Raising awareness about online hostility and bullying, and the damaging effects on targets, is a critical part of creating an online environment where people feel free to participate. Increasingly, journalists, bloggers and others are discussing such incidences.
But what’s the best way to talk about an issue that’s so emotionally, socially and legally charged, especially when many online attacks have been severe? The Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, a project of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, offers some suggestions.
In a post titled The Power of a Bully, Dart Center executive director Bruce Shapiro argues that in-depth and responsible research, especially in cases of suicide, plays an important role:
Why does all of this research matter for reporters? For one thing, when treading upon the fragile, difficult landscape of teen suicide, journalists have a special responsibility to educate themselves and to go beyond the phone call to the local university for an expert quote. The deep emotions stirred both in the immediate community and among news consumers in general by stories like those of Phoebe Prince and Tyler Clementi – fascination, guilt, sorrow, anger, confusion – make it all the more critical that the narratives journalists provide are strengthened by the evidence for which scientists and scholars have labored so hard – and for so long – to get right. That’s not insta-vigilance; it’s called reporting.
It’s also about that basic journalistic question: how to tell the story right. Whatever prior distress Tyler Clementi or Phoebe Prince brought to their encounters with people they thought were friends, blaming their suicides, coming on the heels of exceptional torment and humiliation, on past psychological struggles amounts to unconscionable victim-blaming.
Are criminal charges the right answer to a teenage suicide provoked by bigotry or sadistic bullying? That is its own argument. But the debate over accountibility[sic] and prevention needs to be informed by science and by a historical understanding of how long-tolerated abuses get challenged.
There are also numerous cases of online attacks that, while serious, don’t result in the target committing suicide. In situations where someone might want to cover the event and talk to the target, the Dart Center offers the tip sheet Working with Victims and Survivors. Suggestions include:
- People who have experienced deep trauma or who have lost someone close in sudden, violent circumstances have a right to decline being interviewed, photographed or filmed and news media, and their newsrooms, need to respect that right. Exercise the principle of doing no further harm.
- Above all, be accurate and do not feign compassion. It can’t be faked. Offer sincere condolences early and in considerate, supportive terms. Use a supportive phrase like “I’m sorry this happened to you” rather than the more abrupt “How do you feel?” or the discordant “I know how you feel” which will immediately lose credibility.
- Try to make your approach as respectful and gentle as possible, despite your pressing deadline or a newsroom impatient for your copy or images. Treat these people as you would like to be treated if the situation was reversed.
Additional interviewing tools can he found here.