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What S. An-sky’s Ethnographic Expedition to Visit Russian Jews Can Teach Reporters About How to Report on Trauma

With trauma victims, there’s what happened and how it felt. Between the two, there’s what’s reportable.

by Mattie Kahn

From 1912 to 1914, the playwright S. An-sky (Shloyme Zaynvl Rapoport) led ethnographic expeditions to Jewish territories in the Russian Empire. In the end, he visited about 70 shtetls. An-sky had come to feel that folklore could serve as the basis for a new Jewish culture and he wanted to preserve it. He didn’t just crave discrete facts, like dates or place names. He wanted to amass stories and music. He emphasized that the enterprise was not just “a scholarly [one], but also a national and timely mission;” he wanted to capture something of the narratives we tell about ourselves.

An-sky wrote reports on the expedition, drawing on what he found in dozens of towns across the Pale of Settlement. He collected roughly 1,800 folktales, more than 1,500 songs, at least 700 items, and hundreds of photos of shuls and gravestones. He was, of course, not a journalist.

There’s a detail about An-sky’s tour I’ve heard repeated over and over—about which I can find only a few elliptical references online (a fact-checker’s nightmare). Here’s how it was told to me: In shtetl after shtetl that An-sky visited, the elders of the town would take him to their cemeteries and point to one grave from the mid-1600s, centuries before their time. The elders would tell him about a couple whom the Cossacks had murdered under their own chuppah, not just in the prime of their lives but at the moment of their union. In each town, he heard the same account, and he wondered who was buried in these graves. Perhaps once or twice, it had happened like that. But not 40 or 50 or 60 times.

The stories couldn’t be true, he reasoned. At least, not quite. But he understood there was truth to them. So when An-sky sat down to write The Dybbuk, a play that would become his best-known work, he included a version of that narrative. A grave for newlyweds appears and we are told the lovers were slain on their wedding day.

An-sky wasn’t a reporter. But his experience is one that journalists who report on trauma know well. There’s the narrative a source tells, and then there are the facts. That the two don’t always align doesn’t and in fact can’t mean that that person’s experience is worthless.

The question is how does a reporter incorporate how a source understands their own experience, even when that experience might be rife with mistaken or blurry memories?

The tension between a source’s understanding of an event and the facts is one that journalists who cover gender- and race-based violence perhaps feel most acutely, although those who report on the immigration crisis, gun violence, or any other number of topics might encounter similar ethical questions. No matter the beat, journalists have to develop best practices for reporting on trauma—and for fact-checking it in the process. But what does that entail when the material is real people’s lives?

In reporting stories that involve trauma, a journalist has two aims. First, she must capture what happened; there is no feature or news bulletin if there is no set of circumstances that can be corroborated and explained. But second, the journalist also must capture the truth of the trauma. How it felt to people. What an event made them think or do or understand. Not just what occurred, but what it was like.

Of course, journalism that accomplishes the second goal at the expense of the first does the entire profession a disservice. Fiction can capture essential truths about life, but it needs to be accessed as such. To be reported, it—whatever “it” is—has to have been witnessed and attested to. But I would hazard that journalism which meets the first standard without meeting the second also poses an existential threat to the work that reporters do. We are all An-sky, meeting people who want us to understand the conditions of their lives. The test for journalism, at this moment in particular, is how we do justice not just to the truth, but to the metaphor.

To consider that question, it is useful to focus on what we might now call “Me Too stories.” Interviewed for Fresh Air in September 2019, New York Times journalist Jodi Kantor assessed the imperative “believe women.” The expression speaks to the idea that when women come forward to report traumatic experiences—and in particular when those stories involve sexual assault—the default response should be to accept them as true. Believe women; as in, don’t perpetuate a culture that dismisses their claims, doubts their trustworthiness, and holds them responsible for violence perpetrated against them.

On Fresh Air, host Terry Gross noted that Kantor wasn’t a fan of the so-called catchphrase. She wanted her to elaborate. But in fact, Kantor explained, the spirit of the expression was one of her “lodestars.” She was a guest on the radio show to promote her and co-author Megan Twohey’s new book, She Said. More than one review had deemed it an All the President’s Men for the Me Too movement—a movement that Kantor and Twohey helped kick off with their watershed investigative reporting about Harvey Weinstein.

“Megan and I have devoted our careers...to documenting women’s stories and putting them into the paper,” Kantor told Gross. “So we do, in many ways, want to live and work in the spirit of that statement. But there’s a conflicting impetus in journalism, which is that everything needs to be scrutinized [and] everything needs to be checked.” So how does Kantor resolve the impasse? With a reframe: It’s not Kantor’s job to believe all women; it’s to (in her estimation) make the stories that she does publish about women as credible as possible. And that doesn’t mean she vouches for them. It means the facts do.

“[W]e believe that really solid, well-documented reporting protects women,” she said, adding, “the best way to get people to believe women is to document those women’s stories really thoroughly.”

This approach is not a panacea for the problem that journalists face when it comes to reporting on trauma,  but it’s a clever, nuanced workaround.

However, the solve Kantor suggests—take these stories seriously, report on them aggressively, then verify and contextualize—works because the women Kantor and Twohey report on have agreed to talk to them. Kantor’s approach doesn’t offer quite the same ethical roadmap to journalists who have to consider how to frame accounts in which the main parties don’t want to participate.

As positive reviews for She Said started to roll in, anotherbook from Times reporters—The Education of Brett Kavanaugh—made the news. The book takes a close look at now-Supreme Court Justice Kavanaugh’s life, but focuses in particular on his battle for confirmation to the bench. It doesn’t lack for revelations or deeply reported anecdotes. It made headlines, however, over an excerpt published in the Times that was so controversial, it’s almost eclipsed the actual book.

In their full work, authors Robin Pogrebin and Kate Kelly charted a previously unreported account of sexual misconduct, dated from Kavanaugh’s time at Yale. But when that tidbit was included—far down in the newspaper excerpt—an essential detail was lost in the process. The woman involved in the incident with Kavanaugh that the reporters describe (who is named in the book) had refused to discuss the matter with them, and the woman’s friends told Pogrebin and Kelly that she had no recollection of it.

Pogrebin and Kelly’s piece inevitably recalled Ronan Farrow and Jane Mayer’s extensive reporting on another allegation made against Kavanaugh in the fall of 2018, in which Farrow and Mayer were transparent about the fact that Deborah Ramirez, the second woman to come forward against Kavanaugh, had to think hard about her encounter with Kavanaugh before deciding definitely that she felt confident enough in her memory to go on the record about it.

In The Education of Brett Kavanaugh, much of this is accounted for. But in the article (before its subsequent correction), no such caveat was made. Unlike Kantor and Twohey, who have provided an extensive record for their reporting process, and Farrow and Mayer, who are explicit about Ramirez’s memory, this particular excerpt dustup proved just how severe the fallout can be for imprecision in trauma reporting. With stakes this high, there is no room for error and no allowance for what seems clearly to be an ethical gray area.

So, at this point it would be reasonable to ask what’s the An-sky connection? What do contemporary journalistic accounts of misbehavior and sexual assault—some brilliantly rendered, others hobbled by errors and oversights—have to do with a long-dead playwright and Jewish ethnographer?

When An-sky set off on his trip, his goal was to record artifacts of culture for posterity—art and songs and stories that centuries of trauma and more recent violence threatened to snuff out. He knew that much of the ephemera of life disappears, but that certain truths transcend time.

Yes, we need robust local reporting to track the ins and outs of trends, from crime to demographics to fashion. But the purpose of journalism is to operate more like An-sky than like a police scanner.

An-sky never had to fact-check the murder that he immortalized on the stage, but he left a lesson behind for the reporters who would have to consider how to publish stories with holes, stories with gaps, stories that are talked about and believed but whose literal truth is hard to ascertain. The lesson is not “believe victims.” It is to preserve the truth, with as much transparency about what it took to extract it as possible. It is to listen to victims, but not without context. It’s above all: Paint a picture of the world as it exists, because there will forever be people in whose interest it is to blot it out.

Mattie Kahn was a 2019 Journalism Fellow. She is an editor at Glamour magazine.