In April 2020, as the pandemic was raging across the United States, Ed Yong noticed that many people he interviewed felt exhausted. They worked in pandemic preparedness or emergency response before the virus was officially found in the United States. For them, the coronavirus had been a big deal for months, and they openly spoke to him about being mentally worn out.
A few weeks later, toward the end of May, Yong, a staff writer at The Atlantic, started to consider how the mental health of his sources intersected with his responsibilities as a journalist. He’d begun interviewing people who tested positive for Covid — some requiring hospitalization — and had persistent symptoms even weeks later, a group that would become known as long haulers. Yong didn’t know how an interview would affect them and asking someone to relive a challenging experience that they may see as the worst experience of their lives can be hard on the person retelling their story.
“One of the most common things that you hear when you talk to long haulers is that they are beyond fatigued, that they have a lack of energy so absolute that doing normal physical things is really hard,” Yong says. That fatigue can be cognitive, and many long haulers experience severe brain fog. “Even just reading a book can trigger these intense physiological crashes. Several things struck me in interviewing these folks. It costs them to do an interview. It’s not the same as me talking to you now.”
In an industry that prioritizes objectivity and distance from the issues we cover, it may seem counterintuitive for journalists to take the mental health of their sources into account. But over the last few years, as the pandemic and the fight for racial justice forced newsrooms to reevaluate which voices are elevated, the toll the process of being included in a story can take on vulnerable people is coming more into focus.
“It’s important that reporters speak to their interviewee and see a person there, not just a source of information” — Melissa Stanger, a social worker, psychotherapist, and former journalist
From interviewing a family member of a crime victim to framing the plight of a migrant seeking asylum to writing about a person experiencing addiction or selecting a photograph of a sexual assault survivor, reporters and photographers across various beats have begun employing the same tactics that mental health journalists have used throughout their careers, taking care to center the perspective of their sources, stay clear of tropes, and recognize a wide range of traumas. As news organizations attempt to embrace new audiences — and highlight communities that are often at the margins — it’s imperative that we come to terms with how taxing it can be to interact with reporters and the fact that our work has a profound influence on the public’s understanding of trauma.
Trauma-informed reporting recognizes what the person being interviewed has experienced, how it could be affecting them currently, and how the interview process could burden them further. But it also doesn’t reduce anyone to their trauma. At its best, trauma-informed reporting acknowledges what happened and seeks to understand how the individual is moving forward. “It’s important that reporters speak to their interviewee and see a person there, not just a source of information. By humanizing, rather than objectifying, the people reporters talk to, they are more likely to build rapport and gain trust,” says Melissa Stanger, a social worker, psychotherapist, and former journalist. “It’s important that reporters not glamorize or sensationalize a traumatic event for a story, as it could reflect poorly on reporters and be seen as exploitative.”
On May 26, 2021, Naomi Osaka, one of the most high-profile tennis players in the world, announced that she would not be attending press conferences at the French Open. The cause, she said on social media, was how journalists covering the sport treated the mental health of the players.
“I’ve often felt that people have no regard for athletes’ mental health and this rings true whenever I see a press conference or partake in one,” wrote Osaka. “We’re often sat there and asked questions that we’ve been asked multiple times before or asked questions that bring doubt into our minds and I’m just not going to subject myself to people that doubt me.”
Like many things on social media, the response was polarizing. Despite an overwhelming number of supporters, many in the tennis world — and several sports journalists — wrote Osaka off as unprofessional. The context of Osaka’s decision is important, though. After she skyrocketed into mainstream fame following her win against Serena Williams at the 2018 U.S. Open, the world was watching her — a young, introverted, soft-spoken Black woman whose demeanor clashes with the collective imagination of who an athlete should be.
Dealing with mental health issues, and setting boundaries to protect oneself, contradicts the idea that athletes are strong — since anxiety and depression are often seen as signs of weakness — and the public’s perceived right of access to them. The boundaries set by Osaka don’t align with how the public sees “strong” Black women either, who are expected to show up despite how we may be feeling in professional settings. But instead of powering through post-match interviews, Osaka chose to be publicly vulnerable, contradicting the expectations placed on Black women and riling up backlash. By speaking out despite the stigma, Osaka invigorated the public discourse around how journalists should handle the subject.
Osaka’s boundaries here also help illustrate a perception of journalists that saturates pop culture. They’re hard-nosed, dogged reporters who are hyper-antagonistic to those in power and a bit overzealous in their approach. That impression, while often an outdated exaggeration as more reporters are practicing trauma-informed reporting, isn’t entirely unfounded. Many of us are accustomed to interviewing politicians or others in positions of power who should be asked tough questions, held accountable for their actions, and kept at arm’s length.
But that approach isn’t applicable to everyone we interview — especially those who are dealing with a significant mental health issue or who have experienced trauma. Despite Covid-19 and the Black Lives Matter movement giving it more prominence, this sensitivity has been missing during events that are viewed as being more political than human-centric.
This trauma is familiar to Black people in America, though the feelings of grief that follow such indignities aren’t always recognized as such. But the backlash to this disregard for the mental health of those protesting has uplifted the need for more tactful coverage across beats. Being considerate of the community you’re covering or someone you’re interviewing does not conflict with our duties as journalists.
“One of our most sacred responsibilities as journalists is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. Everyone talks about that. If you take that to heart, then often you’re going to be interviewing people who are very vulnerable, who have been ignored, neglected, and marginalized,” says Yong. “All of that can strip them of agency and a feeling of control in their lives. It isn’t necessarily my job to restore that — although, arguably, that is part of comforting the afflicted — but I can do that. And I can do that in pretty simple ways that cost me nothing. And that doesn’t violate any of the tenets of our job.”
How this plays out in a press conference with elite athletes is different from what this means for a reporter assigned to cover a mass shooting or a suicide.
There are a handful of guides designed to help reporters sort through the right kind of language to use while on deadline. U.K.-based charity Disaster Action worked with numerous families who experienced roughly 30 natural and human-created disasters. Using the feedback from these families, the organization distilled what made working with journalists a positive encounter into six key factors: honesty, acknowledgment, accuracy, consent, control, and compassion.
According to the Disaster Action guidelines, transparency is crucial when journalists initially approach a potential source. Best practices include clearly explaining the type of questions you may ask, how you’re thinking about the broader story structure, and being clear about your interest in learning about the interviewee’s experience. It’s equally meaningful to acknowledge that a source is dealing with something difficult, but journalists should avoid saying they “know” what someone is going through, says Jo Healey, author of “Trauma Reporting: A Journalist’s Guide to Covering Sensitive Stories,” and Elana Newman, research director of the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, an organization that develops best practices for trauma reporting.
Based on her research, Healey says it could be particularly inappropriate to say something like this to parents grieving the loss of a child. Instead, she and Newman advise saying, “I’m sorry that happened to you.”
Precision and informed consent are essential pillars of the HAACCC method, too. It’s crucial to ensure those interviewed understand the reporting process — even the potentially off-putting aspects. For example, a reporter can explain why getting a comment from the police department is necessary when speaking to a survivor of police violence or their family. It’s also good practice to avoid being overly interrogative or assuming someone is being shifty when they can’t provide a straightforward response to a question.
Yong advises keeping the interview scope focused on what is necessary for the story. And when someone is hesitant to speak, shifting the conversation to how important it is for the world to hear what they have to say could be detrimental to the interviewee, adds Stanger, the social worker and psychotherapist. “It’s difficult for someone to hear that and then feel like they can share in a way that feels genuine or authentic,” she says, adding that it can place unnecessary pressure on the person being contacted and even open them up when they’re not ready to process what happened.
The Dart Center also offers a wide range of evidence-backed guidance — including a style guide — to help reporters make decisions about what information to include in a story and what language to use. The guide recommends staying away from euphemisms like “urban” when describing a geographic area because that can promote a racist framing. In the context of a war or international conflict, euphemisms can obscure “the responsibility of key actors.” It also recommends staying away from the terms “alleged” or “claimed” during interviews with someone who has been sexually assaulted because it might make them feel that they aren’t believed. The more details the better, advises the guide, because that helps create a fuller picture of the people and circumstances on which you are reporting.
Maya Rao, a reporter covering race and immigration at the Minneapolis Star Tribune, does this in her piece, “George Floyd’s Search for Salvation.” Rao’s prose paints the contours of Floyd’s humanity and the extent to which racism shaped his life and death — relying on extensive interviews with people who knew the man personally and including such details as how he grew up in poverty, drying his socks in the oven.
“Even though you’re a reporter programmed to deliver … on a deadline, never ever lose sight of your humanity when you’re covering these sorts of stories,” says Healey. “We need to be trained in trauma awareness. We need to be trained in skills for good practice for working with people who are really hurting, whose stories are so painful they’re making the news.”
Within many cultures, mental health disorders are highly stigmatized. Cultural identity isn’t a risk marker for experiencing mental illness, but navigating a mental health disorder can be especially difficult when identities intersect.
For example, Black women are more likely to live with depression and chronic anxiety but less likely to receive treatment — a vastly underreported topic. In a piece for the The New York Times, John Eligon explores the soul-cracking work of Black activism and its effects on mental health. Migrants and asylum seekers, as explored in Univision’s reporting on the trauma endured by people seeking asylum in the U.S., have a high incidence rate of depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, too. Vox writer Aja Romano points out that LGBTQ+ folks are more likely to experience mental health disorders, and various forms of violence, and writes about the implications of Florida’s “don’t say gay” bill, including doxing queer people who are accused of “grooming” children — a deeply homophobic and transphobic trope meant to malign queer people.
What these stories have in common is a rejection of stereotypes and a focus on the humanity of the people being reported on. “We’re all exposed to a lot of inaccurate information and a lot of stereotypes about mental health. And there’s a lot of stigmas composed of stereotypes, prejudice, and discrimination,” says Monica Calkins, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania. “Much of that exposure does come through the media.”
Calkins advises journalists to be aware of these stereotypes. During interviews, Calkins suggests acknowledging that mental illness may be difficult to talk about and making sure to be sensitive to that reality. Perpetuating ideas like mental illness is associated with evil or the result of a moral failing often prevents people from seeking help or talking about their experiences. Avoiding making certain connections — such as saying someone who died by suicide was experiencing depression without proof from their medical provider, associating schizophrenia with violence, or trivializing obsessive-compulsive disorder — is also key. Calkins adds that it’s important to remember that parents aren’t to blame for a child’s mental health disorder, too.
“Even though you’re a reporter programmed to deliver … on a deadline, never ever lose sight of your humanity when you’re covering these sorts of stories” — Jo Healey, author of “Trauma Reporting: A Journalist’s Guide to Covering Sensitive Stories”
A Los Angeles Times piece on mental health services in South L.A. highlights the cultural stigma that complicates navigating depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideation — as well as accessing treatment — for Black and Latino people. Sergio Nuño, one person interviewed in the piece, shared that his parents weren’t quite sure how to help him. The only mental health providers they’d ever seen were on TV, and in Jalisco, where they’re from, going to therapy meant you were “crazy.” Courtney, another interviewee, shared how she almost didn’t attend therapy because she was afraid people would find out she was engaging in something that was “for white people.”
Reporter Joe Mozingo found Courtney and Nuño through his contacts at Martin Luther King Jr. Community Hospital. “The only way I could see [for] finding the right people was to go through someone who was already doing good work in that field, was trusted by the community, and who understood the mission of journalism and getting the word out,” Mozingo says.
By interviewing the psychiatrist who worked with both Nuño and Courtney, Mozingo makes clear that, with treatment, people do get better. His work here is indicative of in-depth, tactful interviewing and what’s possible when a journalist is able and willing to collaborate with their sources.
Similar steps can be taken when approaching sources that have gone through physical trauma. When Kriston Capps, a journalist based in Washington, D.C., reached out to write about John Powers, an artist who lost several fingers in an accident, they’d been following each other online for at least a decade. During that time, the two built up a rapport online in the gradual way most of us build camaraderie with our long-time mutuals. When Powers started posting about his recovery, Capps was moved to reach out and ask if anyone had inquired about telling his story.
“Before I pitched the story, he and I talked about it for a long time, over a couple of calls. I think he trusted me because he has followed me for a long time,” says Capps. “I was nervous about interviewing him, so I really gave my questions for him a lot of thought. I told him up front that I was going to ask him the kind of questions that a close personal friend would.”
For seven or eight hours on a Saturday, Capps and the artist discussed what happened. They took breaks. It was a structured process that Capps hoped gave Powers the space to open up on his terms. And during the drafting process, Capps made sure every sentence was grounded in his interviews with Powers. “I wanted to be rigorous and structured and factual about writing about issues that were dark and messy and emotional,” he says.
As journalists move forward in an interview, it’s important to resist asking someone “why” they think a tragedy happened or “why” someone feels a certain way about it. Such questions, explains the Dart Center’s Newman, can sound like blaming to the interviewee. The best way to report on trauma and mental health is to focus on how something happened. Reporters can ask questions like, “Can you tell me what happened that day,” “How did you find out,” “What’s your fondest memory of your loved one,” or “What do you want people to understand about what happened?” (It’s equally crucial to not assume someone is unreliable if they can’t provide a straightforward answer to any questions).
Personal space is another factor to consider, especially when working with someone who’s been sexually assaulted. It’s common to place a recording device as close to someone as possible to get quality audio, but a more considerate practice is to hand them the device and explain what placement would be ideal, explains Newman. Likewise, sources might need space to feel their emotions openly, stop the interview if they feel overwhelmed, and decline to answer anything that makes them uncomfortable.
But perhaps the most important thing a reporter can do during the interview process is show compassion. Having empathy and tact is what, essentially, underpins trauma-informed reporting. In 2019, when Brianna Sacks, an investigative reporter at Buzzfeed, was covering the Walmart shooting in El Paso by a white supremacist, she spent time with the family of Javier Amir Rodriguez — a 15-year-old who was killed. The teen’s uncle had survived the shooting and invited Sacks to the hospital. She introduced herself and, for about 30 minutes, she just sat with them. Then she asked if they’d eaten before going to get everyone some food. When Dora Chavez, the teen’s grandmother, began crying after watching a video of Javier, Sacks put her arm around Chavez’s shoulders, who leaned into her and cried for a while. Sacks never interviewed the woman.
“I always just go back to being human first versus reporter and trying to put myself in their shoes and thinking about what I would want and need if I lost a family member or my child died in a mass shooting,” says Sacks. “And I come back to: ‘Someone who cares and listens.’”
This was the guiding principle for Tyler Tynes, a staff writer at GQ Magazine, as he covered the trial of Cardell Hayes, the man convicted of manslaughter for killing former New Orleans Saints player Will Smith in 2016. After months of going to court dates and being a visible, caring face in the crowd of reporters, a friend of Hayes took Tynes to a restaurant. There Tynes was able to see the effect the trial was having on Hayes’ mother, Dawn, physically and emotionally as she picked at her food through tears. Even though Tynes wasn’t able to interview her — it didn’t seem like an appropriate time to approach her — their family hadn’t given that level of access to anyone else and he was able to weave their struggle into a piece for SB Nation that looked at the effect a trial has on the loved ones of the accused.
“That moment is the moment that I think about any time I think about that trial,” says Tynes, “They saw somebody who looked like them, who was just trying to understand them when an entire city did not want to.”
Giving survivors control over their narratives is imperative for building long-term trust. ProPublica and the Anchorage Daily News’ 2020 project “Unheard,” which shares the stories of 29 men and women who were sexually assaulted in Alaska, is a marquee example. During the reporting process, the journalists shared quotes with the people who were highlighted in the project to confirm their accuracy and gave them full creative control over how they were visually portrayed. The photographer allowed everyone to review their pictures once the photo sessions were finished. And when the written piece was completed, the reporters read the text to the survivors to ensure the tone was appropriate.
From the beginning, it was clear to those working on the project that “Unheard” wouldn’t uphold traditional reporter and subject roles. Instead, the reporting and publishing process was designed so that survivors of sexual abuse felt safe. Michelle Theriault Boots and Kyle Hopkins, two reporters with the Anchorage Daily News who worked on the project, have both written stories that provide in-depth looks at people’s lives. But “Unheard” was the first time either of them had taken such a deliberate approach where they facilitated the process of a source telling their own story.
The reporting team was as transparent as possible, says Hopkins, and informed potential interviewees that there may be aspects of the journalistic process they might not want to participate in — such as the team needing to contact the person who assaulted them for comment. This was, understandably, a non-starter for some. But the 29 people who did end up in the final version of the story were treated as if they were the team’s partners.
Not every story will be able to go to the same lengths, but there are small choices journalists can make — like allowing someone to send you their favorite photo of themself instead of choosing one for them. Another option is to ask the interviewee what they want people to take away from their story to help frame your writing.
Yong makes his sources the protagonist of their story. “They are the central actors in their own lives,” he says. “If you portray them solely as this passive recipient of tragedy, especially as the passive recipient of the beneficence of the medical establishment, then you add to the problems they’ve already experienced. If you respect the sources as people, then you can avoid the trap of treating them as these macabre circus acts for people to gawk at. I don’t want people to gawk at them. I want readers to empathize with them.”
Once the drafting process is complete, the Dart Center’s Newman recommends reporters do a gut check of their prose. “The thing that I ask journalists to do is, at the end of the story, when you’ve finished your product, do a check and say, ‘If this was my aunt, my father, my mother, somebody I loved, is there anything I would change in the tone?’” she says. “That’s a helpful way to know if you’ve accidentally absorbed some cultural tropes.”
“If you establish yourself as being worthy of someone’s trust, people are more willing to engage. People are more willing to open up and be vulnerable and share what they’re really thinking,” Yong says. “You can often help people work out stuff they’re thinking — how they’re feeling in ways that maybe they hadn’t articulated before. All of the practices we’ve talked about help the sources, but I think that they immensely help me as a reporter. It’s not a zero-sum game. If we play our cards right, everyone wins.”