Sue Joseph

The 'morally defensible' journalist: Shedding 'performance' and managing an ethic of empathy within personal trauma narrative

Janet Malcolm penned the infamous 'morally indefensible' phrase more than twenty years ago concerning journalism practice and, despite the length of time, its application is a benchmarking filter through which ethical journalism must still emerge. Drawing on my experience of being interviewed by the media, I examine the performative aspect of profile writing, seeking a model of variant 'morally defensible' positions dependent on a public interest test. In seeking to subvert the notion of a popular trauma culture that deems a subject a victim for mass media consumption for no good reason other than 'entertainment' - a 'morally indefensible' space - this paper suggests that in an interview focusing on a trauma narrative, when handled ethically and empathetically, both the subject and the journalism practitioner have an opportunity to metaphorically converge. They eventually leave any notion of performance and identity construct behind, as the power of the narrative creates a transparent space. When handled ethically according to the telling by the subject, both the impulse by the trauma subject to tell and the empathetic responses and re-renderings of the journalist join to form a type of advocacy journalism - in the public interest

Keywords: performance, identity, profiling, trauma narrative, empathy, public interest

The story teller takes what he tells from experience – his own or that reported by others. And he in turn makes it the experience of those who are listening to his tale (Benjamin 1969: 87).

Interviewing is both about, and incorporates, performance by the journalist and the subject, to differing degrees. This paper will discuss the performative elements of the profile interview and how it 'constitutes identities and experience, producing and reproducing that to which it refers' (Langellier 1999: 5). Drawing on performance theory and appropriating Butler's gender studies identity theory, this paper examines how both interviewer and subject perform at any encounter. Additionally, by interrogating and categorising the various types of profile interviewing, my intention is to subvert this notion of 'performance' – positioning the trauma narrative interview as an ethical paradox.

Performing identity: How Janet Malcolm kick-started a debate

The tradition of oral narrative at its most effective can 'create an especially insistent web of collective memory, one that comfortably encompasses a huge and varied range of individual memory' (Lang 2010: 11), underpinning common political, social and cultural understandings of the human condition. But storytelling is best understood as both 'composed … and staged' (Gubrium and Holstein 2009: 81). In terms of personal narrative, the most useful definition of performance is by Langellier. She writes:

Performance is the term used to describe a certain type of particularly involved and dramatized oral narrative … the focus on performance emphasizes the way telling intervenes between the experience and the story, the pragmatics of putting narrative into practice, and the functions of narrative for participants (1999: 2).

People tell their stories to journalists and writers for particular reasons. Author Janet Malcolm concludes in her seminal text The journalist and the murderer that the journalistic interview is a relationship, and both parties have something to do with its dynamic and reality. Malcolm places heaviest responsibility on the journalist but also concedes subjects play a part in the dance, albeit a mostly compromised part. She writes: 'The subject's side of the equation is not without its moral problems' (Malcolm 1990: 143). This notion within her text is too often ignored.

The journalist and the murderer is still used around the globe to kick-start journalism ethical debates. The opening lines are particularly striking: 'Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible' (ibid: 3). Public reaction to her text was immediate since it appeared to validate long-held criticisms about dubious journalism practices. But perhaps it is the hyperbolic nature of her initial statement which sent self-righteous shudders throughout the industry. Philip Weiss, of Newsday, wrote at the time: 'If Janet Malcolm had blown up an ink factory, forcing the presses to shut down for a week, she couldn't have sparked greater outrage in the media kingdom' (Weiss 1990: 24). And academic Elizabeth Fakazis describes Malcolm's opening lines as 'one of the most provocative in the history of American journalism' (Fakazis 2002: 93).

One of the central tenets of her text is that there is always a relationship between the journalist and the subject. This is, indeed, a relationship of potential – often realised and mutual – opportunism with both practitioner and subject aiming to gain something from the encounter. The sought-after outcome may be celebrity, financial, revenge, altruism, a semblance of justice, agenda setting, propaganda or just some way of being heard. The integrity and performance of both journalist and subject is on show. Malcolm claims that while the onus is on the journalist to conduct the interview and the writing of the story ethically, she argues that the subject has a decisive part to play as well. Malcolm's assumption is that journalists 'lie' to their subjects in order to secure their 'stories'. But she also places some of this responsibility on the subject. She writes:

Unlike other relationships that have a purpose beyond themselves and are clearly delineated as such (dentist-patient, lawyer-client, teacher-student), the writer-subject relationship seems to depend for its life on a kind of fuzziness and murkiness, if not utter covertness, of purpose. If everybody put his cards on the table, the game would be over. The journalist must do his work in a kind of deliberately induced state of moral anarchy (Malcolm 1990: 143).

Reflecting on how I played the part of 'expert' on television

Considering my own career, I have performed roles within my job as a journalist in order to secure a story. I have, no doubt, been a 'false friend', according to Malcolm, to most of my subjects. As Bogaerts writes:

... an essential interest of performance theory lies in the idea that human behaviour shares characteristics of theatrical or dramaturgical performance and that these characteristics bear upon the identity of those subjects and their interaction with others … such performances come to the fore during extraordinary events that warrant the media's privileged role as interpreter (2011: 3-4).

I have also found myself on the other end of the process like many other journalists – and to this end, performed a role as an interview subject. When my first book was published more than 15 years ago (Joseph 1997), it sparked a moment of intense media scrutiny. Of course, that was because of its contents – stories about secret male sexuality based on transcriptions of some extraordinary and revealing profile interviews focusing on a particular form of secretive male sexuality. And it hit a nerve.

During an interview on live, national television (May 1997), I was transformed from being a journalism academic into an 'expert' on male sexuality. I knew a little more about an obscure 3 per cent of a secret behaviour contained within the male sexuality spectrum than others in the studio audience on that day, and that made me an 'expert'. It all happened very quickly. And I played the part. I did my best to 'act' as if I were an expert. But I am not an expert on male sexuality. Everything I said was researched and qualified and 'true', but I merely uncovered a trend of narratives, which told an overarching story which, because it was about an enduring news value – sex – propelled me into the media spotlight.

But what I learnt from the experience was that, as an interview subject, I stepped up on to that stage and performed a role that was thrust upon me by the media. And I seemingly duped everyone watching, as more and more interview requests streamed in. This, in turn, made me think of the hundreds and hundreds of subjects I had interviewed throughout the years in my career – both long form profiles and news – and how, while I thought I was telling 'true' stories, I was merely retelling the subject's version of their alleged truth; that each subject 'performed' a role in order to be my interview subject.

I tell this story to both my journalism and creative writing students to highlight certain conventional journalistic routines. Journalists retell stories to the best of their ability, told to them by subjects who are retelling their own versions of their own stories. Journalists think they are re-telling 'true' stories but these stories are only as true as their subjects permit and allow. It is all about performing a role at that particular moment, with the subject as primary story teller and the practitioner as secondary story teller.

Framing journalism ritual

There is a canon of scholarly work from the 1970s onwards that discusses journalism practice within a ritualisation frame (see Tuchman 1971) built on later by Zelizer (2004) and others. Accordingly, Butler's work on gender performativity, particularly her notion that performativity is an 'identity tenuously constituted in time – an identity instituted through a stylized repetition of acts' (Butler 1988: 519), can without too much effort be applied to a study of the practice of interviewing for profile. She writes of a 'constituted social temporality … constituting acts not only as constituting the identity of the actor, but as constituting that identity as a compelling illusion, an object of belief' (ibid: 520). In terms of the profile interview, the journalist or interviewer clearly arrives with a mission to record the story, with a finite time to gather it. The subject also arrives at the interview space or 'stage' with their own personal narrative in place, ready to render it for an audience: firstly the journalist; then further afield after publication or broadcast. Langellier writes:

Personal narrative is performed in the speech act … and like all speech acts, the narrative performative establishes a two way, double contract: 'let me tell you a story' promises a performance and constitutes an audience; and 'a story about what happened to me' represents personal experience … this representation is enhanced by virtue of performance features that intensify experience, among them narrative detail, reported speech, parallelisms, appeals to the audience, paralinguistics and gestures (Langellier 1999: 5).

There are many techniques used by journalists on a daily basis which can be seen as unethical in the domain of story gathering. Goldstein writes: 'Many of the most questioning techniques used by journalists in their quest to be eyewitnesses rely on stealth, secrecy and deceit' (Goldstein 1985: 120). Transposing this statement to a consenting profile subject, still degrees of 'stealth, secrecy and deceit' are employed. Goldstein identifies a number of journalism techniques which might be considered dubious (ibid: 113). However, while many of these are regarded as common practice in the industry, the following can be applied to the interview encounter:

  • faking taking notes or avoiding taking notes so that the subject 'forgets' they are being interviewed;

  • nodding heads, or smiling to indicate agreement or to encourage the subject to provide more information;

  • telling subjects they are interested in something when their interest lies in something altogether different;

  • allowing subjects to believe erroneously that the journalist knows nothing about what they are talking about, when in fact they do;

  • using material obtained via overheard conversations; reading documents not intended for them (ibid).

These are everyday journalistic devices. Yet, I would like to propose that, in general, there is one group of subjects who do not 'perform' in the same way as other subjects during interview – profile subjects retelling their own trauma narrative. Further, I would like to propose that this must have a consequent and immediate effect on the 'performance' of the journalist, necessitating none of the above dubious practices as the practitioner bears witness and the practice becomes one of ethical impulse and care, compelled by the nature of the story telling.

The ethics of tackling taboos

My latest text Speaking secrets (2012a) delves into ten people's lives, asking questions about their most haunting and secret sexual traumas and memories, and how and when they finally spoke about them. They speak of taboo issues such as rape, child abuse, race, gender, homosexuality, sexual reassignment, disease and physical disability. The research set out to establish an overt, visible relationship with each of the subjects and to hand that on to the reader in order to create an evocative and believable space for their voices to be heard and their stories to be told. Each story is accompanied by rigorous research and fact-checking, to allow a freer momentum for their voices. Several of the interview subjects within Speaking secrets dissociated while retelling their narratives, effectively giving me even more to write about, indeed, creating a clear false friendship paradigm. It doesn't matter that the interviewee has agreed to talk about deeply personal and sometimes traumatic memories; the question is still, what right the interviewer has to be there in the first place?

In the majority of interviews conducted for Speaking secrets – all trauma narrative in some aspect – at some stage it was necessary to ask the subject if they wanted to halt the interview because of how distressed they became through the re-telling of their story. But one of the main aims of the text was to give a voice to those who did not have one – the subjects' truth or more simply, their own story, in their own words, embedded within my own representation and reflective response to the interaction. Given the confronting nature of the subject interview, therefore, when interviewees appeared distressed, they were offered the opportunity to terminate the interview.

Various theorists argue about the appropriateness of this – indeed, some proffer that it is preferable just to be silent and wait for a sign from the subject. However, I have always believed that it is incumbent on the interviewer to monitor the verbal and non-verbal cues of the subject and to remind them that they have a choice in the process of being interviewed – the mere fact the interviewee agrees to an interview is insufficient consent to an interview. Journalists gathering trauma narrative must continuously question themselves and monitor the cues of the interview. They must continuously reassess the ethical ramifications of continuing with the interview if there is clear distress. None of the subjects in Speaking secrets elected to terminate their interview, despite probing questioning and in this way created a form of advocacy narration, clearly electing to continue to tell their stories, no matter how painful, for their own reasons.

I was deeply affected by the stories I heard from the subjects in Speaking secrets, at times even vicariously traumatised, needing to seek counselling and professional support. Many of the stories, and the manner in which they were retold, haunted my days and nights. Therefore, when sitting down to write, it was important to convey to the reader my own interpretation of the interview process without embellishment, that is, to let the story speak for itself – embedding the subject's words within my own response to the interaction was the reflective component of this process. I believe misrepresentation of meaning at this point of this process is as duplicitous as fabricating or embellishing. When practising long-form trauma narrative story-gathering, there is no need for the dominant journalism practice discourse of performative detachment. An empathic listener who takes cues from a subject recounting trauma, and who responds appropriately to both tears and protracted silences, is creating the time and space for the subject to recount information in their own time and in their own way.

Creating an alternate discourse advocating less detachment and more overt compassion and empathy, I discovered – particularly with subjects of trauma whilst undertaking the research for Speaking secrets – is not antithetical to journalism professional practice. Working more explicitly with concepts of empathy and compassion helps position the journalist and allows him or her to make those voluntary ethical decisions about their subjects in a less detached fashion. In the long form non-fiction genre, transparent empathy is an effective and valid tool. Trauma narrative changes behaviour – it often generates a deeply honest space, without performance from either the story teller or gatherer.

The trauma narrative profile

Subjects retelling their own trauma narrative during a profile interview form are in many ways distinct. As Anne Rothe writes:

The trauma concept functions as a discursive knot in contemporary disparate ideas. In other words, the discursive knot generated by the trauma concept provides the dominant mode of emplotment – the basic narrative structure and core set of characters – for representing such diverse experiences as child abuse, Holocaust survival, war combat, terminal illness and addiction in contemporary Western culture (Rothe 2011: 4).

But what ethical justification can there be in undertaking a profile interview of trauma narrative if it further traumatises and or psychically damages and harms the subject? Rothe argues that journalists report their subjects' trauma narratives without any socio-political context, thus 'reducing them to their smallest common denominator of a body of pain' (ibid: 5). She writes:

Mass media emplotments of the pain of others are … not only unethical because they transform traumatic experiences into entertainment commodities but also because they are politically acquiescing and covertly reinforce the hegemonies of late modern capitalism that have generated, or at least enabled, the victimization experiences (ibid).

Rothe uses the 'Oprah in Auschwitz' programme (Oprah Winfrey show special, 24 May 2006) as one of her three major exemplars of what she terms 'popular trauma culture' (2011: 1) analysing footage of Winfrey on a snowy day, visiting Auschwitz with Elie Wiesel, author, Holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace Prize-winner (1986). In the 1950s, Wiesel wrote the memoir Night of his family internment in Auschwitz, in Yiddish. Appearing first in 1958 in French (by Jιrτme Lindon, Les Editions de Minuit), it was published in English two years later in 1960 by Arthur Wang of Hill & Wanga. The first print run was 3,000 copies and took three years to sell. Now, he has sold millions of copies around the world (Associated Press 2006). When Winfrey selected Night for her Book Club in January 2006, it was also announced that she would visit Auschwitz sub camp Birkenau with the then 77-year-old Wiesel later that year, for the entire world to watch.

Rothe explains the Oprah Winfrey show special with Wiesel as signifying '…in the genealogy of popular trauma culture … its most spectacular culmination to date' (2011: 2), citing theorists Foley and Lennon when she tags it 'dark tourism' (2011: 3). Yet in opposition to Rothe, it could be argued that people who access the media to retell their trauma narrative may do so in order to take back a semblance of power over their own story and, in the process, willingly take part in a form of advocacy journalism.

Advocacy journalism

Australian author Helen Garner highlights the 'erotics of interviewing' (Garner 2012), particularly when interviewing subjects of trauma. She makes it clear this is nothing to do with sexual attraction but more to do with what Jung called 'the spark that ignites and connects'. She says: 'I am thinking more about the charge of mysterious psychic energy that can flash between a subject and an interviewer.' She speaks of the 'emotional violence of an interview' and goes on to explain: 'Into you floods this tremendous tidal wave of agony. If you sit there and bear it ... I don't know how you can withdraw from that almost shocking intimacy' (ibid).

If we regard empathy in its simplest form as imagining ourselves in another's shoes, the near impossibility of attaining that within a trauma narrative interview informs a response beyond empathy. This does not mean the interview is less rigorous but it does compel different responses to the subject retelling. As Garner puts it: 'In such encounters you have to learn to be silent' (ibid). As she writes, silences must be maintained appropriately in order for the subject to retell their own story in their own way. In addition, the subject's body language must be observed in case of further retrauma if the telling of a trauma narrative is to be handled ethically. Psychiatrist Frank Ochberg suggests the journalist should come prepared, with tissues, like a psychologist (Cote et al 2006: 108). He adds:

When survivors cry during interviews, they are not necessarily reluctant to continue. They may have difficulty communicating, but they often want to tell their stories. Interrupting them may be experienced as patronising and denying an opportunity to testify (ibid).

Retrauma and dissociation are common by-products of an interview with someone retelling their own trauma narrative. Learning what both look like, and constantly checking in with the subject, is of paramount ethical importance when conducting this type of interview.

The tenor of the voice; body language; the silences: these are all signifiers of repressed or fearful experience and cause psychic harm of many differing outcomes. The ethical dilemma here is what to do when it is clear that the subject is dissociating or re-experiencing their traumatic memory during interview. Paying due respect by not interrupting and allowing time for regrouping is paramount, then checking in and offering to halt the interview or take a break, is the only way to respond. If the subject regroups and manages his or her own distress, and wishes to continue, then that also must be respected (Joseph 2012b).

But somehow, the more upset or re-traumatised the subject of a trauma narrative becomes, the more evocative the telling becomes – clearly, a 'morally indefensible' stance according to Malcolm. Which leads to the ethical paradox mentioned at the beginning of this paper.

A paradoxical model

Silverstone writes: 'The sound bite is a tiny shard mirroring the conventions of Western media discourse, representing, misrepresenting, naturalizing us … taken out of context and put into another' (Silverstone 2007: 2-3). He continues: 'It is these contexts and their complexity, the contexts most broadly of discourse and reception, which are, of course, the concern' (ibid: 3). Silverstone develops his argument as one that 'concerns the role of the media in the formation of social, civic and moral space' (ibid: 5). Broersma writes of a journalistic paradigm that 'derives its authority from its presumed ability to provide a truthful representation of the social world within a limited time frame' (2013: 31). With this in mind, evolving from the notion of performance of identity within the profile interview is a model or scale, based on differing degrees of Janet Malcolm's 'morally indefensible' tag. This model attempts to position types of profiling within Malcolm's frame of moral defensibility concordant to a public interest test – analysing profiling through the lens of such a test to uphold its ethical or morally defensible status.

The public's right to know has become a catch phrase in the journalism industry. Harold Cross, lawyer for the New York Herald-Tribune and later legal counsel for the American Society of Newspaper Editors, used the phrase in a title of a 1953 book he wrote for the society, The people's right to know: Legal access to public records and proceedings (cited in Goodwin 1983: 9). Cross's central tenet is that the public has a legal right to know what its government is doing, and how it is doing it. He argues that in this regard the media is the public's representative in investigating and reporting on this. Similarly, Broersma writes of a journalism which 'legitimizes its special position in society by its rhetoric of safeguarding society from the abuse of power that is based upon this truth-claim' (Broersma 2013: 31).

Tanner et al (2005) claim the meaning of both phrases ('the public's right to know' and 'in the public's interest') has diminished over the years because of the manner in which they have been used as a defence when journalists have overstepped boundaries (see Joseph 2009: 41). They differentiate the public's right to know as pertaining to press freedom and freedom of speech; public interest is linked together with codes of ethics and conduct, attendant to other disciplines like 'philosophy, politics and law' (Tanner et al 2005: 78).

It might be useful in this context to imagine various kinds of profile interview on a spectrum: at one end is the subject spinning a story, out to sustain and 'sell' their idea to the journalist, hoping their 'performance' is convincing enough that the story will be published or broadcast as 'truth'. This could be a government agency, a politician, a top businessman, an undercover agent, PR for a product, camouflaged as a story. This type of profiling, where rigorous cross-checking and searching for veracity passes the ultimate public interest test, must be as rigorous as possible to find an accurate and balanced 'version' of the subject matter, sifting through the spin or propaganda, agenda setting and falsehoods.

In the middle along this spectrum is the celebrity interview where there is little to uphold a public interest test, but much of the public is deeply interested. This is entertainment, and often undertaken by a 'celebrity' profiler. A public interest test would clearly fail here: the interview space becomes one of potential – often realised, and mutual – opportunism. Academic and journalist Ann McFerran takes this one step further in her interrogation of 'celebrity aid'. She writes:

It began with Audrey Hepburn and Unicef in the fifties, and won acceptability with Bob Geldof, Saint Bono and Live Aid. These interviews – or interview situations – happen when 'stars' are invited to be 'ambassadors' for UN agencies or NGOs. Acting as a sort of spokesperson, the celebs travel to parts of the developing world, to meet its most vulnerable people, and then return home to deliver a message, via the media, about the horrors of poverty, famine, disease, disaster or crimes of war, for fund-raising and advocacy purposes (McFerran 2013).

Thoroughly contrived, this interview often appears as advocacy since it injects into popular culture moments of despair leading to fund-raising for flashpoints of suffering around the globe. Watching a celebrity witness suffering, wander amongst it, listen to and touch it, then go home, becomes essentially an act of voyeurism. Yet occasionally the outcome can meet a public interest test as people, touched by the visual media package, actually dig deep and give.

Far away from 'celebrity aid' at the furthest end of the spectrum is the trauma narrative profile. I would argue it represents one of the most transparent and 'truthful' constitutive narrative spaces because reliving or retelling trauma can have a deeply psychic affect, on both the interviewee and the interviewer. Ironically, as discussed above, the ethics of managing this space seems thoroughly 'morally indefensible' – since the more distressed a subject becomes, the more evocative the telling. Yet if the most vulnerable tell their own narratives, in their own way, in their own time and on their own terms, I argue that this becomes a form of powerful advocacy journalism. This is then filtered through a journalist who, because of the nature and the telling of the narrative, creates an impulse to represent the narrative with the integrity of the teller. This, in effect, constitutes a form of double advocacy or public journalism since it creates new discourse around societal taboo subjects.

Conclusion: The journalist as chameleon

Journalists writing profiles act out a role in order to gain material; but so do profile subjects. There is performance from the minute contact is made – to negotiate if the interview will go ahead, where and when – until both leave the interview. Like a chameleon, the journalist will adapt in order to get the story; likewise, the subject will become a character in their own narrative.

But even though they may begin a profile interview of a trauma narrative with well-conceived identities in place, trauma narrative by its very nature strips away performance. The paradox is that on a spectrum held up to a public interest test, the seemingly most 'morally indefensible' space – the profile interview with a subject telling their own trauma narrative and the potential for further psychic harm – will become morally defensible as a piece of advocacy journalism, free of propaganda, spin or bias; yet thoroughly subjective, aimed directly at the collective heart of the community. It becomes a constitutive space of raw telling, and does so by the shedding of identity-making and performance. As Garner says:

The grandeur or the squalor of another person's suffering seeks out your limits and reveals them to you in a blazing light; it shows you your own smallness; it challenges you to open yourself; to enlarge your imagination to a point where you can encompass what you are being shown, where you can make a place inside yourself to hold that suffering and to contemplate it with the humility and the reverence that it demands. This hurts. But it is also an honour and a precious opportunity – those terrifying blasts of rage and grief, moments of numbed bewilderment and sudden tenderness and tears. These can call up in you an answering complexity; an awkward timid compassion that might break you out of your solitary prison and even transform your whole relationship with the world.

Finally, Garner (2012) urges us to take 'narrative command of those fragmented events … to shape their chaos and mystery and horror into that sanity saving thing that human beings call a story so that we can contemplate it usefully and bring to bear on it what small comfort that philosophy or religion or psychology might have to offer'.


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Note on the contributor

Sue Joseph (PhD) has been a journalist for more than thirty-five years, working in Australia and the UK. She began working as an academic, teaching print journalism at the University of Technology, Sydney, in 1997. She now teaches journalism and creative writing, particularly creative non-fiction writing, in both undergraduate and postgraduate programmes. Her research interests are around professional ethics; trauma narrative; sexuality, secrets and confession, framed by the media; HIV and women; reflective professional practice; and Australian creative non-fiction. Her third book, Speaking secrets (Alto) was published in 2012.