Three journalists share how they overcame tall challenges to tell stories of domestic violence

Published on
May 14, 2024

Journalist Zaydee Sanchez had been following the story of a domestic violence survivor for three months when the source pulled out of the article. Retelling the experience had proved too traumatic for the individual. 

In response, Sanchez overhauled her domestic violence project, supported by the Center for Health Journalism’s Domestic Violence Impact Reporting Fund. Instead of reporting on the increase of domestic violence in the Latinx transgender community, she focused on efforts to address the growing problem and the community’s empowerment. The reporting experience underscored the importance of being open to where a story leads.

“Don’t force what you think the story is going to be on the community,” Sanchez said. “Allow the community to tell you where they’re at.”

Sanchez joined fellow journalists Dr. ChrisAnna Mink and Claire Stremple to share the lessons they learned through their reporting projects for the 2023 Domestic Violence Impact Reporting Fund. The CHJ virtual 2024 Domestic Violence Symposium panel, moderated by EdSource editor Dympna Ugwu-Oju, highlighted the challenges of reporting on domestic violence as well as tips for building trust with survivors and approaching these sensitive stories with nuance and empathy. 

Following survivors’ lead

Independent journalist and pediatrician ChrisAnna Mink focused her reporting on a California state law known as “failure to protect” that allows child welfare agencies to remove kids from households impacted by domestic violence. That means mothers who have experienced abuse can lose custody of their kids, she explained. 

In reporting the story for CalMatters, Mink faced numerous hurdles, from the lack of good data to sources who were unwilling to talk on the record. Through the process, she learned the importance of respecting survivor’s own timelines for when they’re ready to share their story. Even though Mink had hoped to interview someone in a new recovery program, she found these recent survivors weren’t ready to share their story with a journalist.

“It was not my place to make them ready,” she said. “It was a disappointment for me but it was still the right thing to do.”

Throughout the reporting process, Mink invested a lot of time building trust. She conducted pre-interviews to get to know sources before a formal interview. She deferred to sources’ schedules, even if that meant adjusting her desired reporting schedule. 

Mink also focused on giving her sources control over their own narratives. For example, if they said something that they didn’t want published, they could take it back. Mink would often ask people to confirm whether they felt comfortable including certain details in the story. Mink and her editors also permitted survivors to withhold their full names, cities, or children’s names in the article.

Mink’s guiding mantra throughout the process: Do no harm and be curious. 

“Put aside your preconceived ideas of what (domestic violence) is when you walk in and meet new people,” she said.

Investing time, building trust 

Sanchez, who reported on the Latinx transgender community in Los Angeles, also worked hard to build trust with her sources. She devoted days to hanging out in a community coalition’s office and watching people work. She not only gained a deeper understanding of their efforts, but her consistent presence conveyed her investment in the project.

“The more I stuck around, the more I just kind of became the person — the journalist — who is sitting there,” she said. “We’re human, you’re bound to bond and talk and chat.”   

Looking back, Sanchez wishes she had narrowed her topic sooner. It’s overwhelming for one project to address every single aspect of domestic violence in a particular community, from current policies to history and politics. Instead, she advises reporters tackling such stories to explore one specific topic and center reporting there. 

Don’t be ashamed to seek help for secondary trauma 

Reporter Claire Stremple also shared the challenge of producing a vast and ambitious series exploring domestic violence in Alaska, which culminated in 15 articles published in the Alaska Beacon.

“I felt a big responsibility to fill in some of the reporting gaps that I felt existed,” she said. 

Stremple set out to tell these complex stories in a way that didn’t blame the communities involved. Her stories included the legacy of colonialism and the impact of Alaska Native boarding schools. Adding that context helped build trust among the communities involved, she noted. 

Stremple began the sourcing process by calling every organization she could think of, from shelters and domestic violence organizations to advocacy groups for Alaska Natives. At the end of each conversation, she asked for more names and numbers. Ultimately, the reporting led Stremple to remote areas where she was able to listen to in-person accounts. 

“I think that’s how you build trust,” she said. “You listen to everyone that you can get your hands on.”

But immersing herself in so many harrowing stories took a personal toll. As she listened to survivors’ accounts of violence and experiences fleeing unsafe homes with nowhere to go, she experienced secondary trauma. Initially, Stremple felt ashamed and embarrassed, an experience she described in a essay for the Center. She encouraged fellow reporters to seek out resources on secondary trauma and not to feel guilty about their feelings. 

“Be gentle on yourself, it’s a real thing, it happens” she said. “Give yourself space to feel what you’re going to feel about those things and use those resources.” 

Stremple was also mindful not to retraumatize sources. She made sure that sources didn’t feel pressure to interact with her. She would remind people that their information would be online and make sure they felt comfortable with their facts being published. 

A tricky aspect came when she fact-checked elements of people’s stories. In these cases, she asked for the names of the perpetrators even though she did not publish them. This helped her locate court documents such as restraining orders. She explained to those she interviewed that fact-checking is part of a journalist’s job and the request wasn’t a sign that she doubted survivors’ stories. 

As the journalists shared these tips and lessons, moderator Ugwu-Oju captured a common thread: “Don’t be judgmental; be curious; do no harm; take care of yourself; don’t force what you think on the community. These are all great, great (pieces of) advice and things that future grantees should really take stock of.”