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How reporting on childhood trauma made me rethink interviews

How reporting on childhood trauma made me rethink interviews

Picture of Arielle Levin Becker

Childhood trauma and other forms of significant adversity early in life can have lasting consequences for mental and physical health, including an increased risk of developing depression, anxiety, heart disease and cancer. But studies also indicate that even when children are exposed to significant adversity, the presence of a responsive, nurturing caregiver can buffer the brain and body from the physiological effects of that stress.

I’ve been fascinated by this research – and the implications it has for public policy – since learning about it many years ago, but never managed to dig into it. In the months following the shootings in Newton, Conn., I heard more about childhood adversity while covering the state’s response, which included a significant focus on mental health. Many people came forward with heartbreaking stories of children, teens or young adults struggling to get the care they needed, falling through what seemed to be an endless series of gaps in the system. Much attention was focused on how to better serve those in crisis, or those teetering at the edge. But a small group of experts had a different message: If you want to make the biggest difference, focus on children’s earliest years and the relationships they have with the people around them.

My fellowship project was intended to explore this concept. I wanted to examine and explain the science of early childhood development and adversity, how that research is being applied, and the public policy implications. The result was a four-part series that touched on each of these, but the reporting process included many stumbling blocks and lessons learned.

One centered on finding people whose experiences could help illustrate the concepts scientists are trying to understand. I planned to build the series around a program called Child First, a home-visiting intervention that works with children under 6 and their families, most of whom have experienced trauma. The program’s model is closely aligned with the recent research on children’s earliest relationships and exposure to severe stress, and data from a randomized controlled trial suggest the program is effective. Care coordinators work with each family to help reduce stress in the environment, while clinicians help to build up the relationship between child and parent (or other caregiver). Often, that work involves helping parents to overcome their own histories. Before I began the fellowship, I spoke to the program’s founder about spending time with a family, to illustrate the concepts and humanize what can otherwise be fairly technical scientific concepts.

But that turned out to be much harder than I’d expected — in part for reasons I didn’t anticipate.

It started out promising: A woman in the program had said she was interested in being interviewed. But the clinical director involved in her case had reservations; she told me she’d had bad experiences with clients talking to reporters in the past.

I expected her to say it was because her clients’ comments had been taken out of context, or they felt their experiences had been misrepresented. But that wasn’t it. Instead, it was that after one of her clients had spoken to a reporter, nothing had happened. The story was never published. And that felt bad to her client; she was left unsure of what would become of her story. In other cases, the clinical director told me, it can be hard, or invalidating, for people to share something deeply personal and then find it doesn’t merit inclusion in a story or isn’t the story’s main focus.

This made me rethink my approach to this project, and how I cover my beat in general. I often talk to many more people than I end up including in stories. I tend to think a lot about the impact of a story on the person I write about, but I generally don’t spend much time thinking about those who don’t end up in the story. In some cases, I thought, they’re probably relieved if I don’t quote them. Did I have it wrong? Was I causing more harm than good in what I had previously just considered to be doing my job? Is there a way to avoid this — short of only interviewing people I could be sure I would include in a story (which seems infeasible)?

I carried these concerns with me as I worked on the project. Eventually, I found a family in the program willing to be interviewed. The father was initially hesitant because he tends to be shy and doesn’t share much about himself, but when we met in the therapist’s office, he opened up quickly. He talked about the program, about how his young daughter had changed since it started, about the challenges he had in his relationship with her mother, and about his own difficult childhood. I watched him interact with his daughter. We spoke and texted a few times after that as I tried to fill in the blanks, and he signed a release allowing the program’s therapist to speak to me about him and his daughter.

Shortly before the story ran, the therapist mentioned something about the father that made me once again rethink the impact that being interviewed can have on someone — a perspective that differed from what the clinical director had suggested. It was really empowering for him, she told me, to be able to open up to someone and learn that his story was valuable, that it could mean something to other people.  

Being a reporter always involves a tricky balance. When interviewing people who are not public figures, I always try to ensure that they feel comfortable with the process. But being a reporter is also inherently about something else — producing a story for readers. As much as possible, I try to keep those things aligned; I don’t want a story subject to feel taken advantage of or misled. But when I’m interviewing someone for a story, I’m not primarily there for that person’s benefit in the way a therapist is. Still, it’s impossible not to consider how it will affect them.

I started the reporting process hearing that interviewing someone without it turning into a story can make things worse, and ended it hearing someone tell me that being interviewed can be empowering. I don’t think one is right and the other is wrong, and I’m not sure how to handle every situation. But it was helpful to recognize that both can be true, and to start thinking more about the impact that participating in a story can have on someone — and the importance of being clear about the process with people I interview.

[Photo by Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung via Flickr.]


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I love the reminder that the people we end up *not* covering can be impacted by our reporting as well. As I've grown older, I've included more explanation of the reporting/writing process when interviewing people. Usually I tell them that writing a story is like putting together a quilt: I may buy a yard of bright red fabric, but end up using it only as the border strip. Even though I don't use all the cloth, it's still a vital part of the design. I hope this helps them understand that while I may interview them for a half-hour, they'll end up being only five paragraphs in the finished product.

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I love that quilt analogy -- what a great way to explain it. Thank you!

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The reporter's experience illustrates a point: People (and other living creatures) are not merely commodities for any story. Are professional journalists being taught how to use authentic compassion -- beyond finding the tear-jerking, headline-grabbing stories -- in their work? A case for lessons in human development (and plain old humanity) for budding journalists...

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There were about 400 members of the Journalist section of the International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies (ISTSS), last time I checked. It may now be substantially more. The potential for "Intentional Peer Support " among those members may help them build resilience and connection.....


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