Blog Postpost

Posted Tuesday April, 6th 2021

Mapping a new pathway to trauma-informed journalism

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Ricardo talked to me for hours. Mostly he talked at me, or near me, talked while looking at me, and less often, with me. I wondered if he could hear my questions. If I should keep trying to guide him to the answers I needed.

I felt he was relieved to tell me about his deportation. That he probably hadn’t told many people, at least not in a long time. I knew I was supposed to get the answers my editor wanted, but I couldn’t push him. I felt he really needed to talk. So I let him.

Three hours in, my head felt heavy and big. The low, angled ceiling of his apartment at the top of a Rhode Island triple-decker felt farther than it had been when I walked in. I had a water bottle in my bag but hadn’t allowed myself to drink, because I couldn’t manage to interrupt him, and I was worried he would keep talking while I put down my microphone to take a sip.

This is the interview that’s etched inside my forehead. Not the white supremacists. Not the man whose friend was murdered for being Guatemalan. Not the dozens of undocumented young people fighting to stay. It was Ricardo, an alias my editor gave the man who was deported in a massive worksite raid in New Bedford, Mass., in 2007, and later crossed the border a second time, surviving unimaginable adversity to settle once again in New England.

In over a decade as a journalist I’ve covered the arts, craft beer, sex clubs, sports, politics -- countless subject matters. But I hold my breath most often when covering immigration, which I’ve done from the beginning. After all this time in the field without a guidebook, I’ve enrolled in the Trauma Research Foundation’s certificate program to learn how to better care for myself and the people I interview.

I’m an immigrant. My family moved from Peru to Miami when I was 11. Like many immigrants in this country, I have undocumented relatives. Like many immigrant journalists, I covered immigration throughout Donald Trump’s campaign and presidency. Like many immigrant journalists, I was told by US-born colleagues that my coverage of immigration was biased, because of my personal experience.

The myth of journalistic objectivity has been refuted by smart people for a long time, so I won’t spend too much time on it here. Instead, I’ll write about what nobody told me back in 2016, when I sat in the press box of the Republican National Convention and my elbows pressed into my ribs as the crowd screamed “USA! USA!” over and over after a series of speakers whose children were killed by undocumented people directed everyone to rally for Trump: that my immigration trauma was being triggered, that it was normal, and that my reporting plan should include care for those triggers. And I’ll write about what I didn’t tell Ricardo: that talking to me about his hardest memories might retraumatize him, that he should seek out care after our conversation, and that I couldn’t be the one to give it to him.

Journalists are trained to be “thick-skinned” and “unbiased” -- removed from the stories we cover. When these qualities are applied to journalists from oppressed communities, it requires us to suppress the natural response to seeing in our stories a reflection of our past (or current) selves in distress, lest we be deemed unfit to cover the story. Our profession puts great emphasis on objectivity, and very little on the wholly unobjective aspects of talking to people about the worst days of their lives for a living.

Because I’ve always been labeled “sensitive,” it took me years to register that the intense emotional charge of interviews like the one I had with Ricardo was not unique to me, but rather the logical cause-and-effect of poking at someone’s unresolved trauma for hours on end. A year after Ricardo, I was a movement journalism fellow at the 2018 Allied Media Conference, where I first heard the term “non-extractive storytelling.” In short, it challenges the journalistic practice of quickly persuading a person to share their painful experiences on the record, and then disappearing from that person’s life when the interview is over. Non-extractive storytelling instead called for us to persuade less and respect more. To move more slowly and make room for people’s emotional reactions.

In trying to practice non-extractive storytelling, I found I needed to intentionally make space for people’s trauma to resurface -- unlike with Ricardo, where neither of us had control of the situation. I found myself fumbling the line between knowing when to respect a source’s trauma and when to push for the benefit of the story. I felt hyper-aware of digging into unhealed wounds, without training or a safety net, for professional gain.

As I fumbled along my interviews, I was teaching -- exclusively among oppressed communities: Latinx podcasters with Futuro Media Group in Boston, Spanish-speaking grad students at CUNY’s Newmark School in New York, local journalists in New Orleans, women of color from across the country with Spotify online. Without having the language for it, I brought the considerations of trauma-informed interviewing to every teaching space. I didn’t have answers or guidelines for my fellow storytellers, so I encouraged discussions instead: How might we make the interview dynamic a safer space for everyone involved? What preparation do interviewees need before heading into a bizarro therapy session with someone who is not clinically trained? What kind of training should interviewers have for handling vicarious trauma?

As an educator, I believe this should be standard in journalism curriculums. As long as the profession requires us to conduct sensitive interviews, we should be trained in handling trauma. This thinking is becoming increasingly popular in the field of journalism: Recently the public radio training site Transom published Alice Wilder’s trauma-informed reporting manifesto, extensively referencing The Body Keeps the Score, and more journalists are seeking and building similar resources. Through this program, I’m doing the same.

I’m pursuing this certificate to have a more clinical understanding of trauma, use it to inform my teaching and conversations with other journalists, and to help me compile some of those conversations into a trauma-informed resource kit to share with sources ahead of interviews.

I haven’t had as hard an interview as my time with Ricardo in 2017. I wish I’d known enough then to recognize that my questions were triggering for him, his answers triggering for me, and that we both would need care in the aftermath. Instead I let him go on, because I thought I’d cause harm otherwise, and left us both stressed and alone when it was time to go.


Maria Murriel is co-founder of Pizza Shark Productions, a podcast network and production house working toward radical inclusivity in media. She lives in New Orleans, where she works on storytelling as a healing practice. Read more at mariamurriel.com.

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