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Last Updated: Thursday, 17 January 2008, 13:42 GMT

The sensitive side of news
Ben Brown in Pakistan
Ben Brown talks to earthquake survivors in Pakistan
Reporting bad news is a challenge for any journalist. Wars, disasters, accidents - all can cause huge trauma for those involved, and blundering reporters can easily add to that suffering and upset.

But do journalists spend enough time thinking about the emotions of those they interview - and can news organisations do anything to help train them in this sensitive area?

A conference in London this month called Emotions and Journalism aimed to examine those questions.

It was organised by Bournemouth University Media School with the Dart Centre for Trauma and Journalism, and included the unveiling of research into training for reporters and film-makers.

"Journalists have the scope to do this spectacularly badly," said Gavin Rees from the Media School, who carried out the research.

'Belittled and diminished'

"They can interview people in ways that leave them feeling belittled and diminished. They also have the scope to do it spectacularly well and to help people explain the situation and to connect with a wider public as well."

Trying to get information from people who are in turmoil over the deaths or destruction that have affected them does require careful handling, according to BBC correspondent Allan Little, whose assignments include Iraq, Bosnia and Rwanda.

Allan Little
Allan Little in Iraq
"What I come back to again and again is show respect for the people on whom you are reporting," he said. "It doesn't matter whether you agree with them or disagree with them - they've trusted you to produce a reasonable account of them."

But emotion can work both ways. "I think you should report emotion but you should never become emotional yourself. You've got to be very conscious of your own emotional response.


"Some people find it easy to swan in and out of other people's wars and go home completely unaffected and if you can do that, that's great. Others can't and so you've got to be very self-knowing about your own emotional reaction."

Gavin Rees
Gavin Rees: "Listen well"
But is that something that journalists can be trained to do? Gavin Rees, who has worked with students at Bournemouth, believes there are core skills which can be taught.

"The most important thing to do is listen well to somebody," he said.

"As soon as people, particularly if they're talking about something distressing, smell that the journalist isn't listening properly it poisons the water and can destroy the relationship between the journalist and the person they're speaking to.

'Safe place'

"If you're talking to somebody about something very sensitive, what a journalist can do is start them off in a safe place before the trauma happened and then after they've talked about the incident, they can talk about what they're doing now. So they're closing off the difficult period and not leaving them wallowing in a moment that was uncomfortable."

Another danger for journalists is that the people they talk to can simply become fodder for their reports, reduced to little more than a soundbite.

"Reporting has its greatest impact when you get beyond the stereotype," according to Allan Little.

Hilary Andersson
Hilary Andersson reporting on famine in Niger
"This is not just an Iraqi or a Bosnian Muslim but also somebody who's a grandfather, a musician, a doctor, an accountant.

"My experience is once you start to put individual human flesh on the stereotype bones, if you like, people who are listening to or watching the report identify much more fully and therefore understand the story much more fully."

But the conference didn't just focus on the death and disaster that often fills the news.

Politicians are people

Derek Draper, a former Labour adviser now working as a psychotherapist, argued that politicians should be given more scope in interviews to reveal their real personalities.

Derek Draper
Derek Draper at the conference
After all, he pointed out, hadn't a show of emotion by US presidential candidate Hillary Clinton been instrumental in helping her to an election win in New Hampshire?

"What most people want to know is who is this politician, what makes them tick, what are they passionate about," he said. "People are never going to understand the detail of all the policies. What they need to have is a feel for the person who is going to be in charge of the policies.

"So if journalists aren't somehow getting the politician to be more emotionally connected, to talk about how they're feeling, to get a glimpse, if you like, of the person behind the political mask, then they're not really doing their jobs."

Little compassion

It wasn't a theory that found much favour among journalists at the conference, but ironically this week the BBC director general, Mark Thompson, has spoken of the need to give politicians more space to explain their views.

Some media organisations take the issue of emotion and sensitivity more seriously than others. There will always be occasions when reporters fall back on questions such as "How do you feel?" instead of the more fact-based queries that trainers recommend.

But for an industry often accused of having little compassion, it must be a step in the right direction to even consider that the feelings of interviewees are as important as the facts they have to offer.

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