
Not assuming (AKA making up) details is Journalism 101. But you also can’t assign intent or emotion to simple facts. The golden rule of writing is show, don’t tell. But you need to let the subject show you. You can’t show for them. If you think someone acted with bravery, it’s OK to ask them, “Do you feel brave?” Their answer will probably tell you more than anything you try to recreate.
When you’re interviewing someone who’s experienced immense trauma like a mass shooting, you will take them down a dark path. Even if you try your best to ask questions that won’t make them relive what they went through, they will. They may start talking about graphic details you didn’t ask for and may not be able to stop. It doesn’t matter if you had to take them down that path or not. Your interview shouldn’t be over until you take them out. Have strategies ready to deploy when a source gets distressed or reacts negatively during their recounting and be ready to pull the string on the parachute. You may have to ask questions that won’t give you answers you can use or get them to talk about something that isn’t relevant to your story. But you’ll gain more trust and make that person feel safer with you if you can leave them in a better place.
One of those strategies is getting to know your source beyond what happened to them or their loved one. Find out what makes them happy. Ask them what makes them feel empowered in their life or about their loved one’s life, what’s getting them through this time, has anything made them smile recently? Has a show or book or podcast become their escape? These questions will help your source, and will likely give you a better story.
This was the method used by psychologist Henry Greenspan in his decades-long work interviewing Holocaust survivors. He became someone survivors felt comfortable leading into their memories, and someone they felt could safely pull them back out. The results are the continuing conversations he developed into his book “On Listening to Holocaust Survivors: Recounting and Life History.”
The big impact of small decisions
Journalists’ stories aren’t just informative. They give people power. When you report on trauma, who are you giving that power to? Can you help someone with your story? Are the details you include worth the hurt they may cause? Make sure the details you use in your reporting have purpose.
Part of the last year and a half of my life has been going round and round in a cycle of shock that comes from the news.
When I’m trying to go about my day and the face of the man who killed my colleagues and almost killed me pops up on my social media feed or on TV, it feels like a bucket of ice water has been dumped on my head.
So many of those feelings from that day rush back. And then I’m angry, because I have to go through this thing not even other journalists understand. So I swallow that anger and reach out to that publication or station to tell them how this makes me feel and why they should really be using any other image because we can provide them with so many. There are photos from each memorial and vigil, photos of us in the newsroom, photos of my colleagues reporting on the shooting from the mall parking garage. You don’t need his face to tell our story.
My wounds have been ripped open and I expose them further to try and breach this gap between victims and the media.
And then I have to go through all that shock and sadness and anger again when it happens sometimes in the same day, sometimes from that same outlet I reached out to last.
It’s time to start thinking about how our journalism affects victims of mass tragedy before we think about how to get the most clicks. Photos of shooters — dead or alive, convicted or not — might seem like images that grab readers, but they turn away the ones that matter most: the survivors. It’s ironic that we show such compassion and care in our storytelling, then we callously disregard their feelings when it comes to illustrating our work.
To you and maybe most of your readership, little details like a thumbnail are a blip. To me and my colleagues and the ever expanding network of those touched by gun violence, they’re devastating.
Follow up. Seriously.
I knew to text my parents when I was hiding under a desk because I read about Pulse victims texting theirs. I covered Pulse and the Las Vegas shootings, but I never wrote or read an article that could prepare me for life after my own.
Having reporters be there in our initial moments after the shooting was important. People could hear our story, cry with us and get mad with us. But it also made us incredibly vulnerable.
The worst moments of some peoples’ lives are captured and swirled through the news cycle. And then that’s it. You rarely hear what happened to the woman weeping on her husband’s makeshift memorial or the father whose expression was captured as he realized his child was gone forever.
If these people are part of your coverage, check in on them — and not just on the anniversary of their loss. Give them an opportunity to show you a different side. People should read about the aftermath of their lives, how the holes from those who were ripped away stretch out their “new normal.”
When the rest of the world moves on, the coverage of their event is likely the only thing they’ll have left to remember that time. What kind of memories do you want to leave someone with? Stories where they’re vulnerable as a victim, or empowered as a survivor?
Consider how healing and empowering a portrait can be for that person and others in their shoes who only see those tragic breaking news photos.
For victims and their loved ones, reopening those wounds may be too painful. They might say no when you ask — and that’s OK.
But everyone should have the opportunity to feel remembered. No one’s story ends when they fall out of the news cycle.
And as journalists we should work to give survivors and people who lose loved ones to tragedy memories that can lift them up and remind them why their story matters. We don’t have to define people by their trauma alone.
Selene San Felice is a features and enterprise reporter at The Capital in Annapolis, Maryland, where she survived the newsroom shooting on June 28, 2018. She graduated in December 2016 from the University of Tampa, where she was honored in 2019 as the school’s first distinguished alumni in journalism. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter at @SeleneCapGaz.