Every (Not So) Secret Thing: Post-Trauma Witness Interviews

Why is it that broader culture doesn't give victims of disaster and trauma the choice to say "No?"

In 1994, not long after Susan Smith was arrested and convicted of drowning her two children in John Long Lake in South Carolina, her estranged husband, David Smith, sat down for an exclusive, one-on-one television interview. The interview was emotional and traumatizing.

And completely unnecessary.

Still, I’m not at all surprised that it happened.

For well over a decade, after any scandal or tragedy, it has been part of the modern journalistic playbook to seek out and secure one-on-one interviews with survivors and victims. It’s the big interview “get” that all of TV’s top interviewers seem to salivate over.

The practice is unfortunate. But, for it, I don’t blame that ever-popular critical target, “the media”, even if these on-air chats are usually nothing more than exercises in exploitation. Journalism, in this regard, is just doing its job and attempting to cover these stories from all the angles.

I also don’t blame the individuals who are the subjects of these talks for agreeing to these televised, often devastating sit downs.

Rather, I blame the culture that says that they have to.

It seems it’s a de rigueur matter these days that the survivors and victims of anything must, within days of said event, position themselves in front of cameras and relive every tragic second of their traumatizing experience for our “infotatinment”. I guess in a world now awash in tell-all books, of every intimacy being aired on YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter, and for a generation raised on Oprah and Ricki, the idea that a survivor or victim might not want to share their experiences with the masses is downright alien to everyone concerned.

Worse, though, is the sense of entitlement that we, as a world of viewers/consumers, seem to feel in regard to these people’s stories, that their stories are as much our business as theirs, that their lives are fully in the public domain.

But for every one of these major “gets” that are truly newsworthy (for example, Barbara Walters’s interview with Monica Lewinsky in 1999 could be construed as being within the national interest), there are other interview “exclusives” which have, actually, no bearing on our lives. These unnecessary interviews include Katie Couric’s one-on-one with the father of one of the Columbine victims in 1999 and the rash of interviews that occurred immediately after the Sandy Hook tragedy or the interview with Michelle Knight after her escape from the home of Ariel Castro. In regard to this latter type of interview, there’s no real lesson to be learned here, no real insight to be gleaned and clichés about “One brave survivor’s story” is exactly that: a cliché. Yes, it was horrible—that we knew. Ultimately, however, all these interviews actually do is gives us easy access to someone else’s grief and torment.

Even worse than that though is the possible sense of obligation to “tell their story” that many survivors of well-known tragedies might feel. I do hope that they know that they can say “no”. I do hope they know that they don’t “owe” us their story. They don’t owe us anything.

I wonder as well how much bullying or pseudo-bullying goes into securing these one-on-one interviews. No doubt inundated with interview requests in the days following a tragic event, it probably just becomes easier to say “yes” to at least one inquiry than attempt to forestall the onslaught forever. It is indicative of our collective attention spans that often it only takes one interview, with a key survivor or victim, to satiate our group hunger for vicarious bereavement and, of course, for all the gory details, before we move onto the next “survivor’s story”.

If survivors don’t feel pushed into acquiescing due to the above reason, then they might eventually relent simply out of a need to tell their side fully unfiltered and accurately. I would bet that many a news organization has approached many a potential subject with the logic of “We are doing this story with or without you, you might as well take part.” And if that’s true, then it’s nothing more than blackmail by media.

Furthermore, for any type of survivor, who does not speak early and often to the media, they run the risk of incurring blame or suspicion. Consider the cloud that hung over—and still hangs over—John Ramsey and the late Patsy Ramsey after the 1996 murder of their daughter JonBenet at their home in Colorado when they refused to, originally, run to the press. For a more recent example, consider the runaway conspiracy theories that swirled around the Sandy Hook killings immediately after that tragedy.

All this is, in the end, I think, about privacy. But privacy, as well as our concept of privacy for ourselves and for others, has been under a major assault for the past decade. Reality TV, Facebook, and even cell phones have blurred the boundaries about what we make public and what we keep to ourselves. For those who don’t play by the new rules of constant “openness,” the cost of such reserve can be steep.

Though appearing on The View or 60 Minutes is never part of the grieving process, this is not to say anyone should feel bad about coming forth. If they feel it absolutely necessary, then perhaps that might be the case. Nevertheless, they would probably benefit more from talking to a trained therapist than a talk show host. Still, if a television appearance is part of the healing process for them, then to each his own. But let’s just be sure, first and foremost, that such a media event is done for their own good and not for our own voyeurism.