Do No Harm: A Media Code of Conduct for Interviewing Trauma Survivors

Reflections from a trauma specialist and survivor.
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documentary film interview

It is now almost two years since I added my voice to the brave women reporting the sexual violence of Harvey Weinstein. (Weinstein has denied all allegations of sexual misconduct.) In that time, I have had the privilege of getting to know many silence breakers—not only women targeted by Weinstein, but also those coming forward about Bill Cosby, James Toback, Dustin Hoffman, Donald Trump, and R. Kelly. Women (and some men) come to me because of my trauma knowledge, and because I'm a fellow survivor and I get it.

One consequence of coming forward about a high-profile abuser is media attention. Often, our interactions with the people who claim to be helping us "get our story out there" have ended up resurfacing feelings of exploitation and powerlessness that are associated with the original trauma.

I have been asked to take part in several documentaries about Weinstein. On one memorable occasion, I spent three and a half hours in front of the camera in my usual attempt to link my story to the mind-blowing science about the impacts of trauma. As usual, my interview was edited down to 15 seconds and detailed only the body parts Weinstein attempted to grope. 

There is a cost to the telling and retelling of our stories. I was reminded of this again when I was invited to take part in a gathering to provide storylines for a #MeToo theater production. Despite very good intentions, the organizers were not trained in how to conduct interviews with trauma survivors. Some of us got "triggered" (an activation of the autonomic nervous system), and one survivor even started to re-experience her assault. I had tried to forestall this by suggesting we stick to headlines only (i.e. no gory details). Unfortunately, since many of the other survivors are actresses and are used to being encouraged to go deep into their emotions to find truth for their acting work, they didn't understand that revisiting the trauma may activate the stress response and even aggravate post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms.

Judith Herman writes that "Trauma robs the victim of a sense of power and control over her own life; therefore, the guiding principle of recovery is to restore power and control to the survivor." It has made me angry and distressed to see this fundamental aspect of trauma recovery overlooked by media through ignorance or through the business-as-usual model. (The criminal justice system is little better: I have been interviewed by three jurisdictions pursuing the various Weinstein criminal cases, and they have ranged from weak to woeful in terms of trauma-informed practice.)

I don't believe that most media professionals wake up in the morning wanting to harm someone. They just want do a good job and would be delighted if they could have some tangible pointers about how to "do no harm" in the process. That's why I'd like to offer some preliminary thinking on a code of conduct that could be adopted for media interviews with survivors. The code should include informed consent for participation in interviews, filmed or otherwise. As Dr. Bruce Perry, founder of the Child Trauma Academy, confirms, survivors in these high-profile cases can either go into a cocoon of self-protection or else speak indiscriminately. Too often, I think, we survivors are misled into thinking that a kind reporter or sympathetic producer is a safe person, and then find ourselves re-traumatized by our subsequent lack of control in the editing and distribution of the interviews.

documentary film interview

Not only do survivors suffer a loss of power and control, but we also rarely benefit from the emotional culling of our stories. I feel the disparity when a Weinstein documentary sells for seven figures while I lie awake worrying about funding for my small non-profit that serves survivors. My goal is not and has never been to get money for telling my story, but I wish the production companies would give a thought when they celebrate the success of their film to the fact that it is our pain that gave it birth. As silence-breakers struggle with the fallout of coming forward, there is scant acknowledgement that it is our courage that accrued media profits and paid reporters' salaries, little sense of a duty of care, and many of us are left feeling even more violated than when Harvey put his pudgy hands on us.

I would like to see a code of conduct for journalists and documentarians when working with trauma survivors, a code that will be upheld by those commissioning or paying for the end product. The code would include, at minimum:

  • Ongoing informed consent. This would involve explaining how much of the interview is likely to make it into the final edit, the themes that are likely to be selected, and the framing of the story, if that is already known. Predictability and trustworthiness (along with safety, collaboration, and offering choices) are important principles of trauma-informed practice.
  • Psycho-education for crew. Reporters and crews should know how the nervous system responds to trauma and how to support the interviewee. Some ways of supporting the interviewee:
      • Limiting interviews to one hour.
      • Offering choices, for example, of where to sit. (Your ideal setup of bright lights, limited movement on a hard chair, and surrounding darkness may make for a good aesthetic but are all additional stressors on the nervous system of the interviewee.)
      • Offering breaks.
      • Asking interviewees what helps when they are stressed, and encouraging them to use those techniques (e.g. shaking out their hands, sipping cold water, or taking deep breaths). If the interviewee gets stuck in an agitated, panicky state (hyperarousal) or, conversely, withdraws or appears emotionally numb (hypoarousal), shut the interview down!
  • Psycho-education for survivors. It is important for survivors to understand:
      • How trauma affects the brain and nervous system.
      • How trauma shows up in behavior.
      • How to identify the signs that your nervous system is getting activated, and how to get it back in balance.
      • The wide variety of body-based interventions that can help reverse the impacts of trauma.
      • Factors that promote post-traumatic growth, not least of these being empowerment (reclaiming your power and your voice).
  • Counseling for survivors. Depending on how much time the survivor has had to process the trauma, how recently they have gone public, and the degree of backlash (or deafening silence) surrounding their story, survivors may need ongoing counseling support.
  • An assessment for survivors to make sure they have supports in place before filming begins. It is not enough that the survivor "wants" to do the interview. If you were a family member, would you allow this person to sign important documents in their current state? If not, then why are you allowing them to decide to participate in something that might lead to future regret and embarrassment?
  • Collaborative decision-making about edits, the chosen narrative, and the tenor of the marketing.

I recognize this last point is a total reversal in the existing power structure in media. No one likes to give up power, and those who have it usually come up with all kinds of reasons not to relinquish it. Reporters and documentarians will argue that survivor input threatens "objectivity." But if objectivity is the goal, then allow the survivor to comment on the chosen narrative once it becomes clear; if we disagree with how the information is being framed, this disagreement should also appear in the report or documentary. Isn't offering both sides of the story fundamental to "objectivity"?

I told one documentary producer how sad it was that the survivors who participated in her well-funded film didn't even get as much as a bunch of flowers. Such a gesture might have helped us feel more like collaborators and less like something served up for dinner. She argued that any perceived incentive, even flowers, would contravene very strict rules about compensation, which are "industry standard." Thankfully, those standards are not universal. When I was interviewed for Japanese national television, I was presented with a small glass figurine. While filmmakers fill their mantlepieces with awards, this small gift is the only tangible recognition I have ever received that my story has made a difference. If in some quarters that contravenes "industry standards," then I think those rules need to be re-examined.

Ultimately, I would like to see some of the power and control shift to survivors so we can depict ourselves as exactly that: survivors, not mere hand-wringing victims of Weinstein and other predators, which is how the media loves to portray us. We are survivors. We survived. We are strong and knowledgeable and have used our experiences to become empowered as activists, artists, teachers, and counselors. Who is making a documentary about that?

I would also like to see information about trauma and resilience getting directly into the hands of survivors. With that as our goal, Echo, the non-profit I lead, provides workshops to survivors and trauma-informed classes to parents, as well as training and technical assistance for creating trauma-informed workplaces.

It would be a huge first step for interviewers to be open-minded enough to imagine reporting in a collaborative style with trauma survivors. We are fed up with those who interview us but don't really listen to us, because they presume that an expertise in storytelling means they know better—even about trauma.

In the language of trauma-informed care, we talk about taking on the role of "compassionate witness" as opposed to "expert" when interacting with a survivor, operating from a "power-with" versus a "power-over" approach.

If more people in media were to embrace that approach, we would see better stories, more cooperation from those who quite understandably distrust media (now I know why some of the big-name actresses who came forward about Weinstein don't give interviews), and, most importantly, we would empower survivors rather than re-traumatizing them. 

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