5 tips for interviewing people who have been through trauma

Natural disaster, war, crime, disease and civil unrest all take journalists into people’s lives and homes. Reporting in those situations can be tough, especially if you’ve been covering the story for several days with little food or sleep. Here are five tips for interviewing people who’ve been through trauma from “Journalism and Trauma” a self-directed course by Poynter’s News University and the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma.

1. Before the interview: What should you discuss before that person consents to an interview?

Psychiatrist Frank Ochberg suggests talking with interviewees about the pain that might result from remembering a traumatic event. Interviewees should also know whether their names will be used in the story. Give the interviewee an opportunity to ask the interviewer any questions before the interview begins.

2. Think about your approach. Do you call first or just show up at their house with the camera rolling or a photographer alongside? If the person isn’t ready to talk, look for a relative or someone nearby …

… and say, “This is my contact information. I’d really like to talk with her. There’s going to be a story, and I think your family should have a voice.”

3. Where do you start? The course says it’s best to begin by showing respect for a person’s grief by identifying yourself and expressing sympathy about what happened. If they react harshly, “it’s important that you do not react harshly in return.”

4. Explain the ground rules. Ochberg recommends the following:

“Explain why you are there, what kind of story you are expected to write or report, when it is likely to run, and why it is important for her to speak to you. Do not promise something you cannot guarantee; the comments you are about to write down or tape may never make it into print or on the air.”

5. Don’t over-empathize.

Roger Simpson and William Coté write that “some reporters eagerly identify with those who survive violence because of a personal history of abuse, sexual assault, or other traumas. That identification becomes so strong that the reporter ignores professional boundaries in order to become a confidant and even advocate. A skilled reporter needs to concentrate on understanding and reporting events accurately; deep emotional connections to people in those stories can undermine those goals.”

Some other resources from Poynter:

– In July, I wrote 5 tips for journalists who cover trauma

Grappling with Graphic Images is a Webinar from News University

How to recognize, manage stress when covering traumatic events like Japan earthquake, tsunami

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