Credit: Photo by Alexandre Debiève on Unsplash

The death knock is a well-known term for anyone starting out in journalism. It is the dreaded task of knocking on the door of a grieving family which has recently lost a loved one.

Reporters of all levels of seniority need to do this but it is often a baptism of fire for young journalists. It is how many newsroom veterans learned their craft and where a lot of scoops are scored.

The danger, however, is that reporters risk causing deep trauma to their source if this task is mishandled, according to Tamara Cherry, a Canadian crime reporter with 15 years of experience, turned trauma consultant and the author of The Trauma Beat: A Case for Rethinking the Business of Bad News.

In an episode of the podcast, Cherry discussed how to go about reporting on survivors of homicide (those left behind to deal with the loss of a murdered family member) and mass violence (people who were present during and survived the event). These are terms people have self-identified with throughout her research interviews.

It is worth noting that in the UK, clause four of the IPSO Editors' Code of Practice deals directly with intrusion into grief and shock: "In cases involving personal grief or shock, enquiries and approaches must be made with sympathy and discretion and publication handled sensitively. These provisions should not restrict the right to report legal proceedings."

Change from the top

Young and hungry reporters will go to crazy lengths for the prestige of a front-page scoop. For that reason, they need editors to help them exercise restraint and sound judgments on their stories.

That was something that a 20-year-old Cherry was missing in 2006 when she interviewed a drunk man who had witnessed his son murdering his wife only a few hours ago. She got the scoop, at the cost of long-term moral injury - the distress of participating in events that go against values and moral beliefs.

"It stuck with me because the interview should never have happened, because of the guilt I carried," she explains.

Today, she knows that the man was deep in what she calls "trauma brain" - a state of vulnerability to long-term trauma if the grieving person cannot process the event with enough time and space.

What she needed was an editor who would refuse to run the article or relegate a trimmed-down version of the story deeper into the newspaper. Instead, she got celebrated for the exclusive.

Another story Cherry worked on in 2007 was about a woman who lost her son in a drive-by shooting. Listening back to the interview years later, Cherry discovered the woman never wanted to speak to a journalist in the first place.

She has since sought therapy that helped her understand that people in top positions let her down and should have intervened. Trauma-informed journalism needs to start at the top with better trained editors and producers.

"Media terror"

Survivors are rarely media-trained and are unprepared for the moment when their worst nightmares become newsworthy. They are unprepared, too, for the methods some journalists employ.

For instance, the press regularly goes back to the survivors for updates and interview requests for anniversaries. But when survivors constantly re-tell their stories they can get stuck in the fight-or-flight mode, leading to prolonged stress.

"Media terror" is not a psychological term, but something one of the survivors in Cherry's research referred to as feeling 'stalked, harassed, followed and hunted' in the aftermath of their loss. Half of the interviewees for her book said that the media contributed to their trauma.

Survivors often recall feeling they did not want, or feel ready, to talk to the media. They often felt betrayed by the headlines, quotes and images that followed, which did not accurately reflect their mindsets later on.

Engaging with the media is disruptive to their healing process, making it hard to focus on funeral or childcare arrangements.

Trauma also affects the ability to recall events accurately and causes people to jumble up the chronology of events. Canadian courts have recognised the unreliability of eyewitness testimonies after traumatic events.

Bending the rules and closing the wounds

What can the media do differently? Editorial exceptions must be made for sources dealing with deep trauma, says Cherry.

Journalists should not start recording until they have established the safe and unsafe questions, and which ones are triggering or not.

"Closing the trauma lid" is what Cherry advises the most, making sure not to end the interview with a traumatic question and leaving people in a deplorable state. Put difficult questions in the middle of the interview and end on a high one, and always check back in with them later on.

Allow people to preview the story to make sure they are comfortable with what will be published. You never know what could be triggering.

They might rescind their consent, mess up your deadlines, tidy up quotes or alter the narrative. But it is their story and they should feel in control. That does not mean removing their ability to speak - as many survivors will want to - but providing flexibility in how they contribute. Cherry's top tip: leave sources feeling in a better state than before they spoke to you.

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