When journalism is at its most compelling, it is often because someone chose to tell their own story, at the risk of personal expense – they’ve put themselves in the public spotlight in order to make a difference.
Think of articles on rape survivors, on the personal issues of dementia sufferers, on inclusive classrooms dealing with student violence or on refugees living in war zones. Those stories have impact and, thanks to people who are willing to be the face of the problem, can change societal norms as well.
This month’s coverage started with foreign correspondent Mark MacKinnon and photographer Andrea DiCenzo in a refugee camp in Iraq talking to Kurds fleeing for their lives after the abrupt U.S. withdrawal.
That same day included an in-depth look at an avalanche at Howse Peak that killed three top climbers. The story relied on personal details from survivors and photos and memories from family members of those who perished.
By month’s end, there was a lighter feature on senior women who live alone and are quite happy not to be looking after a man, which included personal details from several men and women.
In these articles, journalists gave care and thought to how the subjects were treated, as it should be. But each case is different. There are clear legal ground rules when dealing with family court issues or youth justice crimes, but for most personal stories, each situation must be assessed anew.
The Kurdish story showed refugees struggling after U.S. President Donald Trump withdrew troops from northern Syria, allowing Turkey to invade and drive the Kurds out. Because the women profiled and photographed had safely escaped, their faces and personal stories could be told, showing the world what happened to the Kurds, who had long been allies of the West.
The avalanche deaths story was done with the full involvement of survivors and family who wanted to tell what happened on that fateful day.
Journalists follow the law on not naming victims or perpetrators of youth crimes, children in family court and rape victims who do not explicitly give permission to use their names. The Globe and Mail’s ethical standards also tell reporters to take care to respect those who are emotionally vulnerable and unaccustomed to talking to the media. This is especially true for children; every effort should be made to gain the permission of a parent or guardian before identifying children under the age of 16. Beyond these rules, though, given that news lives forever online, reporters and editors should always pause to consider the circumstances, especially when it is personal details being shared.
Reporters should always be clear, when speaking to interview subjects, about what they are planning to write and that the subject’s name will be used. If a potential subject seems uncertain, then reporters should not press, especially if someone is in a vulnerable state. Be sensitive to subjects dealing with trauma or grief, but allow them to have their public moments. When a loved one dies, some people want to talk about it, openly and publicly, and that should be respected.
While it is important to be sensitive, the standards are different for breaking news, when someone is caught up in a police or court matter or political dispute. Journalism is about transparency and openness in terms of public policy, police actions and the courts, and anything in the public eye.
And people who are used to being in the public eye, such as politicians and public figures, are well versed in knowing how much to say. Some personal details they may not want known by the public may nonetheless be important for readers to know. Do they have a hidden criminal past, for example? The public has a right to know.
But for those people wanting to drive a discussion about dementia or how schools can work for all students or how people deal with death, disruption and trauma, it is important to respectfully let them tell their story.