More often than not, the stories or news we cover will involve "victims"; people who suffered emotionally or physically from a direct attack. Whether it is a sexual assault, or an armed attack, or any other form of violence, journalists will find it difficult to balance the need to get the story, while respecting the victim's privacy and feelings.
In October 2015, Soumayya Obeid, a young Egyptian woman, was attacked by a stranger in a shopping mall in Cairo.
Obeid says the man followed her around the mall, then stopped her and told her to go home with him. When she threatened to call the police, the man slapped her twice, but was quickly stopped by the mall's security personnel. The incident was captured on CCTV and, according to Obeid, the man was already known to security staff for his predatory behavior.
But after several days of filing an official complaint with the police, no arrests were made, and so Obeid went to the media to speak about her experience as a victim of assault.
Most television networks were sympathetic, and their coverage helped push the police to finally make an arrest. But there was one broadcaster that turned its attention to Obeid; questioning her reputation and alleging that her conduct contributed to the assault.
Riham Saeed, a famous broadcaster with Al-Nahar TV network, attacked Obeid on her show for dressing “inappropriately” during the mall incident (she was wearing jeans and a sleeveless top). According to unofficial transcripts on the internet, the broadcaster suggested that Obeid's attire may have given the man the impression that she was "not a good girl". Later on, Obeid went on to express how shocked she was that, rather than being treated as a victim, she was made into a culprit and held responsible for the man's actions.
In addition to the harsh interview, Obeid was shocked that the episode also featured her personal photos. She says they were taken from her mobile phone without her knowledge and consent, and were used by the broadcaster as further evidence to Obeid's alleged ill repute.
The incident was widely debated on social media, and Riham Saeed was widely criticised for her unprofessional behavior, the program was suspended, and Obeid sued Riham Saeed for libel and invasion of privacy. Although the court ruled in Obeid’s favour in March 2016, Riham Saeed won a subsequent appeal. She was cleared of defamation charges and is now back on the air.
Although the initial sentencing of Riham Saeed to 18 months in jail was widely criticized by media professionals and watchdogs, who maintain that libel cases must be tried in civil rather than criminal courts, many feel she deserved to be rebuked for her unprofessional behaviour.
It is difficult to assess the damage this episode has had on Obeid's emotional state and reputation. A random search on Youtube today will not lead to the recording of the infamous episode on Riham Saeed’s show, but it will deliver a long string of Obeid’s private photos. Obeid said this scandal has damaged her relationship with her family and that, and for a long time, she was too scared to go out on the street for fear of being recognized.
There are many examples of poor or reckless journalism that causes further hurt and damage to victims of trauma, or what psychologists call “the second wound”.
"We are not a commodity. We just feel we should be talked to by journalists in a way that is a discussion that is not going to impinge on our right to grieve."
There was very little support for Syrian reporter Michelene Azar of Al Dunya Channel for her coverage of the August 2012 massacre in the southern town of Darayya. In her search for answers about who did the killing and who died, Azar pointed her microphone directly at a woman who lay on the ground, half-dead, demanding to know who shot her. Azar then goes to a child - traumatised and sitting in a dead woman's lap – and asks if the corpse belonged to her mother. The report was heavily criticised on social media; audiences – including Syrian artists and broadcasters - described Azar's interview of the victims as "sadistic" and "inhumane".
But apart from these two extreme cases, there are many grey areas where journalists inadvertently cause great damage by acting inappropriately with trauma victims. In Lebanon, for example, it is customary for local media crews to rush to hospitals after a bomb attack and interview the wounded, including children, with questions that can be described as insensitive or intrusive. In Iraq in 2003, when people began to dig up mass graves in search for the bodies of their loved ones, they were often overwhelmed by large media presence; the scrum of reporters and cameras became intrusive and were sometimes met with angry reactions from distressed Iraqis.
It is not always easy to strike the right and delicate balance between getting the story and respecting the boundaries with people who are traumatised. Many journalists say they honestly do not know where to draw the line when a major incident happens. If a major attack takes place in Gaza, for example, at what point can a journalist talk to people to find out exactly what happened? How can one reporter step back and refrain from “getting the story” when other reporters are already gathered around one witness or victim? Interviewing children is also a very delicate issue; is it fair on the traumatised child to be surrounded by journalists, especially if the dead or injured are his parents or siblings? Is it possible in such circumstances to obtain the consent of a guardian or parent to interview the child?
This issue is not exclusive to Arabic media, many journalists around the world have been criticised for inappropriate behaviour when approaching trauma victims. During the London bombings of 2005, some survivors expressed anger at the way they were treated by British reporters as they came out of the metro, as they were bombarded with questions when they were clearly in the middle of shock.
The DART Centre for Journalism and Trauma suggests a simple, but important, checklist to keep in mind when interviewing trauma victims. This does not only apply to victims of war or terrorism, but also to anyone who may have suffered a great loss (for example, loss of a family member in an accident or natural disaster), or have been subject to great hurt themselves, whether physically or mentally:
Show respect, even in the “media scrum”. It is very daunting for trauma victims to find cameras everywhere they turn; whether they are in the middle of a tragic scene (terrorist attack, car accident) or on their way to court.
Take no for an answer. If the person does not want to speak, it is best to leave them alone. If a journalist senses that the interviewee (or victim of trauma) is clearly unfit to answer any questions, it is best to leave them in peace.
Get the facts right. Accuracy in reporting names and details is a basic journalistic principle. But it becomes even more pressing when it involves reporting casualties. A simple misspelling or mix-up of names could cause trauma to other people, or further offence to those who lost family members.
Get “informed consent” where possible. In news, it is very important to make sure the interviewee knows who is interviewing them (the name of channel and presenter), and why they are being interviewed. But if the interview is for longer-format programmes, such as documentaries, then it is important to ask them to sign a "consent form" that clearly outlines what the interviewees are agreeing to. Consent forms are also especially important when interviewing children; obtaining the parents’ signature is meant to protect both the child and the media network. But there had been cases where such forms were used to absolve the network of moral and legal responsibility, which is unethical. For example, in the case of Soumayya Obeid – who became known as the “mall girl” – she says she was pressed by the editors of Al-Nahar TV Network to sign a consent form (or declaration), saying she was fully responsible for the contents of the episode. But when she signed the document, she was unaware of the fact that the editors had obtained her personal photos and intended to use them.
Watch your language. Some trauma victims have expressed their sadness and anger because reporters were asking questions that felt "impersonal". This is why journalists are often advised to put themselves in the interviewee's shoes and ask the questions they would have liked to hear had the incident happened to them. As a general rule, it is always best to stick to factual questions about the incident itself (what happened, what were the consequences). Expressing sympathy, such as paying condolences, is also very important. Although some victims might get angry if you ask "how do you feel?" right after an accident, others might find it comforting. Some interviewees respond better to different types of questions. For example, you could say: “I can’t imagine what that must have been like, but I’d like to understand could you tell me more…” Roger Membery, an Australian whose daughter went missing is presumed dead in 1994, summarised it as follows: "We are not a commodity," he said. "We just feel we should be talked to by journalists in a way that is a discussion that is not going to impinge on our right to grieve."
Keep your questions short. After you've switched off your camera, think if there is a small gesture you could do to make them feel better. It could be a hug –where permissible – or the touch of an arm. Use your common sense and show the interview you're human.