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Seven key lessons for reporting on childhood trauma

Seven key lessons for reporting on childhood trauma

Picture of Arielle Levin Becker
Researchers measure a child’s brain activity while viewing facial expressions — abused children are more likely to view ambiguous faces as angry. (Photo courtesy of the Child Emotion Lab/University of Wisconsin Madison)
Researchers measure a child’s brain activity while viewing facial expressions — abused children are more likely to view ambiguous faces as angry. (Photo courtesy of the Child Emotion Lab/University of Wisconsin Madison)

A growing body of evidence suggests that a child’s exposure to trauma and other forms of significant stress can have profound mental and physical health consequences later in life. For my fellowship project, I wanted to explore the science behind this concept and opportunities for intervention. The result was a four-part series focused on the research behind the link between early trauma and health. The series explored programs that aim to improve health outcomes by preventing exposure to trauma or building up resiliency, and also detailed efforts to better recognize when children have been exposed to trauma. Along the way I learned a lot about untangling complex research and reporting on sensitive subjects. Here are some lessons I took from the experience:

1) Consider not using real names or identifying details.

This is generally frowned upon, and I understand why; not using a person’s full name seems like handing readers a reason to discount the validity of your story. The practice has rightly come under fire after the discredited Rolling Stone story about rape at the University of Virginia.

But as I’ve covered more sensitive stories, I’ve come to think that the tradeoff can be worth it, especially if it allows a story to be told that otherwise wouldn’t be. I try to be especially careful when writing about young children, particularly if the story relates to trauma or mental health issues; doing otherwise in a world where their future employer could instantly find a story via Google years from now seems unfair.

This only applies to the use of pseudonyms for privacy purposes, not as a way of patching over reporting gaps. Here’s a test: If you put everyone’s real name back in, could your story stand up to legal scrutiny?

In the case of this series, I wrote about a family with a young child that had some significant issues, including domestic violence, homelessness and maternal depression. The father, who had full custody, was fine with me using his first name and his daughter’s first name, as well as their pictures, but his ex-girlfriend – the daughter’s mother – had not given permission, and we were concerned about her privacy. We were also concerned about the privacy of the child, who was far too young to give consent on her own and could potentially be labeled by a story about the negative long-term consequences of early adversity. Eventually, the mother agreed to speak with me after I told her we wouldn’t use any real names or identifying details. (I had hoped to use middle names, but two of the three people in the family didn’t have one.)

In this case, the use of pseudonyms was purely to protect privacy; the details of the story were backed up by documents or corroborating sources, including the program’s therapist, who spoke to me about the father and child after he signed a release allowing it. I verified other information through court records, a police report, even Facebook postings. We included a paragraph in the story making clear that we had changed their names to protect their identities, but that we had verified information from other sources.

In the end, I think not using their real names most likely weakened the story; using real names and photographs would have lent the story more of a sense of authenticity. But using pseudonyms allowed us to include the mother’s perspective and to tell a story that we otherwise wouldn’t have been able to.

2) Read the story for the “ick” factor.

Because my story involved some delicate, intimate details about a family, my editor asked our lawyer to read it, and asked that she approach it from three different perspectives: for privacy issues (could the family be identified or complain it was a violation of privacy?); other legal concerns; and as a human.

That last part was really important: Was there anything about it that felt exploitative? Did anything make her uncomfortable about the way the family was being treated by being included in the story? It’s a hard to define standard, but I was glad he included it, and I think it’s an important thing to be mindful of, particularly when writing about people in vulnerable situations who are not public figures or media savvy.

3) Know the science.

The research findings on the implications of significant adversity on young children are striking — so much so that, when explaining the research to people I know, I’d often meet with skepticism. (How is this possible? Won’t people just blame everything on trauma? Sure, but what about people who go through bad things and do fine?)

This made me want to really understand not just the concepts but their basis as well. What information came from animal studies, what came from research involving humans, what evidence was there for causal relationships versus correlation alone, and so on. I probably went overboard, but I’m glad I put in the time, because it allowed me to write with more authority.

It also allowed me to be more confident about my stories. At one point, someone who read the budget line for our series challenged its premise, describing it as soft, social-worker fluff. Knowing how strong the science behind it was helped me be confident in what I was reporting (and prepare mental rebuttals for any similar critics who came forward, which never happened).

4) For a primer, try review articles and YouTube talks.

I found review articles to be very helpful in learning the basics of a particular topic and finding links to key studies. Annual Reviews became my favorite publication while I was working on this project (you can get a free online subscription if you’re a member of the Association of Health Care Journalists). In addition, I found a lot of lectures on YouTube by top researchers in the field. This was helpful both as a way to learn about the topic and to figure out who I might approach for interviews.

5) Be aware of what the research DOESN’T say.

Research indicates that a children’s earliest experiences can have profound effects on their mental and physical health throughout life. But this isn’t deterministic: People respond differently to different experiences. (In fact, there’s fascinating research into what makes some kids more susceptible to their experiences than others.) That probably sounds obvious, but I found that many people hear about the links between trauma and bad outcomes, or early experiences and later consequences, and assume one necessarily leads to the other. I think it’s important to point out that a history of trauma is a risk factor, not a prescribed fate.

6) Watch out for often-repeated misinformation.

Once I had a handle on the research, I started to notice how much bad information is out there, even in seemingly respectable sources. One commonly repeated factoid — which is not actually fact — is that 80 percent of the brain is formed by age 3. It’s often cited in testimony advocating for early-childhood programs and I’ve seen it in well-cited reports (recently, I saw it on a poster in the halls of Connecticut’s Capitol complex). But it’s not true. Neuroscientists say it’s impossible to quantify any percentage of brain growth because the process is too complex. (Someone at the Harvard Center on the Developing Child, which is a great resource on this topic, told me they’ve spent considerable time trying to track down a citation for that tidbit. It might stem from a 1978 study that referred to brain weight, but brain weight has nothing to do with function.) To me, this underscored the importance of tracking down the root of any evidence you cite, even if it’s treated as gospel.

7) Be persistent in trying to reach researchers (or anyone, really).

This is probably obvious to any reporter, but at times while reporting this project, it seemed like a revelation. I was initially hesitant to approach some of the top researchers on childhood adversity, figuring they wouldn’t have time or interest in talking to a reporter. But when other attempts didn’t pan out, I tried, and it was worth it. Some extremely accomplished scientists were extremely helpful and accommodating (and some of their lesser-known peers never got back to me). Some were very helpful but had very limited time, a month away.  At one point, a communications official at the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard made an email introduction to two of researchers. Both were willing to talk and extremely helpful. 

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