Clear It With Sidney

Notes on journalism for the common good, by Lindsay Beyerstein

Jina Moore on Consent and Trauma Journalism

In light of the controversy surrounding Mac McClelland’s coverage of rape in Haiti, freelance journalist and media producer Jina Moore of JinaMoore.com suggests some ethical ground rules for journalists seeking to create longform or feature work about trauma survivors.

In a nutshell, Moore argues that trauma journalists must set higher standards for consent to coverage than journalists who write about public figures or even about private citizens in less extreme circumstances.

In her latest post, Moore makes a compelling case that the ethics of trauma journalism are a unique subset of journalistic ethics. Standard journalistic ethics assumes that the journalist has less power than the person she is interviewing. Trauma journalists must proceed from the opposite assumption: 

That’s what trauma reporting is. And that literally turns journalistic practice on its head. The rules of traditional journalism are written for a game in which the journalist is the disempowered party. Those rules are designed to get as much information as possible from people who, for reasons of self-interest, probably don’t want to give it to us. That’s why we have things like “on the record” – it’s public, no going back. Or “on background” – you can use the information, but you can’t name the source. Or even, “on deep background,” which is “for your edification only, and you can’t print/broadcast any of this.”

These are rules powerful people know. If you interview a State Department official, the first thing they will do is say, ‘This OTR” or “This is on background” or “How will this be used?” And you negotiate the rules. They know how the game works. Indeed, they know that it’s a game.

So we have to rewrite the rules. Trauma journalism requires that journalists acknowledge a major power shift – one that favors the journalists. We have to rewrite our playbook. The premise is still the same – protect the vulnerable – but now, we’re not the vulnerable. Our sources are.

Moore explored and illustrated some of these ideas in her essay, “The Pornography Trap: How Not to Write About Rape,” which appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review in early 2011.