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 firstname.lastname@example.org. 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 …?
[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.