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What I learned after spending four years chronicling the impact of trauma on one woman’s life

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What I learned after spending four years chronicling the impact of trauma on one woman’s life

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Ashley Peterson’s story was told through a five-part series published in April in The Indianapolis Star.
(Photo by Mykal McEldowney/The Indianapolis Star)

How do you know when someone is emotionally ready to be interviewed about a trauma he or she has experienced? What do you do if she wants to back out just before publication? How do you respond to a source’s complex family dynamic when it is affecting the reporting process? How do you protect yourself from becoming emotionally entangled in a story?

While producing a five-part series, “Ashley’s Story,” published in April in The Indianapolis Star as a project for the Center for Health Journalism’s 2017 National Fellowship, my colleagues and I found ourselves navigating these difficult questions, and more. The series explored one woman’s experiences with trauma.

Ashley had been taken from her birth mother when she was 2 years old, sexually abused at 7, used as a political pawn at 8, and abandoned by her adoptive mother at 10. She struggled to fit into a home with five other children. She felt like an outsider as she went through more than a decade of fights, hospitalizations, rape and other sexual encounters with older men. We chronicled her life from the time she was 2 to the present.

It was the most difficult project I’ve ever worked on.

There were times I thought it might not publish. There were difficult conversations and sleepless nights. Lots of stress. There were strategies my colleagues and I employed and lessons we learned.

It’s important to note that, in our case, we weren’t on deadline. We had the luxury of time. But these questions can also crop up in short-term reporting. Here are the questions we navigated, and how we handled them.

How do you know when someone is emotionally ready to be interviewed about a trauma they’ve experienced?

Six years ago, Craig Peterson contacted me for the first time about his adopted daughter Ashley. He shared a bit of her background in the context of responding to an article I’d written. Craig said Ashley was “extremely fragile” and living “in her own private hell.” Ashley had been diagnosed with what she later described as a cocktail of psychological disorders, some of which were a result of childhood trauma she suffered while in the foster care system.

Craig, who was her legal guardian, was trying to find resources to help her. He didn’t ask me for anything. He just wanted to tell me about her struggle.

I asked if he and Ashley would be willing to allow me access to her child welfare records. I wanted to know more about her. If, at some point, she felt comfortable sharing her story, I thought there might be value in writing it.

In 2014, Craig and Ashley granted me access to her child welfare records — nearly 900 pages. After reading through them, I knew I wanted to share her story with the public. But she had to be emotionally ready to do so. I didn’t push. Craig checked in multiple times over the next year with updates on how she was doing. I thanked him for the updates and reiterated my interest in her story.

In early 2015, Ashley was ready to meet.

We met repeatedly over the next four years. There were times Ashley canceled interviews or didn’t show up for them. Once, she disappeared. There were times she told Craig that she didn’t want to participate in the project any longer.

Each time it happened, I backed off. I understood how difficult it would be to share intimate details of your life with the public. I didn’t want to pressure Ashley into doing something she wasn’t ready to do. Each time, Ashley eventually reached back out and said she wanted to continue.

Admittedly, that was a gamble. But I believed that Ashley would eventually let me tell her story, because she wanted her voice to be heard.

I later learned that those gaps in talking to me were connected to Ashley’s emotional and physical fragility. When things were good, or at least stable, she was willing to share her story. When she was homeless or struggling, she pulled away. That makes sense, right? It’s human nature to not want people to see the bad stuff.

In 2016, I shifted my focus to an investigation into USA Gymnastics. But as a 2017 National Fellow, I eventually returned to reporting on Ashley. And by the end of 2018, I felt I had enough to tell her story.

What do you do if a survivor of trauma wants to back out before publication?

Shortly before publication, I met with Ashley and her father, Craig, to walk through what information they could expect to be included in the series. I didn’t let them read it. But we’d covered a lot of information over the past four years of reporting, and I wanted to make sure Ashley was prepared.

It’s not something I typically do. But I felt obligated to go further than usual because of the sensitivity of the topic.

To be completely honest, that meeting was a disaster. I knew Ashley might get upset. Who wouldn’t, having to listen to traumatic moments in their lives being repeated back to them? But Ashley pushed me to keep going even after I believed she’d heard enough for one day. She cried, and she got angry.

I left with a sick feeling, wondering whether I’d done the right thing. Over the next few days I received a barrage of texts and calls from Ashley and her father. He indicated that she no longer wanted to share her story. She said she wanted to meet.

I spoke with my bosses about the possibility of Ashley backing out. My editor Steve Berta and I had a series of conversations. We did additional research on how to approach someone who has experienced trauma.

Together, we all decided the editors should be part of the meeting with Ashley. That was important for two reasons. First, there are decisions I cannot make alone. And second, their presence showed how seriously we were taking Ashley’s request to be heard.

How do you respond to a source’s complex family dynamic when it is affecting the reporting process?

I’d known for some time that there was tension between Ashley and Craig.

They loved and supported each other. But in separate interviews, they both described their arguments. I witnessed some disagreements firsthand.

In the meeting just before publication, I saw how complex their relationship had become. Any time Craig spoke, Ashley tensed. She rolled her eyes. If I turned to look at him when he was talking, she would get angry.

Yet she asked for him to be at the meeting. I came to believe that Ashley wanted him there when we met because she didn’t want him to meet with me alone. She wanted to hear what was said.

After lengthy conversations, Steve and I came up with a few simple ways to respectfully navigate their relationship.

First, any time Craig said Ashley wanted something or felt a certain way, I contacted her to confirm it. This was her story, and I felt it was important to hear from her directly.

Second, if I had a quick question or needed to confirm something with Craig, I sent it in a group text. That way, Ashley could see it. I invited her to join conversations that he and I had.

Third, in subsequent meetings with Ashley and Craig, Steve suggested that we keep our eyes on Ashley. It was a nonverbal signal that we were listening and valued her perspective. We cared what Craig was saying, but at the end of the day, the series was about Ashley. There were certain points that she wanted to make sure the public understood — some that we had never discussed before.

The process was difficult. But I think the series ultimately was better because of it.

How do you avoid becoming emotionally entangled in a story?

I struggled with this. I followed Ashley for four years. I talked to her about the worst experiences of her life. I saw her at low points. I watched her battle to heal. And I listened to Ashley and her father express frustration, hope and so many other emotions.

As we moved toward the end of the reporting process, I was fielding messages at all hours — mornings, nights, weekends. Craig shared an ongoing commentary of how Ashley was feeling in the moment. At times, I think I was as exhausted as they were. My boss was, too.

It helped that I had researched trauma and Ashley’s mental health diagnoses. It gave me a better understanding of how to respond and how to not take things personally.

More than ever, it was important for me to have personal outlets that took me out of the reporting process. I exercised, spent time with friends and devoured books that had nothing to do with trauma.

I also stopped responding to work messages at odd hours, unless it was something urgent. In some ways, I had become too available. I was also careful not to offer my opinion or advice. My job was to listen.

I also reminded myself why I was writing Ashley’s story. I was trying to give the public an accurate look at the impact of trauma on one woman’s life. I knew there were parts of the series that Ashley and Craig would not like. But the information was accurate. As a journalist, my ultimate obligation is to the truth. And to the public.

Key takeaways:

  • Don’t pressure someone to share his or her story before he or she is emotionally ready to do so. Be up front about what he or she can expect to experience during the reporting process and after publication. Remember that it is his or her choice to share.

  • In some ways, reporting is like a negotiation. It’s easier to get people to open up to you when you understand what drives them and what they hope to accomplish by speaking with you. But never be inauthentic. And never make a promise you can’t keep.

  • What details does the public need to understand what happened? Don’t include every detail just because you have it. Some details can be retraumatizing and add little to the public’s understanding. Have a reason for doing so.

  • If there’s pushback from a source, don’t become defensive. Don’t argue or ignore it. And don’t become discouraged. Listen and try to understand where the person is coming from.

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