27 Jul 2011

The Author

Author of the award-winning book Finding Fernanda. Senior Fellow at the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism. Redux Pictures photographer. Read more here.

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Trauma Reporting 101

This photo was taken in August 2010, during one of my many interviews with one of the main characters in “Finding Fernanda,” Fernanda’s mother Mildred Alvarado. At the time, Mildred lived in Villa Nueva, the second largest city in Guatemala, about thirty minutes outside the capital. The little girl in the picture is her youngest daughter, Adriana.

My conversations with Mildred (always done with a translator, for accuracy) were slow and tended to run for hours. We were taking a break when I shot this image. To me, it looks as if baby Adriana is thinking, “Why are you making my mother cry?”

Reporting trauma is hard to do. Although there’s not a “right” way to do it, there are plenty of wrong ways.  Jina Moore, an experienced freelance writer who covers human rights, Africa, and foreign affairs, is one of a handful of journalists who regularly explore the issue. She’s a strong advocate for increased dialogue surrounding ethical issues that come with trauma reporting and writing. Two of her more recent pieces are “Five Ideas on Meaningful Consent in Trauma Journalism” and “The Pornography Trap: How Not to Write About Rape,” from  the January/February 2011 issue of the Columbia Journalism Review. Another great resource is the 27-page .pdf published by the DART Center for Journalism and Trauma back in 2005 called”Best Practices in Trauma Reporting,” by Dr. Kevin Kawamoto. He writes:

“Writing about people’s pain and suffering doesn’t come easily to most journalists. It is not a subject that is typically taught in journalism schools, at least not extensively, even though emotional trauma will probably be an unavoidable component of many journalists’ future work… Journalists who are sensitive to the suffering of others and understand the complexity of emotional trauma are often able to write about traumatic experiences in a way that is informative, engaging and often helpful to readers.”

I certainly hope that “Finding Fernanda” will be informing, engaging, and helpful to readers. I’ve tried my best.

Mildred’s story has been pieced together bit by bit. The process spanned a timeframe of about two years, beginning in December 2008. I don’t know how reporters with daily deadlines do it. My Guatemalan reporting partner, Juan Carlos Llorca, and I took things slow. In most cases, when I interview sources, I don’t prepare questions. Instead, I let conversations wander, ebb, and flow. It feels more natural, and I’ve found it’s easier to build a solid foundation of trust for both parties. I try not to push or direct the conversation, and take occasional notes to guide followup conversations. I almost never to interrupt, even if I know someone is lying to my face. I’ve found people like to talk when you listen really hard. Whenever it’s possible, I record interviews to play them back later, take away new impressions, and type out exact transcriptions.

In the writing and reporting of “Finding Fernanda,” I had to not only understand Mildred Alvarado’s experience of losing children to adoption networks, but also her own personal background, which included experiences of childhood rape, abuse, and murder.

Needless to say, it was a painstaking and difficult process. Juan Carlos and I tried to be as thoughtful and careful as possible throughout our conversations with Mildred, but at least once, she suffered from a bad migraine after speaking with us. She was bedridden the following day.

Instead of deciding she’d had enough with the book project, Mildred still wanted to participate. Juan Carlos and I returned later that week. From the start, she’d expressed the hope that by telling her story, another woman might avoid similar struggles. Of course, I couldn’t promise that such a thing would ever happen. But I do hope that readers will come away from this book with a much deeper understanding of the serious flaws that existed in Guatemala’s adoption system. It’s easy to hear and recognize words like “fraud” and “corruption,” but it’s a different thing when such concepts are evidenced in reality, through human experiences.

Here are some guidelines offered by the DART Center that I’ve kept in mind during the reporting and writing of “Finding Fernanda.”

  • Does my story portray victims of violence with accuracy, insight and sensitivity?
  • Is my story clear and engaging, with a strong theme or focus?
  • Does it inform readers about the ways individuals react to and cope with emotional trauma and the process of recovery?
  • Does it avoid sensationalism, melodrama, and portrayal of victims as tragic or pathetic?
  • Does the story emphasize the victims’ experience rather than the perpetrators’?
A lot of material from this book was left on the cutting room floor, in the service of trying to keep the narrative thread as clear as possible. Certain details can definitely serve as sensational distractions. For example, in an earlier draft, I detailed the severe beating of one character/source by her partner, who used woodworking tools including a power saw. It was inevitably graphic, and undeniably horrifying. I scrapped the passage, because it was difficult to move on from and didn’t move the narrative forward enough.

One of my editors, while reading a draft of “Finding Fernanda,” asked me pointedly why Fernanda’s own voice and words didn’t play a central role in the book. The reason is simple: she’s six. There’s no way for her to talk about her experiences without running the risk of  substantial re-trauma. UNICEF has outlines here on reporting on traumatized children. Instead, I simply observed Fernanda: the ways she interacted with her siblings and her family, the ways in which she responded to the presence of myself and Juan Carlos over time.

Fernanda draws on a blank page from my notebook while my reporting partner Juan Carlos (in background) and I speak with Mildred.

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