Yes, Internet, We Are As Upset As You Are About the NYT’s Sahar Gul Piece

We’ve been blogging for four years now, and we can’t remember a time when so many readers have contacted us about the same thing.

For those of you who don’t have a Google News Alert set up for “torture” or “horrific abuses inflicted upon vulnerable children, golden retrievers, and baby bunnies”, Sahar Gul is the young Afghan girl (reports of her age differ, but at most she is 15 years old) whose husband and in-laws burned and beat her for her refusal to engage in sex work. Graham Bowley is the New York Times reporter who, in his own words, “wouldn’t be turned away” by hospital workers who told him that the abused girl was too traumatized to speak with him.

And yes, “reporter barges into tortured child’s hospital room, demands previously-reported-in-multiple-media-outlets details of atrocities inflicted upon her, then publishes self-congratulatory report about doing so” is exactly the sort of thing that makes us clutch our Advil bottles and bang our heads against the wall. (It’s important to take prophylactic anti-inflammatories before incurring self-inflicted head wounds, by the way.)

But the online reaction to Bowley’s post detailing his pursuit of the story has already hit most of the points we would have made. Dan’s response over at “Finding My Tribe” sums up our feelings exactly. Even the (generally nutballs) NYTimes commenters seem to agree:

“But I realized that despite the delicacy of the situation, I should have pushed past ‘no.’” Thank you, Mr. Bowley, for making me want to throw up.

- NYT Commenter “AH”

So we thought instead of (just) adding some more outrage coals to the fire, we’d take this opportunity to talk about professional responsibility and retraumatization. There’s a reason the UNICEF guidelines for interviewing children specify that interviewers must “avoid questions, attitudes or comments … that reactivate a child’s pain and grief from traumatic events.”

The risk of retraumatizing someone you’re trying to help is an issue we’ve both grappled with in our work representing asylum applicants. You try to balance the need for convincing detail with the harm inflicted on the client, but that necessarily entails asking people questions that no one should ever have to answer, like “and what were you tied to during the second gang rape?” Questions like that have the potential to do all kinds of terrible things, like triggering painful flashbacks, or causing physical distress, so the decision to ask them needs to be weighed very, very carefully. If they have the potential to save the victim’s life through a successful asylum case, then they are probably worth it. Probably.

Here, however,  it’s hard to know why Bowley needed to interview Sahar Gul at all – he himself notes that the AP had already done so. So he was balancing the harm of re-traumatizing a tortured child who did not want to be interviewed against…what, exactly? His desire not to be scooped by the AP during his first week in Kabul? We can see why that might be a concern for the reporter, but why should Sahar Gul give a toss?

If you would prefer that the paper of record not engage in such behavior, we suggest that you email the New York Times Public Editor at public@nytimes.com. If you like, use this script:

Dear Public Editor,

I recently read your reporter Graham Bowley’s description of his attempts to interview Sahar Gul, an Afghan girl in her early teens who was the victim of horrific abuse at the hands of her husband and in-laws. Bowley states with apparent pride that he “pushed past ‘no,’” and interviewed her after hospital workers informed him that she did not wish to speak to reporters, and was too psychologically fragile to repeat her story.

It’s difficult to formulate a response to this story that does not begin with the words “what the…” As Bowley notes in his article, Gul had already been interviewed by other news organizations. Her story had been told, and was already available to the press and public. Bowley was not adding substantial new information through his reporting (the mango juice does not count). Rather, he appears to have returned to the hospital to soothe the burns to his ego from getting scooped by the AP.

How is it possible that this was not only acceptable journalistic behavior for a Times employee, but that Bowley and his editors saw fit to crow over it by publishing a blog post about the reporter’s heroic success in overcoming the resistance of a traumatized child?

Once again: what the …?

Sincerely,

[Your name here]

And, if you’re looking for more information on the issues discussed in this post, the DART center has a great info sheet on interviewing trauma survivors of all ages, and Jina Moore takes on the particular issues with reporting on rape here.

38 thoughts on “Yes, Internet, We Are As Upset As You Are About the NYT’s Sahar Gul Piece

  1. Thanks for the link to the blog. And appreciate the article, too. I do realize that’s always the challenge when dealing with trauma of any kind: Sahar’s story does need to be told, and to do so effectively is going to involve a certain level of invading her privacy to a degree that may not be entirely comfortable for all concerned. In your case above…just…wow. My hat’s off to you and the work you do, whatever it is. You’re there for some people who genuinely need someone. I’m copying and sending your letter to the editor now.

  2. It’s hard to tell for sure, but from my reading it appears that the “no” he was pushing past was from hospital security – who seem to have made the decision on their own to turn him away; there’s no indication they were conveying the expressed wishes of the patient. Once he’s in the room, neither Sahar Gul, her aunt, or the doctor seem to object to his presence, or at least there’s no indication of that in the piece.

  3. Also, completely forgot to mention the “Google Alert.” That… is awesome. Oh, and I sent the letter. First response back from NYT was them asking if I could send them a link to the story. Magical.

    • Yeah, I wish I were making that up. I said, “So this is the first letter you’ve received?” Reply was to the effect that, yes, it was. But that they had then received one after mine, and that they would then let me know if they had any further follow up.

      • That might have been my letter – I sent it yesterday right after reading this comment. I have only received an auto-response back so far, but at least they only asked you for the link!

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  5. There is an actual code of ethics for journalists that has been developed about this. All journalists need some sort of training about the proper and respectful way to ask for consent and how to interview without re-traumatizing. This is a constan problem. there is a book (that I’ve never seen) that supposedly addresses this issue called “Who here has been raped and speaks English?” I think we ought to spend a bit more time with reports talking about GBV and how to correctly report on it. Anyone got any ideas of who is the right organization to do this?

    • Journalism Initiative: Guidelines on Reporting of Violence Against Women

      The Ethical Journalism Initiative is a global campaign of programmes and activities to support and strengthen quality in media. It was adopted by the World Congress of the IFJ in Moscow in 2007 and was formally launched in 2008. The Ethical Journalism Initiative is a global campaign of programmes and activities to support and strengthen quality in media.

      http://ethicaljournalisminitiative.org/en/contents/ifj-guidelines-for-reporting-on-violence-againstwomen

      1. Identify violence against women accurately through the internationally accepted definition in the 1993 UN Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women.

      2. Use accurate, non-judgmental language. For instance, rape or sexual assault is not in any way to be associated with normal sexual activity; and trafficking in women is not to be confused with prostitution. Good journalists will strike a balance when deciding how much graphic detail to include. Too much may be sensationalist and can be gratuitous; too little can weaken the survivor’s case. At all times, the language of reporting should avoid suggestions that the survivors may be to blame, or were otherwise responsible for the attack or acts of violence against them.

      3. People who suffer in such an ordeal will not wish to be described as a ‘victim’ unless they use the word themselves. The use of labels can be harmful. A term that more accurately describes the reality of a person who has suffered in this way is ‘survivor’.

      4. Sensitive reporting means ensuring that the media interview meets the needs of the survivor. A female interviewer should be on hand and the setting must always be secure and private, recognizing that there may be a social stigma attached. Media must do everything they can to avoid exposing the interviewee to further abuse. This includes avoiding actions that may undermine their quality of life or their standing in the community.

      5. Treat the survivor with respect. For journalists this means respecting privacy, providing detailed and complete information about the topics to be covered in any interview, as well as how it will be reported. Survivors have the right to refuse to answer any questions or not to divulge more than they are comfortable with. Journalists should make themselves available for later contact; providing contact details to interviewees will ensure they are able to keep in contact if they wish or need to do so.

      6. Use statistics and social background information to place the incident within the context of violence in the community or conflict. Readers and the media audience need to be informed of the bigger picture. The opinion of experts on violence against women such as the DART centre will always increase the depth of understanding by providing relevant and useful information. This will also ensure that media never give the impression that violence against women is an inexplicable tragedy that cannot be solved.

      7. Tell the whole story: sometimes media identify specific incidents and focus on the tragic aspects, but reporters do well to understand that abuse might be part of a long-standing social problem, armed conflict or part of a community history.

      8. Maintain confidentiality: as part of their duty of care, media and journalists have an ethical responsibility not to publish or broadcast names or identify places that in any way might further compromise the safety and security of survivors or witnesses. This is particularly important when those responsible for violence are the police, or troops in a conflict, or agents of the state or government, or people connected with other large and powerful organizations.

      9. Use local resources: Media who contact experts, women’s groups and organizations on the ground about proper interviewing techniques, questions and places will always do good work and avoid situations – such as where it is unacceptable for male camera workers or reporters to enter a secluded place – which can cause embarrassment or hostility. There is always virtue in reporters educating themselves on the specific cultural contexts and respecting them.

      10. Provide useful information: reports that include details of sources and the contact details of local support organizations and services will provide vital and helpful information for survivors/witnesses and their families and others who may be affected.

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  9. Here’s what I got back today from the Public Editor. I disagree quite strongly with his final sentence:

    Thanks for your message about Graham Bowley’s coverage of Sahar Gul, the young Afghan girl. I am concerned about the girl’s privacy as well and have raised the question with the Foreign Desk. I do concur that news organizations should be careful to respect the privacy of crime victims. This is a case where, I believe, the benefits of doing a story were outweighed by the potential harm to the girl.

    Best,
    Art Brisbane
    public editor

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  11. Rather than wasting precious time and resources condemning a reporter for doing his job can we focus on the victim, who, as of the date of Graham Bowley’s article, is clinging to life and sanity? My husband and I would like to help her in some way.

    Does anyone on this website/blog know if there is a medical fund set up for her? We would like to contribute to it for the healing of her mind and body. We have read that she is slowly healing physically but that she is suffering from severe emotional and psychological trauma and her caregivers are very concerned about it.

    Furthermore, we whole-heartedly agree with the statement by Orzala Ashraf, an Afghan human rights activist, quoted in a January 9, 2012 article by Gayle Tzemach Lemmon. Ashraf states, “It is good that these stories are covered, but most important is that the media should also cover the follow-up: what happens to the people who have done this?” says Ashraf of Gul’s abusers. “There are not enough programs in the media that would be interested in following that story. It is critical that we know two months from today, two years from today, what happens. People have committed a crime against this girl.”

    Would this website/blog let us and your readers know what does happen to Sahar Gul next week, next month, next year? Will you ask why she hasn’t been sent to specialists in India like she was supposed to be? (Her ears are so scarred that the ear canals are almost completely filled with scar tissue.) It seems that would require reconstructive surgery to open them and based on Graham Bowley’s description of the Kabul hospital it seems it isn’t equipped for that kind of specialized surgery.) Most importantly, will you try to find out where and with whom Sahar Gul will live if she recovers sufficiently to be released from the hospital? (Is she going to be returned to her brother who sold her to her torturers?) Would you announce on your website or in another story how we Americans can financially help the shelters like Women for Afghan Women mentioned in your article? How can we ensure that Sahar Gul is vindicated and that her plight doesn’t just “go away” like so many others?

    Thank you very much.

    Sincerely,

    John and Patricia Shields
    Phoenix, Arizona, USA

  12. re: Sahar Gul
    THIS IS FROM THE WEBSITE Afghan Women’s Writing Project, http://awwproject.org/2012/01/the-voice-of-sahar-gul/,
    by a writer signing herself “Norwan”:

    “Every time I write, I decide that this time I am going to write something nice, interesting, funny, and happy. I think, this time, I am going to paint the happiest moments of an Afghan woman’s life.
    I wish there was a happy scene for me to tell. I wish there were scenes of brightness and laughter inside the lives of Afghan females. I search and research—but I find so much sorrow.
    In writing this story I must eat my tears and anger. I try not to cry, so I can write it for you—for you, dear readers. You would never think human beings could be this wild, that human beings can do such violence to one another.
    Recently, a fifteen-year-old girl was released from imprisonment after five months. Sahar Gul was sold by her family and forced to marry an Afghan army soldier. Sahar lived in Baghlan province in the north of Afghanistan and she was kept in the basement of her house. Her in-laws tried to force her into prostitution. She did not accept this, and struggled to ignore what they forced her to do. They then beat her wildly and ripped her fingernails out, tortured her with hot irons, and broke her fingers. All her body parts were bruised and bloodied with black scabs.
    Sahar was released after five months in the basement of her house. Her relatives called the authorities and told them about her, and then helped to get her to Kabul. She is in the hospital now and her story went to the media. Looking at her pictures, I can’t stop my hate for wild, ignorant families and the men who inflict such violence on women.
    Sahar Gul is one of thousands of women who share the same destiny. She was lucky she was released. Although she remained silent, tolerating pain and torture, she became a voice for other women.
    Girls and women tolerate violence and accept it as their God-given destiny because they are women. They remain silent and voiceless because if they tell their stories nobody will accept them at home again. With such struggles these women don’t actually live; they miss all of life’s beautiful moments. There is no doubt that Afghanistan is the worst place for women. Writing about such stories I doubt that we are Muslims.
    In Afghanistan most of the marriages are arranged and forced. Families decide, and girls are like sculptures, bodies without soul. This is true. They can’t decide their future and can’t stand up to the mad traditions and wild decisions of their families. Of course forced marriages are never successful and then the families say to the girl that it is your destiny and God gave you this kind of life. They say you must accept it and face it while you are alive and God will reward you in the other world.
    Sahar Gul’s mother-in-law was arrested by the police because she ignored the violence against Sahar. I don’t know where Sahar will go after she is treated. I hope she will be safe, but it is very hard for women once the story goes to media. Then nobody will accept her back at home.
    Looking at the lives of women in my country makes me cry every night and creates questions in my mind. I ask God: “Are you the enemy of Afghan women? Is it you that gives us life and faith? Why is life always so unlucky and full of torture?”
    By Norwan

  13. How can we make sure that Sahar Gul is not returned to a life like “Narwan” described, where Sahar will not be accepted because of her story being aired in the world media? People, somebody’s got to do something, adopt her, sponsor her to a safe country, something! I’ve written to the Afghan Ambassador to the U.S., I’ve written to Afghan newspapers, to American news outlets, to Western news sources, about Sahar Gul. So far, no responses. If, as “Narwan” states, nobody will accept Sahar Gul back at home, where will she go? We have 3 little kids and lack the time & resources to give her a home but surely there’s somebody out there in the world wide web that has heard about her plight and can do something.

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