When I started in journalism, I hated writing about trauma — hated the doorbell rings and phone calls that had to seem so intrusive, so ambulance-chasing. 

But after a while, I started to notice something: If I was kind, if I offered a chance at truth or remembrance, people seemed genuinely grateful to tell their stories. 

Looking back, two things come to mind: a) Telling stories is part of how we heal, how we put thoughts and memories into order, how we teach ourselves that we don’t have to crawl into the emotion of an experience every time it crosses our minds. And b) When we feel someone else understands the truth of our stories — that it can be told well and correctly — we feel heard and understood. 

As a journalist, rather than a therapist, I’ve used several tools over the years to tell those stories, to avoid retraumatizing someone, and to protect myself. Listening to trauma is hard. It should be hard. 

But, if you do it right, you can inspire policy change, understanding and destigmatization. You can save lives. 

It’s a kick-ass job.

So here we go

One, if you are not in a place to listen to a tough story, don’t take the assignment. If you’ve been through a similar experience and know you would have a tough time listening, or if your kid had a bad day in kindergarten that day and you’re overwhelmed, or if you’re working through some mental health stuff, know yourself well enough to step back. 

You do this for both yourself and your source. We are often the first line, the first one someone tells their story to. If you say, “Please tell me,” and then, after a harrowing story begins, you say, “Oh. I can’t listen to this.” Or, “But you’re OK now, right?” Or any other thing that shuts that person down, they may not tell their stories again, to anyone. Ever. It’s hugely important to get this right.

Two, you don’t understand. That’s OK. This isn’t your story and isn’t about your experiences. When I go in on a trauma story, I often don’t bring questions. I just say, “Please tell me what happened.” I might ask questions along the way, but any initial question is, by default, based on an assumption, and assumptions don’t make people feel safe.

It’s OK to say, “I can’t even imagine.” It’s not OK to say, “I understand what you’re feeling.” Of course, use your experiences to guide your questions and your empathy, but there are so many ways to feel about an experience that it’s impossible to know. Assumptions shut people down. 

Three, set some ground rules. This is so important for both the reporter and the source because the source may come to think of you as more of a counselor than a journalist. I let my sources in trauma stories see the portion of the story I’ve written about them to both make sure it’s correct, but also to make sure there are no surprises and to address any concerns a person might have. I used to worry that people would demand things be removed, but it’s usually the opposite. People want you to get it right, and they often add important details. 

Yes, it’s hard. Journalists put their souls out into the world publicly daily, and this last step requires it on a much more personal level. But I’ve never been sorry I did it.

I also often remind my sources that I’m a journalist, that I’m there to tell a story and not to offer advice.

Four, trauma can cause such a disruption of thought. This is especially true for people who have experienced brain injuries. Sometimes, they have to tell the whole story before they can answer questions or they can’t get back to the storyline. If you can save your questions until the end, do so. If you find a source starts to tell you the whole story again because you’ve asked a question, it may be because that person has to find the answer in their memory. It can be time-consuming. Allow yourself extra time for brain-injury stories—and offer gentle reminders about meetings and phone calls because short-term memory loss can be a rough ride.

Five, there are, in fact, dumb questions. What were you wearing? Have you ever killed anyone? Why didn’t you… If you allow someone to tell their story, you’ll get most of your answers. But the instant you place blame or impose morality, people shut down, sometimes for years. 

Ask about bad days. Ask about good days. Ask what they want people to know. Ask about expectations. Ask about people. If I know someone is struggling with the loss of someone, I’ll say, “Tell me about your friend.” 

Six, put your stories into context. I’ve been working on a story about a woman who falsely accused a soldier of sexually assaulting another woman. But it’s exceedingly rare for women to file false reports about sexual assault, and it plays into an age-old trope that many cases are from angry women or women looking for attention … or whatever. If you have a case like that, try to get at the why of it. And like any other story, check and double-check.

Put combat-related post-traumatic stress into context, too. There won’t always be a happy ending, but none of us want to see any more headlines that generalize millions of people as afraid of fireworks and beating our spouses in our sleep. 

Seven, make your stories visceral. Ask your source about sounds and smells and tastes so you can put the reader in the place. This helps create understanding and empathy.

Eight, think about the word “victim.” I just went to a workshop where women talked about feeling like eternal victims after dealing with sexual assault. That can add to the stigma associated with sexual assault. Did your source push the issue? Talk about strength. Get counseling? Talk about resourcefulness. Go silent? Talk about culture. 

Nine, if you can, talk about solutions. This can help with stigma because it recognizes that problems usually aren’t the domain of one person. Was a woman assaulted at a bar? What can cities or businesses do to protect people or to change the conversation? Did someone face discrimination at work? How can employers be better educated about discrimination? 

Ten, debrief yourself. Write about it for yourself. Talk to your editor or another reporter who’s a good listener. Take time off, if you need to. I’ve definitely sat at my desk and cried as I processed a story. I don’t cry in front of sources — I’ve heard too many people say, “My counselor started to cry, so I stopped talking.” But reporters often go deep inside their stories, at the same time that we’re often attacked for being “fake news” or leaning one way or another. 

This work — your work — is crucial. 

Watch the video below for a more in-depth explanation on this topic

Kelly Kennedy

Kelly Kennedy is the Managing Editor for The War Horse. Kelly is a bestselling author and award-winning journalist who served in the U.S. Army from 1987 to 1993, including tours in the Middle East during Desert Storm, and in Mogadishu, Somalia. She has worked as a health policy reporter for USA TODAY, spent five years covering military health at Military Times, and is the author of “They Fought for Each Other: The Triumph and Tragedy of the Hardest Hit Unit in Iraq,” and the co-author of “Fight Like a Girl: The Truth About How Female Marines are Trained,” with Kate Germano. Kelly is the co-author of "Queen of Cuba: An Insider’s Account of How The Perfect Spy Evaded Detection for 17 Years" with FBI agent Pete Lapp, and "The Activity: My Life Inside America's Most Secret Military Unit" with retired Sgt. Maj. Ameen al-Gammal. As a journalist, she was embedded in both Iraq and Afghanistan. She is the only U.S. female journalist to both serve in combat and cover it as a civilian journalist, and she is the first female president of Military Reporters and Editors. Kelly can be reached at [email protected].