I’m Karim, an audience editor here at ProPublica. That means I spend many of my working hours reading about pain and suffering and working with reporters whose job it is to bear witness to the most traumatic moments of people’s lives. It’s something I’ve thought about and struggled with a lot during my time at ProPublica, and it’s been exacerbated by living through the pandemic news cycle of constant misfortune and death.
Last week, in partnership with The Texas Tribune and NBC Universal, we published a story about a family poisoned by carbon monoxide fumes in Houston during the severe winter storms and power failures in February. The reporters, Perla Trevizo, Lexi Churchill, Suzy Khimm and Mike Hixenbaugh, show how a team of first responders visited Shalemu Bekele and Etenesh Mersha’s home following a 911 call reporting that the family had fainted; after knocking on the door, the emergency responders left before making contact with those inside.
After hearing nothing for several hours, Michael Negussie, the cousin who had initially called 911, called back, trying to communicate the urgency of the situation. By the time a second emergency crew pushed through what turned out to be an unlocked door, Mersha and her 7-year-old daughter had died. Bekele and his son were taken to a nearby hospital. When they were revived, they learned they’d lost half their family.
Reading the story brought me to tears. Reporting it must have been a real challenge. Living through it? An unimaginable nightmare.
I spoke with some ProPublica journalists about how they approach the challenges of uncovering deep abuses of power, broken systems, betrayals of public trust and more. It won’t surprise you to learn that writing about the pain and suffering at the core of any journalism about unnecessary deaths is gut-wrenching. Harder still? Keeping faith with the sources who share the worst events of their lives with us, while reporting fairly on the institutions that failed them.
What We Owe Our Sources
To tell this story, reporters obtained the 911 audio recordings of Negussie warning that his cousins might be suffering from carbon monoxide poisoning. Experts say the recordings indicate a need for policy changes. But the reporters were also interested in Negussie’s point of view.
There are moments when a person’s individual pain perfectly encapsulates and conveys the breakdown of a larger system. That was the case with the 911 audio. The calls, which you can hear in the story, document Negussie’s desperation and visceral fear as he pleaded for someone in authority to help his family members.
Zahira Torres, the editor on the project, said it’s important in situations like these to make sure family members are aware of what we’re publishing. “As journalists, we have to be independent, and we have to be able to say, ‘Does this matter to a story?’ and move forward if it does,” Torres said. “But if families feel really strongly about why that is not something they want to share about themselves and their experience, then we have to be really thoughtful about that.”
In this case, Negussie knew the story was important and wanted the news organizations to use whatever tools were necessary to cover it. We shared the recordings of the 911 calls with him, but he told our reporters he couldn’t bear to listen. They were just too painful.
Agents, Not Anecdotes
Adriana Gallardo, a ProPublica engagement reporter, has grappled extensively with reporting on trauma. A project she worked on called “Unheard” (which recently won the Society of Professional Journalists’ Ethics in Journalism Award) told the stories of sexual assault survivors from Alaska, a state where sexual violence is endemic.
To do that, Gallardo and her reporting partners had to restructure the editorial process and think critically about how to gather and disseminate accounts of trauma.
While a traditional story may rely on a few anecdotes to convey the emotional weight of the problem, Gallardo didn’t want one or two survivors to shoulder that burden alone. “No one person was going to carry the weight of explaining the whole issue,” she explained. She wanted to present the survivors’ stories together to lighten the individual burden of illustrating the human toll of sexual violence and the resilience of survivors. ProPublica designer Agnes Chang was instrumental in building a special page where these elements could be shown.
When ProPublica works on such stories, our journalists check and recheck our facts to make sure that the information we publish is as accurate as we can make it. As part of her reporting process for the Unheard project, Gallardo also did emotion checking: “I never wanted to destabilize somebody for the sake of our story, so at every step of the way we were checking in to make sure that they were still emotionally OK to continue with us, the same way that we only continue with them if their stories are checking out factually.”
The process was time-consuming and challenging, and some of the survivors we interviewed decided upon reflection to withdraw their participation.
“I wanted them to be agents instead of anecdotes. If this happened to her, and this is what she did to get through it, and this is what she believes is a solution, then we should include all of those parts, not just the tragedy,” Gallardo said.
The result? A gripping, emotional and sensitive portrayal of sexual violence in Alaska that captured the full scope and complexity of the issue for every survivor involved.
“You Find a Balance”
ProPublica is all about doing journalism that prompts change. Often, the best way to do that is with the most vivid, memorable instances of a failing of government or business. We’ve written about how COVID-19 tore through poultry plants, how women unnecessarily died in childbirth, how states fail to fairly compensate people for limbs lost in industrial accidents.
We know we’re exposing you, our readers, to some gruesome stories, and we want you to know that these decisions are made with care and often intensely debated among editors and reporters.
Responsible reporting on trauma shouldn’t spread more trauma — it should do the opposite. As Torres and Gallardo both know and show, the reporting needs to shed light on systems; explaining what went wrong can illuminate how to fix it.
“For me, a story feels empty if it doesn’t have some level of ‘it doesn’t have to be this way,’” Gallardo said. “It may not be what everyone wants to hear, and it might not be something we can buy our way out of or legislate our way out of, but that’s important, too.”
After the project about sexual violence survivors in Alaska was published, Gallardo and many of those at ProPublica who worked on it met with the survivors who played a role in the story to debrief about the process and share their feelings on the project.
I hope you’ll continue waking up every day and finding the strength to not only read the news, but find stories that make space for both sadness and hope. As we were wrapping up our chat, Torres had one last thing to add about how to read without losing your mind: “You find a balance. You find the things that give you joy. But you also find the things that make you inspired to act.”