"We're Not 'Victims'. We're People Like You": How the Media Re-traumatise Bereaved Families.

"We're Not 'Victims.  We're People Like You": How the Media Re-traumatise Bereaved Families- contribution by PFC Advocacy Support Worker Anne Cadwallader to the 'Victimhood and Dealing with the Past in Northern Ireland' conference at Queens on Monday 14th May 2018.

The Pat Finucane Centre, with which I work, takes the view that there is no such thing as a “guilty” bereaved family.  

People can debate, if they choose to do so, about the actual victims of the conflict but we take the view that there is no such thing as inherited, third-party, passed on, guilt and that all families have equal rights to truth and justice.

The media, however, sometimes do not agree with this analysis and decide for themselves, with scant attention to the facts, who is guilty and who innocent.

The press … sometimes decides which “side” to support based on political considerations on who has the loudest voice rather than an honest examination of the facts.

The men in “white hats” and the men in “black hats” is an easier story to tell than reflecting the complexities of history and civil conflict.  Journalists can be intellectually lazy and often rely on the public's wish for simple answers to difficult problems.

There are bound to be competing narratives after such a conflict as we have been through but it behoves a free press to at least pause and think before taking sides in a partisan way.

So that’s my first complaint.  My second is the use of clichés such as “closure”.

For many bereaved relatives, there will never be a healing, just an ability to live with the pain, not to end it.  The concept of “closure” is one that many, if not most, families cannot attain … and it annoys the hell out of families to be told they should aspire to “closure”.

Good journalism can help whatever healing may be possible by allowing a bereaved person to feel heard, vindicated and supported.  Bad journalism can do the opposite.  

But let’s not forget that the primary duty of journalists is to try and tell the truth, however difficult.  It is not to act as PR men and women for victims' families.  Victimhood does not confer an untouchable status on anyone.  We are all open to question no matter what we have endured.

Some bereaved relatives deeply resent being asked questions such as “What about the cost of inquiries?” and whether they are “stirring up sectarianism by asking questions about the past?”

But we cannot expect journalists to abandon their duty to inform the public and ask the hard questions the public want answered.  Whether we expect them to or not, journalists will continue to ask those questions.

We can, however, make suggestions on how journalists approach their work when dealing with traumatised families.

My third complaint is about honesty, or rather the lack of it.  Do not, as some have done, approach families supposedly asking about the Stormont House Agreement or the Police Ombudsman’s budget when all you really want them to talk about is their grief and hurt.

If what you really want is sobbing on air, then let the family know in advance that you are going to do all you can to reduce them to tears on live radio. 

I cite an example of a family who agreed to be interviewed, live, to speak about a legal development in their case.  

Having agreed, subject to NOT being asked about the circumstances of the death itself, they were then subjected to lengthy questioning, live on air, about the details of the original incident.  

There is no escape from a live radio interview, short of “doing a Trimble” and ripping off your microphone and heading for the studio door.

The family was re-traumatised completely unnecessarily so the reporter could add a notch to his growing, but shameful, list of "people I've made cry on air".

We are aware of other cases where families have been told bare-faced lies to get them to agree to go on air.

My fourth complaint is that journalists sometimes fail to do their homework.  If the interview you are about to conduct relates to a death that took place in contested circumstances, reflect that – not just the official version that the family has spent 30 years fighting against.

Please, please get names, ages and dates right.  Check and check.  Many times, even the Historical Enquiries Team – who were well-paid, former British detectives, most of them – got basic facts wrong. 

They called a young man, hit by a speeding British Army jeep and then killed when it reversed over his body, a police “Constable” on the front page of its report into his death.

The spelling of names might seem a relatively unimportant factor, but it adds to the sense of powerlessness that families feel – as if their agony was so minor that no-one has bothered to get even the smallest details of their dearest one written down correctly.

In asking a family to re-live their loss, you are asking them to voluntarily re-traumatise themselves.  That is only justifiable for a higher purpose and sometimes not even then.

Journalists should consider asking themselves before an interview if the person before them has truly given, not only consent to be interviewed, but INFORMED consent.

Have you accurately explained what you can do for them?  Have you explained the dangers, the possible downside, to them giving you an interview?  Have you given them the option of withdrawing that consent?

I doubt that happens very often.  I doubt that journalists frequently explain to interviewees that they do not know how the interview will be treated by their editors and whether it will be used just once, or not at all.

Do journalists explain that, if the interviewee has one point they want to be sure is broadcast, that there is no guarantee it will?  If it doesn’t, do they have the courage to phone the interviewee before transmission to explain that their desired point has been dropped on the editing room floor?

The bereaved often feel compelled to speak as their dead family members are unable to do so.  They feel a vicarious duty upon themselves, whatever their personal antipathy towards engaging with the media, to do so.  They feel an obligation to “perform”.

I wonder how many journalists have ever considered phoning or contacting interviewees after they have spoken to them, either for newspapers or radio or television, to thank them and reassure them about their contribution?

A fifth complaint is that journalists can be very clever at using ways of getting victims’ relatives to conform to their agenda.  

What I mean by this is that the journalist, sitting in the newsroom or at a meeting with an editor, may decide on an agenda and then set out to find and interview bereaved family members as exemplars to back up their pet theories or points of view.

In this case, journalists are cynically using victims’ families’ grief as false evidence of what may be their own pet theories or points of view.

That’s if the interview actually goes ahead.  Recently I was asked to persuade a family, middle-aged people now, who lost both their parents forty years ago, to speak to a radio show.

On balance, I thought the family should give the interview, although they had never engaged with the press before.  So, I talked it through with them, never cajoling but giving my honest view.

Imagine their sense of abandonment when, having reluctantly agreed, at the last moment, they were stood down.

It was as though their grief was spurned.  They felt humiliated.  I did my best to persuade them the interview was bumped because of another news agenda, but it was horrible to witness.

Yes, there were tears, shed in private of course.  So callous disregard for the feelings of the bereaved is a sixth complain

And then there was the time a colleague sat for 20 minutes in a radio studio with a nervous family only to be told a minor celebrity had died and they had been “bumped”.

Even if they get on air, there is no guarantee that this will be a cathartic experience.  For very private people, a public show of grief can feel utterly demoralising and humiliating, however good radio or television it makes.

Because ordinary people, even those with a riveting story to tell, are in an imbalanced relationship with journalists.

They are in a weak position, once they’ve agreed to be interviewed.  They are at the mercy of the journalist.

They have little redress if they feel their contribution has been taken out of context or manipulated.

My seventh complaint?  Well, we have all heard interviews where not-so-subtle pressure is placed on victims’ relatives to forgive, to be magnanimous when, in reality, they are unable to be so.

Journalists like a happy ending.  There are sometimes no such things.

My eighth complaint is about the desire some journalists or programmes have to bring bereaved relatives, of those who have been dreadfully injured, into direct proximity with perpetrator/s.

Even if the bereaved person agrees to do this, journalists should surely consider whether that is either wise or fair, even if it will make great viewing.

They should ask themselves whether the relative concerned is tough enough to withstand such an experience, not just whether it makes good television, fulfils THEIR need for a happy ending or provides entertainment for voyeurs.

There is an equally insidious pressure that journalists sometimes impose on bereaved relatives and the injured and that is the question sometimes asked of them, whether they agree that a “line should be drawn in the sand” on the past, for the sake of the wider community and the peace process.

I can think of nothing more cynical that asking a bereaved or injured person to cease loving their relative because, if they don’t, they will be putting the peace process at risk.

The desire for justice, even posthumous justice, is a strong human emotion.  My ninth complaint is forgetting that truth.

Some relatives will find it possible to stop asking questions.  Some relatives have at least had a modicum of truth and justice (a professional police investigation for example, maybe even leading to convictions).  They may find it possible to let go of the past.

But if they do not, and especially if they have not been told the truth, or had any official acknowledgement of the wrong done to their relative and to themselves, none of us have the right to even consider asking them to cease asking questions and demanding answers, whether that be through the courts or any other way they choose.

There is another danger.  My tenth complaint.  Journalists are very good at becoming someone’s “new, best friend” – and especially if the relationship lasts a few weeks, it can become an unhealthy one with the interviewee depending on the journalist for support.

Inevitably, that relationship is going to end.  It is artificial.  It is not a true friendship but a one-way street, planned by the more powerful in the relationship, that will end just as soon as the interview is in the bag.

Journalists should maintain boundaries with victims’ families to avoid a dependency developing that will, sooner rather than later, end with the bereaved relative feeling used and abandoned - the short-lived “celebrity” status they felt suddenly over.

My eleventh concern is over the unfortunate fact that most journalists these days come from relatively well-off middle-class backgrounds.  The majority of the victims of our conflict came from working-class areas whether urban or rural.

The class experiences of the two sides to this relationship is also imbalanced with confidence on one side and the powerlessness on the other.


Although I would not remotely call these truly traumatic experiences, I can remember so often writing stories for newspapers and waiting for the paper to hit the streets.  Would the headline truly reflect the story?  Would any words be cut out?  What photo would accompany the piece?

My nervousness, however, as publication drew nearer would be, of course, as nothing compared to the intense anticipation felt by the focus of the story – the interviewee – who had no control at all over how the story would be written, let alone over the headline or accompanying photo or photos.  

Families can, and do, take control and write their own stories.  

I think of Eamon Cairns who wrote the story of his two murdered sons and of Michael English who recently collaborated with the Pat Finucane Centre in writing the story of his son, Gary, killed by the British Army, and his second son, Charles, who was killed when an IRA operation went badly wrong.

Journalists have a difficult job to do, and they should not ignore the pain or stories of individual families bereaved in the conflict, or those badly injured, but they should keep all this in mind.  The grief of the bereaved is not a commodity.

The first rule of any professional should be “Do no harm”.  This also applies to journalists.