Q&A: Maggie Jones on trauma journalism


Maggie Jones is a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and is also a senior Ochberg Fellow at the Dart Center for Journalism & Trauma at Columbia Journalism School.

Jones tells Kendall Valan what she’s looking forward to at the PA Press Conference and about discussing covering trauma journalism.

Jones is part of Saturday afternoon’s panel discussion at 3:15 on trauma journalism.

What are you looking forward to most about this year’s PA Press Conference? 

I love journalism conferences as a whole. I am a freelancer. I have far too little of a community and too few opportunities to talk about reporting issues and ethics, and to hear from colleagues. I think that is the most valuable thing for me.

What types of issues do you plan to discuss during the panel?

I am planning to talk about some of my own experiences and lessons learned from covering trauma where it is really easy for reporters to make lots of mistakes. …(You) have to approach people who are victims in trauma very differently than other people, with greater sensitivity, allowing more time for interviews, and not always getting every detail that you wish you could have. In the process, you are not going to get every detail, because part of your responsibility is to protect somebody who has been victimized. Our instinct is to get the story at all cost. My argument is that you can’t do that with victims of trauma. You are in a position where you can re-traumatize them. Traditional ways to get the story do not apply to victims of trauma.

Is there a challenge when presenting this information in front of a room full of journalists?

I am a magazine writer, so it’s hard to apply some of the things I have learned to daily journalism. I think my challenge is to really encourage people to move more slowly and more cautiously with victims of trauma.

Do you have any stories or experiences that you plan to share during the panel?

I will particularly be covering stories about people from different cultures or subcultures different from my own that I really learned the most from. I have covered young boys who were shunned in Japan.

A photo from Maggie Jones' NY Times Magazine story on shut-ins in Japan. Credit: James Whitlow Delano (http://www.jameswhitlowdelano.com/).
A photo from Maggie Jones’ NY Times Magazine story on shut-ins in Japan. (Credit: James Whitlow Delano )

I have covered sex trafficking. I will probably talk about those stories in terms of how you have to use different rules than if you were interviewing (someone) like the senator. Also, you have to step outside your own cultural norms and values. It takes great cultural sensitivity. So my stories have been incredibly varied. A lot of what I learned is that you can’t go in applying the last story to the next. There are broad issues about being attuned to the person you are talking to. Sometimes enough is enough.

 Our instinct is to get the story at all cost. My argument is that you can’t do that with victims of trauma. You are in a position where you can re-traumatize them.

Is there a different journalism code applied when interviewing someone who is foreign from a culture different from your own?

I am very careful. I have covered stories outside the U.S. I am often covering people who have not dealt with the media very much. I am very careful in explaining that I will be writing for the New York Times magazine. That doesn’t mean people in your own country aren’t going to read this, especially with the internet. I try and take a long time up-front explaining the parameters of the story. Explaining that even though they may not use their last name, people may still recognize who they are, with full awareness that they are not necessarily being anonymous. In one case in a story in Thailand, I really had to explain what a magazine was to these two girls. It is hard to really know how much they understand it.

Do you have people that give a negative reaction after you explain your reasons for interviewing them?

Not necessarily, but I do get people who say “Well then I don’t really want to do this,” and I honor that. I do not like being in a bad position, especially when somebody is a trauma survivor. I don’t want to pull teeth. If I am pushing somebody to participate, it usually doesn’t end well. They may say yes and then change their mind half way through. (I’d) rather them say no from the beginning. I want them to feel that they were fully informed.

Has there ever been a moment when it was hard to cover a story without feeling personally attached to the issue at hand?

I almost always get emotionally involved. It is partially why I like doing what I do. If I didn’t care about the subjects, I think it would be harder. There are very few stories where I do not feel some emotional involvement. But I do feel that there are certain stories where people are virtually powerless, that it is challenging. I have had moments thinking maybe what I want to be is working for an NGO or a social worker or doctor, instead of being a reporter, sort of on the sidelines watching and being powerless to affect change. But that has lessened with time, because I think covering these stories has its own power.

I almost always get emotionally involved. It is partially why I like doing what I do. If I didn’t care about the subjects, I think it would be harder.

In your opinion, what is the responsibility of a journalist when they are covering trauma?

I think overall the (goal) is to not do harm to the person already victimized. You have to tell the truth of the story, but I think your responsibility is to not re-victimize them in any way. Journalists have the responsibility of talking to other journalists who do these kind of stories, to read about trauma, and to read about the best practices in journalism when covering these issues. The bar is high. I think the rules are somewhat different.

Read more from Maggie: http://www.bymaggiejones.com/

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