In my last post, I asked my journalist readers what should be done about obtaining meaningful consent in situations where there is a language barrier between the reporter and the trauma victim/subject:
Finally, a question for my journalist friends: what do you make of the fact that Mac apparently asked her NGO intermediary for consent from the victim and her mother, and he assured her that they had consented? Mac doesn’t speak Haitian Creole, and the other women don’t speak English, so it sounds like an intermediary was necessary. I don’t like the idea that consent rules should be loosened for sources who don’t speak the same language as the reporters who write about them. But if you must rely on third parties, how can you be sure that consent has been given, and given meaningfully?
Ask and ye shall receive: Jina Moore has written an incredibly informative and thoughtful response. I strongly, strongly, strongly urge you to go read the entire, detailed version here, but here is a summary of her rules, from her companion post on the topic:
- Meaningful consent comes from the survivor. Not a driver, a husband, a social worker, a doctor, a lawyer…
- Meaningful consent is given for specific use. The story, the audience, and the medium are explained, understood, and agreed to by both parties.
- Meaningful consent is given at an appropriate time. That time is very rarely in moments of or immediately after crisis.
- Meaningful consent repeats itself. Long-form or feature journalism has time to go back to survivors and talk through how the story will appear. It also has that obligation.
- Trauma journalism has different standards. Trauma journalism inverst our usual relationships with sources and makes us the most powerful people in the room. Our professional rules aren’t built for that, so we must adapt them.
I think that last point is especially important. I hadn’t ever thought about it before, but I think that issue is at the heart of so many of the stories that I have had a problem with over the years. As Jina explains:
The rules of traditional journalism are written for a game in which the journalist is the disempowered party. Those rules are designed to get as much information as possible from people who, for reasons of self-interest, probably don’t want to give it to us. That’s why we have things like “on the record” – it’s public, no going back. Or “on background” – you can use the information, but you can’t name the source. Or even, “on deep background,” which is “for your edification only, and you can’t print/broadcast any of this.”
These are rules powerful people know. If you interview a State Department official, the first thing they will do is say, ‘This OTR” or “This is on background” or “How will this be used?” And you negotiate the rules. They know how the game works. Indeed, they know that it’s a game.
So we have to rewrite the rules. Trauma journalism requires that journalists acknowledge a major power shift – one that favors the journalists. We have to rewrite our playbook. The premise is still the same – protect the vulnerable – but now, we’re not the vulnerable. Our sources are.
Like I said, go read the whole thing.