Credit: engin akyurt on Unsplash

Covering the covid crisis has been more consuming than any other story I have known in 30 years of reporting for the BBC. It has also cast sensitive reporting under the spotlight.

Daily, we have spoken to people suffering illness, upheaval, fear and death. This is not unusual, it goes with the territory as a reporter, but with covid, our handling of these stories has come under sharper scrutiny.

Are journalists and newsroom teams properly qualified to interview people who are in trauma and crisis? Can they do it without potentially doing more harm to them or to their own mental wellbeing, or indeed to their employers’ reputations should it all go horribly wrong?

As reporters, we dive into tragedy from the outside, delving into the lives of the people impacted and sharing their pain through our pieces. But sometimes, as with covid, we are involved too.

Our viewers, listeners and readers are a part of the same pandemic story. They are interested not just in what we are reporting and whose lives we are reflecting but more acutely than ever, in how we are going about it. They empathise closely with our interviewees: It could be them. And it could be us.

This is the moment for us, as an industry, to face the reality that journalists are not trained how to do this level of sensitive work. They are not taught what people who are traumatically bereaved or who have suffered violence, abuse, loss of livelihoods, homes and health may be going through. Nor are they taught how best to work with them and how to look after themselves while they do so.

Journalists effectively practice on the grieving public, feeling and sometimes floundering their way through; programmed to deliver swiftly to multiple platforms. Daily they can grapple with people’s tragic stories, and they need to know what they are doing. Journalism is about relationships and we need to be getting them right.

People are at the heart of this...and they are placing their trust in us to tell their story well.

In a competitive market, there is also the simple equation that if you treat people well, you are more likely to get a better access, a better story and they may be keener to work with you as the tragedy unfolds.

People are at the heart of this - individuals, families, mothers and fathers, just like us - and they are placing their trust in us to tell their story well.

This past year, because of covid, we have had to interview people remotely. One reporter told me how tough she found it talking to a woman via Zoom. The woman had lost three close members of her family in the preceding week. It led me to write these tips that cover what to do before, during and after a remote interview. They were picked up by thousands of journalists and were translated into Arabic.

Throughout the Trauma Reporting course I developed, many families share their insight around what they needed from journalists to be able to tell their stories at shattering times. One of them was Faith who spoke to several reporters when her young son Joshua was killed. She told me: "Being part of your training, I feel Josh’s life wasn’t totally wasted."

Many other interviewees take part in the training, which also gives the views of seasoned correspondents, among them Jeremy Bowen and Louis Theroux, around how they work sensitively.

Melody is a survivor of child sexual abuse who waived her right to anonymity when her stepfather was jailed for 18 years. "As a child victim, I had no power. Being interviewed, I felt I was back as a vulnerable child having to re-live it again. Through your training programme, I can share with journalists the need to give people like me choice, control and connection."

Jo Healey is a senior journalist, founder of Trauma Work, and author of ‘Trauma Reporting, A Journalist’s Guide to Covering Sensitive Stories’. She developed and introduced the BBC’s in-house Trauma Reporting training.  

Did you enjoy this article? Sign up for our free daily newsletter.

Free daily newsletter

If you like our news and feature articles, you can sign up to receive our free daily (Mon-Fri) email newsletter (mobile friendly).