Over the past three years, I’ve published three major features on yoga communities in abuse crises. At both The Walrus and Gen by Medium I’ve been contracted as a freelancer and nurtured with full editorial and legal support. This is work I didn’t expect to do, but I’m sure to be continuing it for some time, especially because I am continually contacted by ex-group members with stories to tell.
This is also work that I have no formal training for. My education so far has been on the job, influenced by my own survivorship, my excellent editors, great resources like this, and most importantly by the needs and knowledge of the abuse survivors I interview. Over this time, I’ve come up with a series of rules that I follow and want to make public here for the benefit of my readers generally, and anyone who wishes to reach out with a story. This is a work in progress, but I think it gives some insight into my approach.
- I aim to be clear about my positionality as a high-demand group survivor.
- If I’m working on a contracted feature, I aim to be clear about the overall angle and intention of the project.
- I aim to be clear about my scope of practice. Interviews in the area of remembered trauma can take on a therapeutic feeling, but an interview is not therapy. Likewise, the data can bring up legal questions, but it is not a law consultation. If appropriate, I will direct an interview subject towards therapeutic or legal resources.
- I aim to show that I understand how difficult it can be to disclose traumatic or shameful memories, and how spiritual abuse, social isolation, or betrayal can complicate the disclosure process.
- I schedule pre-interview time to discuss all of the above, and provide assurance of strict confidentiality.
- I begin every interview with scope, time check, and permission to record.
- I acknowledge that if the content during an interview becomes overwhelming, breaks are welcome and I might suggest them. I’m always happy to schedule follow up.
- I explain that no data will move towards publication without several layers of consent, review, and confirmation.
- I explain that as much time as possible will be given for the interviewee to consider the impacts of testimony itself, or of being on vs. off-record.
- I explain how my working relationship with the publisher will allow for corrections post-publication.
- After publication, I will facilitate online buffering. In one case, this involved finding a volunteer to provide succinct email updates on how the social response was unfolding, so that there was a cushion against overwhelm.
Also relevant here might be these reflections I posted to Facebook in February of 2020:
WHY IT’S A GOOD IDEA TO INTERVIEW THE JOURNALIST BEFORE THEY INTERVIEW YOU
Over the last several years, I’ve watched professional/career journalists consistently fail to support the voices and needs of survivors of abuse in the yoga world. Karen Rain is preparing an article about this, and I can’t wait to see it. I’m pretty sure that like the article she wrote with Jubilee Cooke for Yoga International on how yoga communities can respond to sexual assault, it will become essential reading going forward. [Update: here it is.]
Some of what I’ve witnessed stems from ignorance, some seems like habit or laziness, and the rest I’d chalk up to various Borg-like publication processes that demand the writing be for readers and clicks rather than accuracy and accountability. I’ve been defamed and harassed for doing the work I do without being a credentialed or trained journalist. But most days I’m pretty grateful I didn’t go to school for this or apprentice in a mainstream institution. Credentials do not seem to prove competence or empathy in this landscape, and it’s clear that standards forged and learned prior to #MeToo and trauma awareness may actually impede rather than facilitate survivor reporting.
(That said, being an outsider also means that I can’t say I know who is doing great work in the mainstream: I’d like to learn more about that. My purpose here isn’t to write off a whole profession, but to provide a note of caution.)
Over the last few days the worst example I’ve yet seen has unfolded. I won’t go into details, but it was super bad, and will have lasting impacts for the survivor, but also the strength with which the story can be reported in the future.
I have no idea whether the journalist is ignorant, crooked, or made a rare mistake and then was locked into it because they feared losing the work and perhaps their job. It doesn’t matter. What matters is the impact, and the fact that it was bad but not unexpected, given how career journalism and high-pressure publication works.
Salaried journalists might be altruistic at heart, but at the end of the day they’re writing for their publications, their editors, and their careers in an insanely competitive content market. They have and are given little incentive to put you in charge, which is where you should be. Putting you in charge makes their job more complex. But the truth is that it would make their work more fulfilling, and perhaps even healing.
I’ve heard that “building trust” is key for journalist who “cultivates sources”. In the absence of the time this takes — and the vagueness it implies — here are some simple upfront questions you can ask any journalist who wants your survivor story:
— How much experience do you have with this material?
— Can you provide a reference for someone whose story is similar to mine, and who can tell me how you handled it?
— Who will you be sharing my data with en route to publication? Are they bound by confidentiality?
— If my feelings about disclosing certain details change as we go through this process, how will I be able to ask you to make corrections?
— How will you guarantee that, within your word-limits, essential parts of my story are not distorted or left out?
— The ability to speak about a traumatic event changes over time. How will you help make sure that you have my best version before publication?
— If you print something that feels wrong to me, even if I may have approved it, will you be able to issue a correction?
— Will your article be syndicated to outlets over which you have no control?
I imagine many journalists will never have been asked these questions directly. This isn’t their fault. And, they can fudge or lie in response to any of them — which would their fault. My hope is most people would sense earnestness. If the journalist can’t answer them to your satisfaction, it doesn’t mean they’ll screw it up, and it doesn’t mean they can’t learn — but they’d have to show receipts. If they appear impatient or dismissive, or if they patronize you in any way, or if they don’t want to answer, I’d say forget it.