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Sunday, June 16, 2024

Student journalist: Writing about other people’s trauma when I’m still processing my own

Editor’s note: This article contains mention of sexual assault. 

To all my student journalists: If you find yourself hyper-focused on climbing to the top and leaving everyone behind to fend for themselves, it’s time to put the pen down and ask yourself to remember why you started doing this in the first place. 

It’s an easy answer for me — I want to give people a voice because the little girl I was never got one. 

During the Spring 2024 semester, I published an article on a UF student who had sexually assaulted another student. I called the victim, who emotionally recounted to me her experience and for the first time in my career I let myself curl up into a ball and cry after our talk. I saw myself in her and thought, this is why I do what I do. 

Our conversation inspired me to deliver a speech in front of student senators about my own experience as a victim of sexual assault. It was hard — going up in front of nearly one hundred other students and admitting that I, a journalist often writing about other people’s experiences and trauma, was a victim, too. Still, I found a weight had been lifted off my shoulders. My job is to tell people’s stories, it was finally time to tell my own. 

“I was raped.” 

To say it out loud for the first time was a powerful thing. Maybe, just maybe, I was healing. 

It was only two weeks after having come forward that I found myself in a miserable position — it happened again. A close friend had assaulted me, and just a few days later, my editor handed me a new story. Another student had been assaulted by a friend, too. To say I panicked was an understatement. I fell behind on my work while my peers began to get published in most of Florida’s respected newsrooms. Others were receiving job offers from places that had rejected me. My editors began to question my work ethic, or lack thereof. 

The incident report sitting on my desk could have been mine if I had mustered the courage to report it. I was biting more than I could chew just to try and prove to myself and the entire journalism school I was better than I seemed. I wanted everyone to congratulate me, yet all my stories fell through. I only had a couple bylines, how could I explain myself? 

Maybe it was the fear of being told I had committed a conflict of interest, or the fear of hearing the dreaded question, “So, what were you wearing?” Maybe it was the fear of my assault becoming the newsroom's talk of the week like it was in high school. 

Eventually, I confided in my editor after the pain of missed deadlines sat on my shoulders. There are only so many times you can keep holding things in. 

It’s not just me. 

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In a 2011 report published by The Committee to Protect Journalists, it highlighted the experience of Colombian journalist Jineth Bedoya Lima, who had been beaten and raped by attackers while on assignment for El Espectador, a newspaper located in Bogotá, Colombia. 

“Since she began speaking out, Bedoya said, she has encountered a number of journalists — from Colombia to the United States to Europe — who had been raped or sexually abused but chose to stay quiet because of cultural and professional stigmas,” the article writes. 

Similarly, in a 2012 study published by the International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies, it found “preliminary evidence of a relationship between guilt cognitions and PTSD symptoms among journalists exposed to work-related trauma.” 

31.5% of journalists participating in the study had been exposed to sexual assault. 

In a 2021 article published by VICE News, it tells the story of Felicia Sonmez, a Washington Post reporter who sued the Post and a handful of its current and former top editors after “the paper’s brass had twice blocked her from covering sexual misconduct stories, because Sonmez went public with her own claims of sexual assault.” 

These are just some of the few articles and studies out there detailing the experiences of journalists, like me, who write about the same things we go through. 

And there are probably hundreds of journalists who have yet to come out in fear of repercussions, backlash and shame. When your job is to be objective and tough, who tells your story?

So what now? 

I guess there’s no easy, tell-all answer to that question. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned it’s that the people I interview, like me, are just people figuring out how to navigate their trauma and longing for someone to listen. 

Journalism can be a “dog-eat-dog” world, but please, maybe it’s time to approach our colleagues with more grace. Unfortunately, I know I’m not the only one in Weimer Hall who finds themselves wincing at a story that hits too close to home. 

I just hope that maybe part of my story is the start of bringing another young journalist comfort. 

Vivienne Serret is a UF journalism and criminology senior.

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Vivienne Serret

Vivienne Serret is a UF journalism and criminology senior, writing as a columnist for Summer 2024. She previously reported for The Alligator's university desk as the student government reporter and was managing editor for The Florida Political Review. She loves debating, lifting at the gym and singing.

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