What 'Precious' Means for Clinicians

The 82nd annual Academy Awards are coming up on March 7, and one of the films in the running, nominated for six Oscars, is "Precious."  It's the story of a 16-year-old African-American girl living in Harlem who suffers physical, sexual and emotional abuse and is pregnant by her own father. It's the first film directed by an African-American to ever be nominated for best picture. It's also the first film in a long time to bring the issue of child sexual abuse to the forefront of the Academy Awards ceremony and the American imagination.

At a February 25 webinar hosted by the National Child Traumatic Stress Network Learning Center, Bruce Shapiro and Elana Newman — the executive director and research director, respectively, of the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma — spoke about the film and its potential to advance public awareness of child sexual abuse, resiliency, intergenerational abuse and rape. Speaking directly to clinicians who work with victims and survivors of child sexual abuse and neglect, Shapiro and Newman stressed the importance of taking advantage of opportunities like the Oscar attention on "Precious" to work with journalists and get sensitive and accurate stories of abuse into the mainstream. Journalists, they reminded, play a key role in getting important conversations started in our society.

They acknowledged the barriers, however, that often prevent these stories from being told. First off, most journalists do not have adequate training about the psychology of trauma, how to interview victims and how to bear witness to suffering. Professionals in the journalism field also may lack resources for self-care when dealing with traumatic stories. Shapiro reminded them: "Journalists can suffer vicarious trauma from exposure to traumatic events." And that may in turn impact the timeliness and effectiveness of their stories.

Another barrier to getting stories of child abuse in the media is that clinicians and advocates themselves may not see journalists as their allies. While reporters cannot be considered "partners" since they are independent and autonomous, journalists do share in clinicians' commitment to public safety. Most journalists are called to the profession out of a sense of idealism or a duty to uncover untold stories. This shared goal presents a good starting place for clinicians to approach journalists and to see them as collaborators.

As Shapiro stressed, clinicians that want to see accurate representation of child abuse in the media need to pay attention to which reporters are already doing stories on their issues and build personal relationships with those reporters or news editors. "Relationships, relationships, relationships," was the central message of his presentation.

The two presenters closed by reminding participants that good journalists have a job to fulfill, and in the case of traumatic stories, they have to tell stories accurately. This doesn't always mean making people feel better, but it does mean presenting a realistic depiction of child abuse. "One general message that needs to be communicated in relation to 'Precious' is that recovery is possible," added Newman.

The full presentation, including PowerPoint slides, is available on the NCTSN website.

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