February 23, 2005

“What is the appropriate response when a subject breaks down or begins to cry during an interview?”

That was the question reporter Bre Linstromberg asked in an e-mail the other day:

I write features for a medium-sized newspaper in Central Illinois and I have found myself struggling in these situations.

I’m not a very touchy-feely person, so I feel as though it would come across as fake or forced if I were to make myself give the subject a hug or touch their hand or something similar to that. But I feel so heartless simply continuing the interview while they dab at tears.

Most often, these subjects are essentially strangers whom I have engaged in an emotional interview, so I feel as though I would be crossing some sort of line by moving closer to them or touching them or crying with them as though we were close friends. I would really appreciate any advice you or any of your colleagues could give me on how to handle this situation. Thank you.

Like police officers, firefighters and other “first responders,” journalists come into regular contact with other people’s pain. 

When I read Bre’s e-mail, I immediately thought of Joe Hight. Joe is the managing editor of The Oklahoman and is no stranger to trauma in the news. As reporter and editor, he covered the first post office shooting in 1986 in Edmond, Okla., the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, as well as the devastating aftermath of killer tornadoes. Joe is also president of the Executive Committee of the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, which describes itself as “a global network of journalists, journalism educators and health professionals dedicated to improving media coverage of trauma, conflict and tragedy. The Center also addresses the consequences of such coverage for those working in journalism.”

At last week’s Poynter seminar, “Covering the Crime and Courts Beat” for newspaper reporters, Joe led a session entitled, “Covering Trauma in Today’s Society: How You Affect It; How It Affects You.” He touched directly on the issues raised by Bre’s candid question. With Bre’s permission, I asked Joe to respond. His answer follows:

You are not the only journalist who has struggled or will struggle when interviewing people who become emotional during an interview.

Certain interview questions may prompt an emotional response, especially if the subject is remembering a loved one who died tragically. It’s your response afterward that is important.

Most people don’t need a hug from a stranger, and all of them don’t need a fake or forced response. They need someone who’s compassionate and human.

First of all, don’t stop the interview because someone cries and you feel uncomfortable. If you do, you might deprive the person from expressing natural and proper emotions.

Simply express again how sorry that you are about the situation or loss and then be especially sensitive to the subject from that point on. Put down your notebook and ask whether there’s anything that you can do to help, such as getting a tissue or a glass of water. (You might even want to bring tissue yourself if you think the inteview could become emotional.)

When the subject becomes somewhat composed again, ask softly “Are you OK?” and then “Do you want to continue the interview?” If the answer is yes, politely express that you’re taking notes again and ask the next question in a soft tone. Then be patient and listen.

At the end of the interview, thank the subject for talking to you “during these difficult times.” Then ask if you can call later to check on facts or quotations, and possibly on information that may have been missed.

If the person sobs uncontrollably or cannot respond further, it’s then that you should consider discontinuing the interview until a later time. Before leaving, ask whether the subject wants you to contact someone or needs anything else. Then ask whether it’s OK to call or return at a certain time. A simple nod may be the reply.

Finally, if you are troubled by what happened during the interview, be sure to talk to someone who’s a sensitive and trusted listener so you can debrief from the emotions that you absorbed yourself.

How do you deal with trauma, the pain you report on as well as the pain it inflicts on you?

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Christopher “Chip” Scanlan (@chipscanlan) is a writer and writing coach who formerly directed the writing programs and the National Writer’s Workshops at Poynter where he…
Chip Scanlan

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