Lessons Learned: Handling Emotional Interviews, Part 2

The challenge of emotional interviews, which figured in last week's column, brought two items of feedback worth sharing. The first shares the insights of a reporter who came to the newsroom after more than two decades in nursing. The second focuses on the lessons a young reporter learned.

From the ER to the Newsroom: The Importance of Understanding Grief

Mary Pitman graduated from Poynter's News Reporting and Writing Fellowship program in 2001 after earning a B.A. in journalism  from Georgia State University, spent two years as Lifetyles editor at the Forsyth County News  and now works as a freelance writer in Cumming, Ga. Most of our summer fellows are right out of college; Mary came to journalism after a two-decade career as a nurse. Based on that experience, here's what she wrote me after reading last week's column:

When I know I'm going into an emotionally sensitive story, I find that being well-prepared is invaluable. I know what questions I want to ask and more importantly, how I want to ask them.
The second thing that works consistently for me is I try to put myself on the same level as the person I'm interviewing. It can be intimidating, even frightening, to spill your guts to a journalist. I usually say something along the lines of, "I can't imagine what you're going through. I feel privileged that you're taking the time to talk to me. Some of the questions are going to be as hard for me to ask as they are for you to answer. So please don't think I'm insensitive. But in order to give your story the depth it deserves, I have to ask those questions. Any time you want to stop the interview, just say so. We can always reschedule."

This accomplishes four things. First, I'm sincere with the first two sentences. Second, it shows that I'm respectful of their situation. Third, it shows that I care about their story. (Actually I care about all my stories.) Finally, it gives them an out. They aren't locked in and that removes some of the pressure.

If they start crying, I pause. If the situation is not out of control, I repeat the last line they said to me. "The police were at your door?"

I've never had to reschedule.

My 24 years as a nurse has been absolutely invaluable in these situations. Working in the ER is similar to journalism. You have contact with people during the worst time of their life. A husband with no history of heart disease drops dead. A husband and wife are killed in a car wreck. We are left with the survivors.

I've learned to distance myself from the situation and still be sensitive. I can't do my job if I get wrapped up in the emotions. It's the same line I have to walk in journalism. I have to remain objective and yet acknowledge that the people in front of me are in pain. I just can't let it become my pain.

I really believe every journalist who is faced with these types of interviews should familiarize themselves with Elizabeth Kubler-Ross's "Death and Dying." She explains the five stages of dying/grief. It's given me a great understanding of what's behind the emotions of the people I interview.

These stories are never easy. Understanding grief gives a journalist tremendous power and sensitivity to where their subject is in the process -- even if the journalist is not a touchy-feely type.

Lessons Learned By a Young Reporter

Les Gura, metro editor at the Winston-Salem Journal, wrote me after reading last week's column, "It reminded me of a situation that occurred to my night police reporter last year."

An 11-year-old Mount Airy, N.C., student collapsed at school during a physical education class, then died soon after. The reporter, Jessica Guenzel, "was less than a year out of college at the time" and covered the story. At Gura's urging, she also wrote about how she handled the story. Both became grist for both a metro desk meeting and a print journalism course Gura teaches online. Here is Guenzel's report of how she handled the experience.

...It was around 8:30 and I was staring down deadline and thinking that I was probably about to intrude on a family that just lost a child a few hours before and get yelled at, but I didn't want a story about the little girl to be without heart, and I knew that I had to at least try the family, not expecting them to talk. I do remember looking at the clock and calculating in my head that their daughter had died just six hours ago. Then I think I just stopped thinking long enough to dial.

A woman answered the phone, and I said I was looking for the parents of a little girl who died at school today and asked if I had called the right number, knowing that I had, but trying not to hit her with "MEDIA." She said that it was the right house, but that she was not the mother, rather another relative. I apologized to her for her loss and asked if there was anyone in the house with her right now who could talk to me about what kind of a child Taylor was, that I was a reporter with the Journal and that I had heard from some students at the school that she was very active and friendly. She told me to hold on and talked to the parents.

When she put me on hold, I thought for sure she was going to come back and tell me that no one wanted to talk right now. But I could hear her talking a little in the background and I heard her say something about how I wanted to know more about Taylor. Then I heard the mom say, "No, you can do it if you want." (I guess to the dad)

Dad got on the phone and I told him who I was again, apologized for his loss and asked him if he would be able to tell me a little bit about his daughter, who she was, what she liked, etc. I told him that I knew it was going to be hard and that, if he needed some time, to let me know and we could bear with each other.

He started spouting out facts about Taylor, like her birthdate, grade, age, etc. He was calm and I was thinking, "I know all this already" but I didn't know if it was okay to ask him questions that I knew would hurt and I didn't know if I'd be able to handle his answers.

I let him say everything that he felt like I wanted to know. Then I was kind of quiet for a few seconds, and I think he was getting ready to get off the phone, so I said that I knew it was going to be horrible to talk about, but did he remember the last time he saw her, and asked if it was this morning before school as an example. He said, yes, that it was that morning, and when he started telling me about the morning, how she woke up and fixed herself four waffles, his voice started cracking and he sobbed a few times.

Meanwhile, I'm trying to type through tears that are welling up in my own eyes and I kept thinking, "Don't cry. Don't cry." But, I was, and he could hear it in my voice when I tried to ask him to clarify something he had said. Once I knew it was obvious that I was crying, I stopped asking questions for a second so that I could focus and swallow and breathe, and apologized to him again. He had only gotten to the point where he had driven Taylor to school, and I was thinking that there was probably a really emotional moment to be found if I could get him to tell me about how she got out of the car. I asked what happened after they got to school, trying to be hyper-sensitive, and he said that Taylor got out of the car. I asked if there was any kind of exchange between them and gave him some examples, like did she give him a hug or say "I'll see you later," or what. That's when he told me about how he told her to make sure she was "smart today" and the exchange that followed.

When he was telling me how she said, "Daddy, I love you," he started sobbing and, thus, I started crying again. (I'm a wuss)

I knew that if he felt overwhelmed with sadness, he would say he couldn't talk anymore and get off the phone, so I asked him something a little more neutral, about if Taylor was an active child. I told him I had heard that she was a gymnast and a cheerleader and, when it was clear that he had calmed down enough, I told him that a boy at the school had told me that she was very attractive, hoping that would get him to smile when he thought about her. That got him cooled off a bit and he talked pretty coherently about her activities.

Then I asked about any pre-existing medical conditions that she might have had, trying to stay in unemotional territory, and if she had complained of anything that morning or the night before. He told me, no, that she hadn't complained of anything and that she was fine last night. In fact, he said, she had stayed up late hanging out with him and Taylor's mom the night before. So, I asked about that. He told me about how they stayed up and looked at pictures. I asked what kind of pictures and found out that there were old pictures of Taylor on her first days of school. I asked what Taylor thought of them and he told me that she was asking questions and they stayed up for about 15 minutes explaining things from her childhood to her and reminiscing. I asked if it was normal for her to climb into bed with them at night and he started crying again and said that it wasn't normal, that it was like she knew she was going to die and wanted just a few more minutes with them.

Then dad asked me if I could talk to his wife for a few minutes so that he could take a break. I said sure, obviously, but I kind of didn't want to. I had been through the emotional wringer with dad and didn't think I had the energy to do it again with mom. But, when mom got on the phone, I explained who I was and apologized and asked her if she could tell me about the relationship she had with her daughter. She was quiet and I was thinking, "Oh, God, she's going to say, "How dare you call us when our daughter just died." But she just cried and said that she was sorry, she thought she could talk to me but it was too hard and asked if she could talk to me another time. I said sure, that I understood and apologized again. But I didn't want her to hang up, so I remember rushing to say, "Is it possible for you to put your husband back on the phone?"

When dad got back on the phone, I asked him about funeral arrangements and then I thanked him for being so open with me, apologized again and let him go.

After I hung up, everything that had built up during the phone conversation came out -- tears, sobbing-type breaths. I told Jennifer that was the hardest interview I've ever done, got it all out and started writing, with about 15 minutes to go until deadline.

Jessica's editor, Gura, said, "Jessica's tale of how she did the interviewing with Taylor's father and mother point to several useful things to remember." Among them:

  • She allowed her sources to talk. Jessica didn't overly apologize. Nor did she ask overly emotional questions. She uses the word 'neutral' to describe one line of questioning. And that allowed the father a simple opening to a story packed with natural emotion, which came out naturally.
  • She allowed moments of silence in the interview. Don't feel obligated to fill awkward pauses. When the source is ready, they'll continue.
  • Despite the emotions, Jessica didn't neglect details. Examples: The father told Jessica he and his wife had stayed up to look at pictures the night before. She asked him what kind of pictures. When he told her he had breakfast with his daughter that morning, she asked what Taylor had eaten (four waffles). The moral? Don't be afraid to back off even the most seemingly mundane questions at a sensitive time. The details elevated the story, and I would venture that helped the father at a horrible time remember precious moments.
  • That being said, don't go so far in coaxing details as to exasperate a source when they're in pain. You have to use your feel for the interview, which can be especially hard on a telephone, to know whether the source may be at a point where you should stop. Don't be afraid to ask the source: "Are you OK?'' or "Would you rather I call you back later and we can continue then?''
  • Don't be afraid to ask the most difficult question relating to the death. In this case, Jessica asked the father if he was aware of any pre-existing condition his daughter may have had. That's a critical question for us, because the authorities weren't aware of anything, but it's the first question readers will wonder. Jessica was able to ask it in a non-threatening way, 'Had his daughter complained about anything the night before?'
  • Keep in mind that in most cases, the person answering questions, despite being shell-shocked, find these kinds of interviews therapeutic in that they can recall for themselves and others the good qualities of the person they're being asked about.
  • She allowed herself to cry. It's OK to be affected by the stories you are covering, and in fact, helps to allow that to occur, so you can then go ahead and focus on the story.

My thanks to Les, Jessica and Mary for sharing their experiences. Among the many things my mentor Don Murray has taught me over the years is to never be afraid to be a human being. Reporting the news is painful enough without denying the part of ourselves that makes it possible to do the job with compassion as well as professionalism.

  • Profile picture for user chipscan

    Chip Scanlan

    Chip Scanlan is an affiliate faculty member at The Poynter Institute. From 1994-2009, he taught reporting and writing in its real and virtual classrooms and coached journalists worldwide. He spent two decades as an award-winning journalist for the Providence Journal, St.


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