Interview Excerpt on Covering Tragic Anniversaries

This is an excerpt from a longer interview with Pam Dix and Anne Eyre, two founding members of Disaster Action.

Tragic anniversaries, unlike breaking news, are predictable events that can be planned for ahead of time. But they can also bring painful experiences back to the fore. Sensitive, effective coverage can provide a space for meaningful commemoration, greater understanding of how individuals and communities are affected by tragedy, and opportunities to correct myths or inaccuracies that may have grown up around an event. Handled carelessly, though, the anniversary story can leave victims and survivors feeling trampled upon and traduced.  
The advice below comes from an excerpt from a longer interview with Pam Dix and Anne Eyre, two founding members of Disaster Action, an NGO that draws on the experience of representatives from 29 disasters in the UK and around the world. (Eyre is a survivor of the 1989 Hillsborough Stadium Disaster, and Pam Dix lost her brother Peter Dix in the bombing of flight Pan Am 103 over the Scottish town of Lockerbie in 1988.) The full interview explores the gap between what the public imagines those affected by disaster go through and the realities. This closing section offers suggestions for what journalists might bear in mind when planning to cover an anniversary story:

Gavin Rees: This brings us to the question of anniversaries. Journalists often find these challenging to cover. What would your advice be? 

Pamela Dix: To begin with, I would say not to oversimplify the story. Let’s say there is an anniversary event. Some survivors and bereaved people will be at it; others won’t.

I remember so well one of our members, who is sadly dead now, who was asked once by a journalist how she feels on the anniversary of the death or his birthday. And she said, “Well don’t you understand that every day is an anniversary for me? Every day is the day that I don’t have him in my life.”

Acknowledging is done differently by different people: So if we don’t attend the event at Westminster Abbey, for example, that doesn’t mean we don’t think it should happen.

Recalling and remembering and memorialising are incredibly important to people affected by incidents, and sometimes there are watershed times like the 10th or the 20th anniversary, or indeed the 50th or the 100th.

Anne talks a lot about representation; it is possible I think to choose voices that don’t necessarily represent the whole experience without realising that you have. A voice is just a snapshot of part of the experience. And so better to report generally on, say, the event, and maybe to use some personal voices within that sense of reporting, but not to say this voice or that voice is representative of the Survivors or the Bereaved. 

Use anniversaries to tell a story, use personal experiences, but also rehearse what happened, what is known about what happened, and, importantly, what remains unknown about what happened. It’s only by looking back with great care and by understanding the history that we look to the future in an empowered and informed way.

Try to look at the story in the round and do not assume that you can tell that story just through those avenues.

GR: Could you say something about selecting who to approach, who gets to speak? 

PD: Well that’s an interesting thing in itself, because there are the voices of an incident. The media gets tired of hearing the same voices, we know that. And, then, sometimes it starts to feel like the story is about those voices and not about what happened or the person who died.

It is not unreasonable for the media to try and find people who have not spoken about their experience before, who haven’t been heard and who would like to be heard. But sometimes – obviously – people have chosen not to speak, and they perhaps don’t want to speak this time either.

In our day of everybody is out there constantly in the public space and on TV, the media rather assumes we all want to be on TV, on the radio, on the internet or whatever. If you think it’s journalistically acceptable to carry on prodding a little bit, then, you have to find your way of doing that. But generally speaking if people say no, they mean no.

Anne Eyre: The big thing for me is the inherent ambiguity of every anniversary. For the media, that is the pull between feeling that you both should and shouldn’t cover it. And it is the same for individuals caught up in those events. You have this constant swinging around. It can start on the anniversary or weeks or months ahead: You start to get anxious because you want to face it on the one hand and you want to run away on the other.

GR: In practical times, what might be the consequences of that inherent ambiguity? What should journalists do?

AE: Interviewees need to be carefully prepared and briefed well before an anniversary, not just contacted the day before. Being blindsided on the day is never good. As a journalist, you know you can anticipate an anniversary. We have some guidance, one for dealing with issues beyond the first anniversary, including media interest, and another I mentioned earlier, which is especially relevant for journalists. It discusses how to prepare in advance before approaching someone for an anniversary interview.

PD: Good research. Some of you won’t know the questions you’re going to ask. Some of the most obvious things like: “How do you and your husband feel about this?” Where the answer turns out to be: “Well, actually it was my husband who was killed!” Can’t you just look something up? Get a little bit of the groundwork done.  Because of the nature of open access resources you won’t always get the right answer, but try and do well-founded research if you have time.

AE: It’s a good, basic assignment for a new journalist because there are always going to be anniversaries. Anniversaries are predictable. The demands of the situation highlight all the good principles of preparation: research, not depending on stuff that is out there as being fact, ethically and appropriately finding a human interest. It’s a great way of experiencing so many aspects of how to deal with disasters. 

And an anniversary is also an opportunity, perhaps, for journalists to reflect on the impact and implications of doing journalism. Who are the voices of the disaster? What this conversation has reinforced for me today, is that it is also about the impact on the journalist, as well as on the survivor, the bereaved, the police officer, whoever was caught up in the event. It’s an occasion, perhaps, for journalists too, to reflect, remember, commemorate, and potentially to find support for themselves.