Journalists discuss reporting sensitive topics


Calvin Falk

(From left to right) Scott Korb, Leslie Jamison, Jen Percy and Ben Ratliff discuss sensitive reporting.

Lexi Faunce, Contributing Writer

Journalists, Leslie Jamison, Scott Korb, Jen Percy and Ben Ratliff gathered to discuss the difficulties of reporting sensitive topics like Guantanamo Bay, post-traumatic stress disorder and poverty at the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute on Monday.

During the event, which was hosted by Cultural Reporting and Criticism Program director and professor Katie Roiphe, Jamison said interacting with the subjects of stories can be challenging — especially if the topic is sensitive or traumatic.

“Empathy requires effort and seeking,” Jamison said. “[Journalist’s] automatic reactions may frighten subjects and they will not feel comfortable enough to share their stories.”

Percy, who writes for Harper’s Magazine, discussed the years she spent following a veteran with PTSD. She said she was unsatisfied with the clinical language used in other publications.

“PTSD is such a hushed topic,” Percy said. “Subjects seldom want to speak about their experiences, but I wanted to focus on writing a portrait of a traumatic mind.”

Attendee Jason Murray said he was a fan of Percy’s novel and was astounded at how the writers were able to distance themselves from the emotional nature of their work.

“They are able to recount their subjects’ stories without being intrusive,” Murray said. “It must take years of practice and experience.”

Korb, a writer and Gallatin professor, added that he uses his personal experience to relate to the individual in question and shift the conversation toward a deeper level. He said writers must refrain from inserting themselves into
their pieces.

“Using the technique of including a subject’s memoir into a novel reassures readers that a relationship between the author and subject was established, and the story will reflect this bond,” Korb said.

CAS sophomore Sabrina Steinhauer said she knows how hard it is to be objective.

“It is unimaginable how an author is able to maintain a personal relationship with a subject while remaining on a professional level,” Steinhauer said.

A version of this article appeared in the Tuesday, Feb. 3 print edition. Email Lexi Faunce at [email protected].