Gavin Rees - "Trauma is an interesting word for journalists"

Exposing the Invisible talks to Gavin Rees about the many sources of trauma in journalism, how to achieve resilience by connecting with others and knowing when to take a pause, as well as about useful resources and advice available to journalists reporting on Ukraine war related crimes. This interview was conducted in June 2022.

About the Interviewee

Gavin Rees is Senior Advisor for Training and Innovation at the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma. Since 2008 he has been working as a trauma awareness consultant and trainer for newsrooms, media-support organisations, and journalism schools across Europe and beyond. Recently his work has focused on developing new approaches to working safely with traumatic images, dealing with online harassment and working ethically and effectively with victims and survivors of human rights abuses such as forced labour, torture and sexual violence. Previously, Gavin produced business and political news for US, British and Japanese news channels, and has worked on drama and documentary films for the BBC, Channel 4 and independent film companies. Gavin is a board member of the UK Psychological Trauma Society.

Interview Transcript

Exposing the Invisible in conversation with Gavin Rees from the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma.

(Note: the transcript includes minor edits for clarity reasons.)

Gavin Rees (GR):

So I'm Gavin Rees, and I work for the Dart Center for journalism and trauma. So that means I work for an organisation that's both a network and a think tank for journalists and filmmakers who are interested in improving and improving the way that we cover violence and tragedy in different forms.

I became interested in this topic, actually, largely by accident. I ended up spending a whole year working on a production for the BBC that was about what happened to Hiroshima when it was targeted in a nuclear explosion. And so I had to work with.... I had to interview the survivors. I had to reconstruct in my head all these kinds of terrible things that people experience in different places in the society, different places in the city, sorry.

And that made me realise that actually, that when we're working with trauma, we think we feel in slightly different ways, but there's almost no discussion about, you know, what does it take to sit there and absorb somebody's story? To both understand it and to kind of contain the experience of an interviewee who might be very distressed when they're talking about such events in a way that helps to put a little bit of solid ground under that person's feet so that they feel more able to talk about their experiences.

  • Exposing the Invisible (ETI): What are the unique challenges that investigative journalists face when it comes to trauma?


So trauma is an interesting word for, for journalists. Because when we talk about trauma, what tends to happen is that our minds zip into thinking about the worst possible situations we could possibly think of. So, conflict, war, dead bodies being in a highly kinetic situation in which we feel very threatened. And obviously, those are traumatic situations. And they're really important that we understand what's going on, that we're aware of the different ways people feel and behave and respond to kind of trauma.

But for investigative journalists, when we're talking about trauma, we're actually also talking about the experience of being threatened in more subtle ways. So for example, an investigative journalist could be verifying traumatic imagery. Now the potential for impact is a lot less than being in the place where the, you know, the car exploded or the or the bomb went off. But still, if one's an investigative journalist, and working with huge quantities of traumatic material, it doesn't have to be pictures. It could be witness testimony, going through interview transcripts.

And also another thing is that a lot of people working on investigations have the experience of being threatened. And sometimes we tend to kind of push that away and not kind of acknowledge it. But that little sense of being on edge, of feeling threatened, can be undermining in all kinds of complicated ways, and the best way of approaching that is to acknowledge it and to be aware of what's going on.

  • ETI: What is resilience and how can a journalist build it?


So, resilience is a word that tends to get slightly overused. I'm not entirely comfortable with the idea that it's always the journalist's individual responsibility to be resilient, because actually, trauma professionals tend to say that resilience doesn't just exist within individuals. It exists in the bonds between individuals. And so in other words, it's really important that people work in newsrooms, that there's a space in which people can share insight information, that they feel supported by their colleagues, that they're not being asked to do things that are unreasonable or unethical, that they've been given the resources that they need. So resilience isn't just an individual matter, it's also a kind of institutional matter.

Resilience in a given situation could be a journalist experiencing some kind of trauma exposure or some kind of challenge that actually they find quite hard to metabolise. And then rather than thinking that it's just a question of ignoring it, pushing it away, pretending nothing's a problem and kind of going forward – instead, to kind of take a breath and to acknowledge it, and to, to entertain the possibility there might be days that if we're working with trauma, working with very distressing content, that we're not able to do our best work, that maybe we need to kind of take a pause, lower the load, do less.

But actually, if we do that, perhaps we can increase our resilience over time, and increase our ability to work more effectively the next day. If however, we pretend that we're totally bulletproof, and that we're never going to be affected by stuff, and we're not in tune enough with the impact, we're not able to understand how things are affecting us because we're pretending they're not – that's likely to undermine resilience in the long term rather than increase it.

  • ETI: Tell us about the Dart Center’s new resource for covering sexual violence in conflict zones


So before the war started in Ukraine, a group of us created a resource called “Covering conflict related sexual violence”. So I suppose a shorthand for that would be: rape in war zones. But obviously, sexual violence is broader than just that label suggests. And it's a toolkit, which is designed to help reporters approach some of the most difficult subject matter that they're ever likely to approach effectively. And the kind of elements in it are things like knowing how as a journalist to take some responsibility for the safety of the source. So being able to assess whether the person is in a good place to speak, what the security implications might be of them going onto the public record, and also making sure that that the journalist obtains what we call meaningful consent. So really making sure that somebody who's perhaps not able, while feeling distress, to kind of calculate all the potential consequences of what speaking to the media might involve, of explaining to that person so they're really sure that they understand that, you know, that their accounts are going to appear in the media, that other journalists might then come and try and find them afterwards and interview them. To find out, if they say that they want to go on – they don't want to be anonymous – to really make sure that they fully understand what that means.

And also to, to understand what happens to people when they try and recall or talk about things that might put them back into that previous experience of, of being attacked. So one of the things that trauma does is it takes control away from people. So for a journalist who is interviewing a victim or survivor, the question is, how can we make the person that we're talking to feel a little bit more solid, feel that they're going to be understood, feel safe in the interview, in order to put them in a place where they're the most likely to be able to talk about what happened and also minimise the chances of kind of, of compounding their distress.

And so what the resource does, is it describes in kind of great detail, the various techniques and strategies that journalists might use to interview people safely, to understand when not to push in an interview – if perhaps some somebody starts to stumble over a hot memory – is to try and to understand why pushing into that memory might not be a good idea. So I suppose it's about factoring in the kinds of emotions that can come up in those situations and knowing how to respond to that emotional weather system in a way that is effective and helpful.

Credits and Licensing

CC BY-SA 4.0

This content is produced by Tactical Tech's Exposing the Invisible project, and licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International license

  • Speaker: Gavin Rees

  • Video production: Laurence Ivil

  • Editorial support and coordination: Wael Eskandar, Lieke Ploeger, Laura Ranca

  • Animation and graphic design: Yiorgos Bagakis, Paulina Rams, Jack Wolf

  • Music: “Piano Moment” by Daddy s Music, source: Pixabay

This video series is part of the Collaborative and Investigative Journalism Initiative (CIJI) project co-funded by the European Commission under the Pilot Project: "Supporting investigative journalism and media freedom in the EU" (DG CONNECT), September 2021 - August 2022

The content reflects the speaker’s views and the Commission is not responsible for any use that may be made of the information it contains.

First published on October 6, 2022

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