Remember, even journalists weep, too
Bill Speer and I were visited recently by a survivor of sexual assault who was displeased with the way we covered her case.
We weren’t able to give her all the answers she wanted to hear — perhaps needed to hear.
And that broke our hearts.
Journalists have a reputation for being calloused and cold, ambulance chasers, and we haven’t done ourselves any favors with some of the terminology we employ (“if it bleeds, it leads”). Certainly, there are elements among us that pachydermic, but, for most of us, I’d say brassiness is a coping mechanism for all the times our heart was shattered by all the terrible things we have to write about.
A pause, here, to stress that I don’t mean to compare our emotional strife to that of the people we cover. We sit on the outside with our pen and paper and our camera while our subjects ride the vortex of life-altering trauma. I can only begin to imagine what that survivor in Bill’s office had been through, the bravery it took for her to come to us and tell us how she felt.
But I think it’s important for readers to understand what happens on the other side of the printed page, to understand our motivations and deliberations, so maybe they’ll read what we write with the right set of eyes and react accordingly.
We cover court cases for the same reasons we cover everything else.
First, we hope to arm our readers with the knowledge they need to make informed decisions about whether and how to get involved in their communities.
We cover crime and courts so readers are aware of the kinds of problems in their neighborhoods and can decide whether they want to get involved in a neighborhood watch group or donate to a sheriff’s campaign or even become a police officer or prosecutor or judge.
Too, stories of survivors coming forward, telling their stories, taking the stand to put their attackers behind bars, has inspired other survivors to come forward and do the same. I have no doubt that, were Rachel Denhollander not brave enough to tell her story to the Indianapolis Star, we would not have seen hundreds of other women come forward to say Larry Nassar assaulted them and Michigan State University and U.S.A. Gymnastics ignored them. Justice might not have been served.
We also write about crime and courts so the public can judge for themselves whether justice is being fairly executed.
Courts are open to the public by law and court rule to guarantee people aren’t tried on flimsy evidence for personal or political reasons, so the public can judge the judges, prosecutors, and police for their jurisprudence, to make sure the accused get the fair shake to which they’re constitutionally entitled.
We are all too keenly aware that our work can have collateral damage. We don’t identify even alleged victims of sexual assault, but public telling of such cases still can retraumatize victims and or subject them to public ridicule and shaming. While some survivors may be inspired by others coming forward, other survivors may see the pain involved and decide to stay quiet.
But, just as a prosecutor must weigh those risks against the interests of justice when asking a survivor to publicly take the stand, journalists must weigh those risks against the public interest served by our readers knowing about the case.
We aim to strike that balance not just when deciding whether to tell the story at all, but in every detail we include in our story. Might this fact lead someone to figuring out who the survivor is? Is it important for readers to know this to understand the case and its role in their community? To fairly judge the judge, the prosecutor, the police, and the accused?
We agonize over every sentence, hoping we make the right call.
Meanwhile, we weep for victims, for broken homes and damaged families and diverted futures. We do. It contributes to the secondary trauma journalists experience that gives our industry some of the highest rates of suicide, depression, and divorce (Poynter has a great tip sheet for journalists dealing with trauma: https://tinyurl.com/yxh3ml89)
We don’t write what we write to sell newspapers. I would gladly trade every subscription we have — just as I’m sure every cop would trade his or her badge, every judge would hang up his or her robe, and every prosecutor would burn his or her law license — if it meant no one else had to be victimized.
But, since that’s not an option, we keep agonizing, and weeping, and hoping we’ve made the right call, hoping our work does more good than harm.
Justin A. Hinkley can be reached at 989-358-5686 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @JustinHinkley.