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Tip Sheet

Tragedies & Journalists

I. Interviewing

Always treat victims with dignity and respect - the way you want to be treated in a similar situation. Journalists will always seek to approach survivors, but reporters should do it with sensitivity, including knowing when and how to back off.

Tips for interviewing victims:
1. Always treat victims with dignity and respect - the way you want to be treated in a similar situation. Journalists will always seek to approach survivors, but reporters should do it with sensitivity, including knowing when and how to back off.

2. Clearly identify yourself: "I am Joe Hight with The Oklahoman and I am doing a story on Jessica's life." Don't be surprised if you receive a harsh reaction at first, especially from parents of child victims. However, do not respond by reacting harshly.

3. You can say you're sorry for the person's loss, but never say "I understand" or "I know how you feel." Don't be surprised, too, especially when covering acts of political violence, if a subject responds to your apology by saying, "Sorry isn't good enough." Remain respectful.

4. Don't overwhelm with the hardest questions first. Begin with questions such as, "Can you tell me about Jerry's life?" Or, "What did Jerry like to do? What were his favorite hobbies?" Then listen! The worst mistake a reporter can do is to talk too much.

5. Be especially careful when interviewing survivors of anyone who is missing, and try to clarify that you seek to profile their lives before they disappeared and not to write their obituaries. If you're unable to contact the victim or other survivor, try calling a relative or the funeral home to request an interview or obtain comments. If you receive a harsh reaction, leave a phone number or your card and explain that the survivor can call if she or he wants to talk later. This often leads to the best stories.

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Joe Hight

  • Joe Hight is the editor in chief of the Colorado Springs Gazette. Previously, he was the director of information and development for the Oklahoman/NewsOK.com. In 1995, he led the team of reporters and editors who covered victims of the Oklahoma City bombing. The Oklahoman’s coverage won several national awards, including the Dart Award.

Frank Smyth

  • Frank Smyth is a free-lance journalist and a contributor to Crimes of War: What the Public Should Know, edited by Roy Gutman and David Rieff. He also is the Washington representative of the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists.

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