Reuters Handbook the First with Trauma Guidelines

One of the many virtues of the new online Reuters Handbook of Journalism: It is the first generally-available newsroom style guide with specific guidelines for reporting on victims of trauma.

In questioning people who have suffered physically or emotionally, our primary responsibility is to seek news through witness statements. A complex story can be compellingly told through the experience of one victim. But we must avoid adding to interviewees’ peril or distress. We must always identify ourselves as journalists and be absolutely open about our intentions. Reporters should seek out those who want to talk. Interviewees must be aware that their comments and identities may be widely publicised. When dealing with people who are unfamiliar with international media, we must take care to avoid placing interviewees at risk. In reporting on suffering, a restrained style is often the most effective.

This is unambiguous, mandatory language — "must," not "should." Reuters recognizes that it is first and foremost interviewees, not journalists, who must live with the consequences both psychological and political of their testimony. Witnesses or survivors of violence feel re-traumatized by reporters primarily when they are lied to or manipulated. And in an Internet age, a source quoted in a newspaper on one continent can easily be identified and threatened on another.

The handbook also contains this welcome advice on interviewing children:

We should always proceed with caution when interviewing children, especially trauma victims and child soldiers. Description of the suffering of children may suffice to convey the drama. When we decide to talk to a child directly, we should be satisfied the interview is crucial to the telling of an important story. The overriding concern must be to avoid exposing a minor to harm and we must do our utmost to minimise the stress of the experience for the subject. In normal circumstances, a reporter needs the permission of the appropriate authority such as a parent, guardian or school authority to interview a child. There are severe restrictions on talking to children involved in criminal proceedings in most jurisdictions and in identifying minors in such cases.

Here again, Reuters is breaking new ground in corporate ethical standards. 

Three cheers for Reuters’ pioneering new handbook.

Anyone interesting in exploring the challenges of reporting on children in greater depth can refer to our Tips & Tools page on Children and Trauma and to the Dart Center publication Covering Children and Trauma by investigative reporter Ruth Teichroeb.