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When the story gets personal: How I reported on my own culture and community

Topics in Health: Lessons From The Field

When the story gets personal: How I reported on my own culture and community

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Photo by Sergey Zolkin via Unsplash
Photo by Sergey Zolkin via Unsplash

As a journalist, I’ve always been used to being in the background and focusing on my subjects. I never thought that I would one day turn the focus on myself. It’s an uncomfortable position to be in, but I found I had to in order to tell this story about Cambodian refugees in a way that would resonate on a personal and professional level. 

I am Cambodian, but I didn’t experience the genocide directly. However, I knew the history, and the personal stories from my family’s history. My everyday life was not affected by what happened decades ago. But it took my own experience as an interpreter and stepping out of my own family’s bubble to understand that the impact of the genocide was still widely felt. 

I approached this story without any assumptions about how or if Cambodian refugees were still grappling with the trauma of a horrific genocide. But reporting on this story came with a lot of contradictions for me. For one, I am extremely close to the language and the culture. At the same time, I knew almost nothing about the clinical effects of trauma. One of my greatest challenges was not embedding myself in the community — it was the pressure of being so readily accepted and trusted with their stories. I felt added pressure to tell their stories in an authentic way.

Another challenge I had was in finding the right scope for the story. There was so much to research and report. I had to decide what to cover and who to focus on. As I began gathering research and interviews, I realized that this project was best served as an audio series. The following details my reporting process and best practices I learned along the way in creating a radio series.

1. Creating the idea

First, I started out with one simple idea. I wrote it in paragraph form, and that paragraph became my guide for the project: Trauma doesn’t go away. It can’t be swept under a rug just because it happened 40 years ago. It’s our responsibility to support and understand people dealing with this. 

2. Building the idea 

I started with identifying my subjects. For my main subject, I chose someone who was passionate about the issue and well-spoken. I also chose someone who was connected to the Cambodian community so that they could help amplify the story once it was released. There were a lot of studies to research and read over. I chose to focus on some of the strongest points and key nuggets from those. Throughout, I kept an eye on the big picture and narrowed down the focus on the story.

3. Create a timeline 

For a radio series, there are a lot of deliverables to juggle. In addition to hours of tape from multiple audio interviews, those interviews will have to be turned into edited audio pieces, and written as digital posts, with accompanying photos. There’s also publicity and promotion to consider for different timelines: promoting the series before it airs and while it airs. There should also be a social media strategy that goes with promoting the pieces before and after it airs. All of these should be mapped out for production. 

4. The reporting process 

In audio reporting, identifying the settings for your interviews can really make an impact on how you write the story. Since so much of your writing depends on setting a scene, knowing where and how to place your subject [can you clarify what this phrase means for us? We typically think of encountering a subject rather than placing a subject in reporting] shapes the direction of the story. I was very intentional with how the places themselves became parts of the story, such as the temple where so many community members gathered. 

One subject that was part of my reporting was a place I had never been before. I had no way of scoping things out beforehand at the clinic where so many refugees gathered for therapy. I didn't know what to expect when I got there, so I just focused on recording everything to get the texture and the atmosphere of the clinic. Luckily, all the refugees welcomed me once they knew that I was also Cambodian and could speak the language. 

And in this reporting, I found that understanding the culture and the language from an inside perspective was crucial. Many of the survivors are older and Cambodian is still their primary language. They felt comfortable opening up to me and describing in detail what they went through. I also felt like it helped me understand and translate their story in an authentic way. Speaking the language was irreplaceable and my most valuable asset in my reporting.

5. The writing and editing process 

Here’s where things got dicey: I went through a total of four editors due to some unusual circumstances. This delayed my writing and editing process quite a bit because the idea of the series kept changing and evolving from editor to editor. I went through a full round of drafts and final revisions, only to have a fourth and final editor look through it. The suggestions were eye-opening and I’m so glad that we went through them, but it caused huge delays. I had to rearrange several parts of the story to make the narrative flow a little differently, and I think it helped the pieces come out stronger in the end. 

I do know that discussing all the elements as I gathered them with my editors helped them to see the bigger picture and the unifying thread of the stories. Your editor is always your friend here, always looking for ways to elevate your storytelling. In the end, I was blessed to have so many eyes on it. I think it came out the best that it could be as a result. 


The Center for Health Journalism’s 2023 Symposium on Domestic Violence provides reporters with a roadmap for covering this public health epidemic with nuance and sensitivity. The next session will be offered virtually on Friday, March 31. Journalists attending the symposium will be eligible to apply for a reporting grant of $2,000 to $10,000 from our Domestic Violence Impact Reporting Fund. Find more info here!


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