On interviewing vulnerable sources

Sensitive interviewing 101

Interviewing victims of tragedy, and other vulnerable folks, is tricky, very different from interviewing ‘normal’ people. In your newsgathering activities, I am pretty sure you’ll come across sources who need to be approached with extra sensitivity and care. So be mindful. And below, some tips that I have pulled together from resources offered by the DART Centre, RAINN, and my own personal experience:

  1. Know when to back off
    We have a responsibility to do no harm. So be mindful of how they are responding to you, and if you feel that they are getting upset (weeps or show distress), react calmly. Ask them if they want to continue. End the interview if you feel that the interview is doing harm (ditto, if it is causing you too much emotional turmoil). Let them know that they can stop the interview at any point, and you’ll respect their decision.

  2. Clearly identify yourself 
    “I am Josh-Luke Kidd, a journalist the Breaker, which is a news and features web site, and I am doing a story on loneliness…” Make sure that the interviewee understands that what they tell you will be used as part of a story, and that you have their consent (either recorded, or signed — as per our requirements that the editors have circulated).  

  3. Never say I understand how you feel. Never
    You can say you’re sorry for the person’s loss, but never say “I understand” or “I know how you feel.” Because, you really don’t. Not by a long chalk. You are not in their shoes.  

  4. Start easy, wait for them to warm up to you
    Don’t overwhelm with the hardest questions first. Begin with questions such as, “How was your day today?” And “What does a normal day look like for you these days?” Encourage them to tell you anecdotes that illustrate their life. Aim to find out, with subtle questions (yes, this is where you apply your mind to how you phrase questions that will elicit good answers), what goes through their minds when the feel lonely; when they feel more so (are nights worse than days; what triggers; what makes it better); how they deal with it… So many things you could ask, but go in slow, allow them to get used to you.  

  5. ​​​​​​​Listen. And show them that you are listening 
    The worst mistake a reporter can do is to talk too much. Allow the interviewee the space to talk. They may go off tangent, yes. Allow space for that too (in other words, don’t be too quick to interject). Most critically, show them you are listening: maintain eye contact, and make sure you aren’t going to be disturbed by external sounds — such as vibrations from your cell phone or internal distractions — to establish a connection with the person telling their story. As reporters, our attention needs to be on four things simultaneously: what the interviewee is telling us, what is happening to them in the re-telling, what is happening around us (if daylight is dimming or you sense the presence of other people) and where the interview is headed.

More resources
Tips for Interviewing Victims of Tragedy, Witnesses, and Survivors
BBC journalist shares advice on how to ‘do no harm’ when covering sensitive stories

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