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Trauma-informed reporting: Protecting your sources and yourself

Trauma-informed reporting - Protecting your sources and yourself

‘I originally got into journalism probably two-and-a-half years ago and I guess volunteering with people – specifically women who have endured some sort of trauma – flowed into what I write about,’ says Lauren Medlicott, a freelance journalist writing for publications including The Independent, Metro, The i paper, Newsweek and The Telegraph.

Having worked in domestic abuse services, volunteering with local organisations and running her own Cardiff-based charity for modern slavery survivors, Lauren writes about what she knows – stories that often go unreported.

Protecting those brave enough to share such difficult stories is paramount, but so too is the protection of the writer and readers. Here, Lauren shares advice for supporting sources, and yourself, when reporting the important stories.

You frequently speak to people who have experienced trauma for your work – how do you protect and support your interview subjects while talking to them?

At the front of the interview – even before if I’m working with a charity – I talk to them about whether they need to stay anonymous, and how much – their location, name and/or identifying features?

Sometimes it’s not possible to work with them, because publications don’t always allow for that. But a lot of them do. At the beginning of the interview, I ask if there’s any question they don’t want to answer, just let me know and I’ll move on. I say if there’s any point they need to take a break, take a break.

I always come in with kindness, and just have a little chat first, so that they’re not jumping straight in with traumatic answers.

How do you ensure your reporting is appropriate and respectful of their trauma in the writing process?

I try to go as much from the interview as possible and not make huge narratives. Again, it can be hard working with editors, because they want things to be ‘flared up’, but I do try to stick to what interview subjects have said to me, versus me trying to imagine what has happened to them, or imagine what it is like to be in this place or experience.

I do tell interviewees upfront that I’m going to be writing things that they say, so it is best to avoid saying things that they may not want written.  

What advice would you give to other journalists undertaking potentially triggering interviews for features?

Learn about trauma and figure out how that can impact people’s memory and emotions. Your subject might be quite standoffish with you as a journalist especially because of their trauma. Learn how it affects the brain and then think about how that could impact an interview.

And don’t be surprised when people are really nervous when sharing their story; respect that. People sometimes back out of things that I’ve written, and I have to respect that process, even if it comes at a financial and time cost for me. It’s their story – they’re sharing it, and I want to do whatever I can to make them comfortable.

From a trauma standpoint, it is important for me to respect their wishes and desires more than that of the editor’s.

How should journalists also protect themselves when writing about such subjects?

I’ve developed a thick skin, but not so thick that I don’t feel any emotion when I hear people speak about issues like sexual violence, physical violence or anything with children.

I think protecting yourself when writing about these subjects looks like exercising, journaling, maybe having a trusted friend that you can bounce things off. Taking lots of breaks is important, getting lots of sleep. And I guess seeing a therapist, if you can afford that…

Should publishing companies be doing more to support journalists reporting on emotionally difficult topics?

I guess, but publishers are already so pushed – a lot of them are anyway, for financing. So yes – but I can’t see that happening.

You’ve previously mentioned how useful NGOs and charities are with stories, but they can be hesitant to work with journalists. How should people approach them?

When I started out – and sometimes I still do this – I would email charities and say who I was, my background. That these are the kind of topics I write on, and would love to stay in touch about future campaigns they might be running. Or if there’s someone in their community that would like to share their story in the media, I’d love to be able to chat about the possibility of interviewing them, promising respect, understanding and trauma-informed questioning.

What kind of stories do you want to highlight in 2023?

Anything that has to do with women in the UK that are facing violence of any sort – whether domestic violence, or asylum seekers who are experiencing what is really abuse at the hands of the Government, from detention centres and from the Nationality and Borders Act. That is where my heartbeat is always going to be. Even if I can’t always write about it, that is what I’m interested in.  

How can fellow journalists help you with your work? 

I can feel discouraged in journalism, and that I’m not doing a good job. As a freelance journalist, it can get quite lonely. Reach out and connect – encouragement goes a long way.

Lauren can be found tweeting @LaurenMedlicott. For more about Lauren and her work, read our previous piece on transferrable skills for breaking into journalism.

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