BROOKE GLADSTONE This is On the Media, I'm Brooke Gladstone. Now we revisit a topic we explored earlier this year about who gets to speak and who doesn't. Case in point, Washington Post reporter Felicia Sonmez. This week she sued the Post as well as former executive editor Marty Baron and other top editors for discrimination. From 2018 to this past March, she says she was barred on and off from covering stories about sexual assault because her manager said she herself was a sexual assault survivor. The lawsuit says that she suffered, quote, economic loss, humiliation, embarrassment, mental and emotional distress, and the deprivation of her rights to equal employment opportunities due to the coverage bans. The first big stories she missed was Brett Kavanaugh, a Supreme Court nominee alleged to have committed a sexual assault in high school. Then she missed many more, including the #Metoo movement. Tension with her editors mounted again when Kobe Bryant died in 2020, and she tweeted a link to a story about a rape charge Bryant had settled out of court. She was slammed with a barrage of rape and death threats, forcing a brief move to a hotel. And she also was suspended for, quote, poor judgment. After hundreds of her colleagues rallied to her defense, she was reinstated, but the ban remained in place until Monday, March 19th, when The Washington Post rescinded it after Politico ran a story. The argument over who is and who isn't objective enough or strong enough to report on subjects they know too well, like rape or racism, still roils newsrooms. And since those in power determine who is best fit to report a story, the marginalized are most often silenced. Women, people who are nonwhite, LGBTQ or otherwise vulnerable. Trauma can also disqualify you, but the thing is, exposure to trauma inducing events is an occupational hazard. Anyone who covers the hard stories, the ugly ones, no matter who they are, will be at risk.
BRUCE SHAPIRO Journalism is a trauma facing profession. A lot of what counts as news are the worst experiences that happens to people.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Bruce Shapiro is executive director of The Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, a project of Columbia Journalism School. We spoke back in March.
BRUCE SHAPIRO You know, we think, pretty obviously about the stuff that reporters may witness on the front line. Whether it's the front lines of conflict or covering a disaster or civil unrest, the insurrection on January 6th, that's one kind of traumatic event, but the reality is that journalists spend a huge amount of time also listening to, engaging with, absorbing the stories of people describing the most difficult experiences of abuse and loss that they've had in their lives. Every study that's been done of journalists in the last 20 years says that over the course of their career, between 85 and 100 percent of all journalists will contend with major trauma exposure in the course of their work.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Meaning a potential for trauma, that they see bad things?
BRUCE SHAPIRO There's the slow drip, drip, drip. The accumulation of crime scene after crime scene, murder trial after murder trial, which a lot of research now shows can have a profound effect. Of course, if people then bring to that biographical experiences of trauma, whether it's experiences of family violence as a child, of bad things that have happened to them as adults, sexual assault, all of those things accumulate and eventually your sort of personal levy can be overtopped. And what's more, a lot of research says that when we cover events with which we have a close identity, whether that's because of race or gender or sexuality, parents of small children covering school shootings, those kinds of traumatic events are more likely to have a big impact on us and turn into a risk factor for PTSD or other psychological injury.
BROOKE GLADSTONE But obviously, the choice of who to disqualify from reporting is never neutral because what is impartial is determined by people who also have, consciously or not, a particular worldview.
BRUCE SHAPIRO Look, in my experience, no one has ever said, let's say to a combat veteran: "oh, you're too close to war, you can't be a war correspondent," or "you can't cover veterans." No one's ever said to someone who became a reporter after being a law enforcement officer, and I know several people in that category, you can't cover cops. This only comes up when it's about people who are part of communities who have been left out of the traditional news equation or whose communities are at the center of national debates over injustice. It comes up with women, it comes up with trans folx, and gay and lesbian communities. It comes up, in recent weeks, with Asian-American journalists. It never comes up with the kinds of groups who traditionally have dominated the editorial power structures in newsrooms and for whom the news agenda is so often built.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Shapiro says that discriminatory or merely oblivious workplaces can heighten the risk of trauma. As in the case of Sonmez, who tweeted that the ban and having to explain to editors again and again why she had to turn down an assignment prompted the same debilitating symptoms she had when she first came forward about her assault 3 years ago. She didn't respond to our request for comment. More broadly, though, screening out for trauma makes little sense, given that all journalists are likely to encounter trauma inducing material in their personal lives and at work, if not both. So how can newsrooms operate with that information in mind?
BRUCE SHAPIRO There are still too many managers, I think, who believe that trauma is not an issue the newsroom can deal with or who are so afraid of it that they then begin taking perfectly able reporters and pulling them off of beats because they're worried, oh, you're too close to this, it'll freak you out. There's no evidence to support that. And in fact, it's quite destructive. All the research says that the single most important factor associated with journalists’ resilience is their strength of collegial relationships. The strength of their social relationships. I think we need a broader awareness within the profession of journalism that a little bit of self-care, our own attention to how we're doing, getting help when we need it and being good colleagues to others actually strengthens our capacity to report. Being aware of the occupational mental health risk of trauma exposure is as central to the reporter's toolkit as how to do an interview.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Shapiro says that it's the responsibility both of managers and reporters to be aware and prepared.
BRUCE SHAPIRO I can think back to Hurricane Katrina. I spent some time in New Orleans after the storm and there was this one reporter at the Times-Picayune who was responsible for covering FEMA and the agencies. And I would go out for drinks with this friend, and he would periodically go on these f-bomb laced rants about FEMA and Bush and the Army Corps of Engineers and the huge damage to his beautiful city. And at one point I said to him: "you know, you seem pretty angry, how are you managing to cover these agencies?" and he sat up straight, I'll never forget this, and said, "Oh, you better believe I'm angry, but because I know it and can acknowledge it, I know I need to lean over backwards to be clear and rigorous with myself and the story. The problem would be if I didn't acknowledge this and didn't say, what does this require of me as a journalist?"
BROOKE GLADSTONE Bruce Shapiro is executive director of The Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, a project of Columbia Journalism School where he also teaches ethics.
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