Vulnerable sources can make journalists vulnerable

By Alexandra Levine

In the wake of a traumatic event, journalists must quickly decide if and how to respond. When writing and reporting on trauma, journalists are tasked with handling stories as ethically and sensitively as possible — with “sensitivity” having a broad range of meanings.

Some journalists may not seem sensitive at all, asking tough questions that might trigger uncomfortable thoughts, painful flashbacks or defensive reactions from the person being interviewed. It’s debatable whether that makes the writer insensitive or unethical, or whether that is simply a journalist doing her or his job. Other journalists, who might seem relatively more “respectful” of a source’s trauma, may avoid these taxing questions altogether. But omitting those questions leaves the journalist in a dangerous position, with little testimony and few facts.

Trauma victims may become vulnerable and, in a way, re-victimized during an interview. But journalists risk becoming vulnerable by not asking difficult questions, putting their credibility on the line and causing others to doubt their reporting abilities. This ambiguity is problematic.

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During my first week at Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism, I pitched and reported a story on Selis Manor, Manhattan’s only residence specifically for the blind and visually impaired. I was learning classic, shoe-leather reporting, and I walked straight into the building’s office and began interviewing a young, athletic-looking guy named Anthony Butler, who was manning the front desk. Butler, who was 26 at the time, wore dark sunglasses: He told me he had gone blind six years ago as a result of an eye illness.

Just before publishing the article, I googled him as part of a quick fact-check. I discovered a short article written about Butler on a blog from The New School, where he had been a student, and the post explained that he had gone blind after being shot in the head. My stomach dropped: Had he lied to me? Or had he lied on the school blog? I wanted to publish the story as I had it — being the week-old journalist that I was, I was too afraid to ask him whether he had, in fact, been shot in the head. I assumed it was too sensitive a subject, and I didn’t want to upset him. My editor was not okay with this. I had no choice but to verify which story was correct.

I called back, practically holding my breath, and Butler conceded that he had, indeed, been shot in the head. I hung up the phone. This would still not suffice for my editor.

I had to call back. I had to find out the street corner where it happened. I had to know the kind of gun. I had to know which part of his skull the bullet tore through. I had to know what part he remembered and what part he didn’t. I had to know who provoked whom. And why. Whether there were drugs or alcohol involved. What he was wearing.

I was scared: I didn’t understand how getting at the minutia of what had happened would advance the story. I worried that I might re-traumatize this man. He answered a few of my questions, but soon hung up on me. I wrote: “Anthony Butler, 26, who volunteers in the front office at Selis, went blind six years ago after being shot in the head by a 16-year-old during an altercation on a Bronx street.”

I was mortified, having put Butler in this vulnerable, emotionally trying position. But had I not verified his account, I would’ve been just as vulnerable: I would have published a falsity, because of my own fear.

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This is precisely what happened to acclaimed journalist Sabrina Ruben Erdely.

Last fall, she avoided the minutia. While reporting for Rolling Stone on an alleged gang rape at the University of Virginia, Erdely erred too much on the side of caution with her source, “Jackie,” who recounted her traumatic experience being mass-raped at a college frat party. Erdely never contacted or interviewed Jackie’s alleged rapists — and Jackie never even provided Erdely with verifiable names of her attackers — because the source said she was too afraid to face them and that it was too psychologically difficult to reopen the gruesome wound. Erdely did not press the issue, having accepted that the trauma was too overwhelming to revisit.

Her ethical dilemma became this: as a journalist, should she respect the victim’s wish to avoid her attacker at all costs? Or should she be obliged to bring the alleged attacker into the conversation, which might prolong and amplify the victim’s trauma?

After the story, “A Rape on Campus,” had been published, people began questioning the credibility of Jackie’s account and consequently of Erdely’s reporting, one detail at a time. The facts were botched, some made up or unverifiable, and the story was ultimately discredited and retracted. It became widely known as one of the worst pieces of journalism to date. Erdely has since been disgraced and ridiculed, her name tarnished. Her decision to not drill down into Jackie’s trauma put Erdely in a vulnerable position, and it may have marked the end of her journalism career.

columbia rolling stone report image copy

A Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism report detailed Sabrina Erdely and Rolling Stone‘s mistakes.

 

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There are practical guidelines to help journalists navigate the line between re-traumatizing a source and doing due diligence. The DART Center for Journalism & Trauma, run through Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism, provides resources to journalists doing crisis reporting, covering traumas including homicide, suicide, sexual violence and natural disasters. But a checklist is only helpful to a certain extent; “practical” guidelines might not be useful in a situation that is anything but practical or straightforward.

I returned from the FASPE trip to Germany and Poland with a better handle on how to deal with these sorts of ethical questions — we spent a considerable amount of time discussing how to fact-check a Holocaust survivor, how to interview a trauma victim, and how to distinguish between journalists who are “ethical heroes” and “ethical goats.” But when I dove into my first-ever journalism job, I was truly tested.

Shortly after arriving at The Jewish Daily Forward, for the paper’s annual genetics issue, I interviewed Eva Mozes Kor, an 81-year-old woman who is one of the last surviving “Mengele Twins” from Auschwitz—twins who had been subjected to experimentation by the Nazi doctor, Josef Mengele. He’d inject the pairs of twins with different unknown substances, not only to further German medical research but also to determine the best “recipe” for a superior Aryan race.

So I called her up. I had read books on Kor, seen interviews with her and knew that she had given lectures many, many times. We spent nearly 2 hours on the phone. The first hour was fascinating, but almost sounded scripted — I’d hear quotes that were verbatim from other interviews of hers that I had read. But one hour and ten minutes into our phone call, she broke down and began crying into the receiver, she in Terre Haute, Indiana, and I in New York City.

She had been talking about the Chengeri twins, another set of siblings who had made it through Auschwitz with their entire family intact. After liberation, the Chengeris’ mother helped and looked after Eva Kor and her twin sister, Miriam, who had lost the rest of their family. Eva explained the dynamic between herself and the Chengeri family, how painful it was—despite the fact that they were helping Eva and Miriam—to have to live life looking at a family that had not been completely torn apart at the camp, as the Kor family had been. It was this one detail that pushed my interviewee over the edge.

I felt helpless on the other end of a phone call, unable to handle a situation like this face-to-face. I wondered whether I should apologize, or whether I was compelled to continue the interview. I wondered whether I should verbalize my sympathy or empathy, or whether that was not allowed because feeling for your source is not typically in the job description; in fact, showing any emotional bias is traditionally discouraged.

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It’s easy to ask ourselves what is more important: maintaining a source’s wellbeing, or publishing a deeply reported, factually accurate story? But there’s no easy answer. Pick the former and you risk publishing inaccuracies or being ridiculed for not being thorough enough. Pick the latter and you risk being accused of being “that person” with little regard for a person’s feelings, interested only in getting the juicy details and being the first and only reporter to break the news.

FASPE did not provide me with a black-or-white answer to any of these questions, or with a set, textbook way of managing these situations. But it did give me an invaluable framework through which I can begin to assess—one story at a time—how to maximize truth and minimize harm, without making one mutually exclusive of the other.

 

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