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Can Children Who Survive Crimes Be Re-Traumatized by the Press?

New research cautions journalists against harming their most vulnerable sources.
Flower march in Sentrum, Oslo, in the aftermath of the attacks on Utøya. (Photo: Mathias-S/Wikimedia Commons)

Flower march in Sentrum, Oslo, in the aftermath of the attacks on Utøya. (Photo: Mathias-S/Wikimedia Commons)

On a July afternoon in 2011, on the idyllic Norwegian island of Utøya, 69 people, many of them children, were murdered in a mass shooting. More than 500 others survived, but none of them would be unchanged. As the global media machine descended on Oslo in the year that followed, the survivors were trying to simultaneously heal their physical injuries, grieve for lost friends, and work on recovering psychologically after what they had seen.

As sensitive as journalists like to believe they are in times like these, there is a risk of re-traumatizing the victims of violence and tragedy if situations are handled poorly. Many journalism advocacy organizations provide vital information about recognizing and preventing post-traumatic stress among reporters in conflict zones or during terror attacks. But it’s rare that an organization will follow up with the sources of stories like this, years later, to try to measure how their dealings with members of the press—and their perception of the resulting coverage—actually affected their recovery.

Now a group of researchers have done just that, with those survivors of the Utøya attack, in a new study in the Journal of Traumatic Stress. Siri Thoresen, Tine Jensen, and Grete Dyb, psychologists and medical researchers all based in Oslo, surveyed 285 people who lived through the attacks a little more than a year out. The survivors ranged from 13 years old to 47, but most of them were under 25. Almost all of them (94 percent) said that they had been approached by reporters following the attack, and many (88 percent) decided to grant interviews.

Those who said they regretted participating in media interviews also often said they felt "let down" by friends and family during their recovery.

Thoresen, Jensen, and Dyb cited previous research of how crime victims experienced media reports of the crimes they were the victims of. In one study, the majority of them said they felt either sadness or fear, and the authors found an association with symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. Another study, which focused on survivors of a school shooting, found that being interviewed by the media increased their trauma symptoms. But their own findings were more nuanced.

Their survey asked the survivors about their feelings toward their experiences with the media, and evaluated both their relative social support networks and their symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. The results show that many of the survivors actually saw their media experiences as positive, or at least a mix of positive and negative. Girls and women tended to feel slightly less positive about it than boys and men, and older participants were more likely to call the experience “stressful,” but not very many (only 11 percent, actually) of the whole group said that they definitely regretted participating in interviews.

But, significantly, those who said they did regret it also tended to have symptoms of post-traumatic stress, and tended to have weaker social support systems in place. Those who said they regretted participating in media interviews also often said they felt “let down” by friends and family during their recovery. This could mean that being interviewed was harder overall for people with worse symptoms of trauma, the authors theorized, or it could just mean that those people who had an especially hard time recovering from that day might point to the media or to their personal relationships in search of the causes of their suffering.

The authors don’t take the position that the press should unilaterally stay away from crime or terror victims. “Directly exposed victims have first-hand knowledge and may be essential sources of information,” they write. “Hence, when consenting to be interviewed, victims play an important societal role.... Moreover, media coverage may provide vital information to the victims themselves that may be useful in coping with the situation.” Telling and re-telling a story in public can help one regain a sense of agency, and the sympathy one receives from the audience can be a healing force. But, the authors conclude by the end of the paper, reporters and broadcasters also have the power to do harm if they are not sensitive to the survivors’ needs and feelings; it’s all about the manner in which the interview is conducted.

Journalists will, ideally, keep the mental health of the people they are interviewing a high priority in any difficult story, but their responsibilities are even greater when their sources are children—as so many of the Utøya survivors were. The Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma publishes a very thorough guide to interviewing children in the context of stories that involve violence and trauma. It reminds journalists that children are developmentally different than adults in so many ways, and so the journalists’ expectations for the interview process should also be different.

For instance, the handbook cautions journalists not to interview children right at the scene of the crime, when they most need comfort, not questioning. The guidebook recommends involving the child’s parent or someone they trust in the process—not only to get permission for the use of quotes and photographs, but also to help gauge the child’s reactions to the questioning. “Take breaks if a child gets bored or distracted,” writes the guide’s author, Ruth Teichroeb. “That may be a child’s way of telling you he is emotionally drained.”

The guide also recommends that reporters let the children and parents choose the setting of the interview, the timing, and set all of the conditions of confidentiality. And they should also keep in mind that the subjects might be initially willing to be interviewed about a traumatic situation, but then might change their minds afterward; those requests not to use the material should always be honored.

The National Child Traumatic Stress Network adds in its tip sheet for media covering traumatic events that it is important to ask open-ended questions, rather than leading ones: “Generally, children being interviewed try to be helpful to reporters. When discussing a loss or reliving an event, they may be concerned about doing a good job and may provide information they believe the reporter wants to hear, rather than their true thoughts.”

Perhaps Al Tompkins summed it up best when he ended his own tip sheet for the Poynter Institute with “The Golden Rule for interviewing children: Do unto other people’s kids as you would have them do unto your kids."