Hours after Kim Hancox learned that her husband, Toronto Detective Constable Bill Hancox, had been stabbed to death while on duty, reporters and camera crews began massing on her front lawn. They knocked on her door and badgered neighbours for information. A statement asking for privacy was not enough. Three weeks later, when Hancox gave birth to her son, a reporter pretending to be a family friend bearing flowers slipped past a police guard to gain access to her hospital room. Anything to get the story. The media frenzy left her feeling “exposed, ambushed, intimidated, privacy invaded, overwhelmed, pressured, attacked.”
Author and former crime reporter Tamara Cherry never pretended to be someone else to get a scoop, but she did almost everything else while working the “trauma beat” for the Toronto Star, Toronto Sun, and CTV. Cherry scoured social media to find bereaved families, knocked on their doors, and slipped into living rooms uninvited to coax statements from grieving people.
For 15 years, Cherry lived trauma day in and day out. Her intentions were good, and she loved the work in a “trauma-junkie sort of way.” Until she didn’t. The consequences of pushing for content, at any cost, became too much. In 2017, shortly after the birth of her second child, “everything seemed to come crashing down.”
In The Trauma Beat, a book positioned at the intersection of memoir and journalism, Cherry turns her investigative lens on the media – and on herself. She talks to survivors of trauma whose lives were impacted, and often deeply harmed, by the journalists assigned to cover their stories. Through wide-ranging surveys and interviews with survivors from across North America, Cherry examines how the media affected them in the aftermath of their loved one’s death, and how media can do better.
She also examines, with empathy, how trauma exposure affects reporters working the crime beat. The impact of trauma on her own life is laid out with raw, unsparing emotion. “I can’t look at my sleeping children without picturing them dead,” she writes. “I touch their skin to feel the warmth of it, and sometimes put my ear to their chests to hear their galloping hearts, to convince myself that they are indeed alive. But the feeling that they are dead is so overwhelming at times that I find myself crying next to them.”
Cherry shares her personal journey not for sympathy, but as a cri de cœur in the battle for the soul of journalism. How do we fix it? The Trauma Beat gives survivors of “media terror,” like Hancox and dozens of others, a voice on changes that are needed. Boston Marathon bombing survivor Amy O’Neill says, “You have to create safety, transparency, trust, collaboration, voice and choice. You want to give people a voice, you want to give them a choice.”
The Trauma Beat is a stunning work that should be required reading for journalism students, news reporters, true crime junkies, and anyone who wants to write narratives that heal, instead of harm.