Ethics and Practice: Interviewing Victims

In this tipsheet from the 2011 Dart Center workshop "Out of the Shadows: Reporting on Intimate Partner Violence," Miles Moffeit and Kristen Lombardi give advice on how to interview.

Turn the traditional reporting model upside down

  • Transparency/Disclosure: Informed consent is critical. At the outset, reach an understanding about how the victim will be identified, in writing and photographically. Explain your goals and prepare the survivor for what lies ahead. How and when would you be contacting the perpetrator, the authorities, school officials? Be willing to address any concerns.
  • Break from routine by granting the victim more control over the story process: Allow the victim to dictate the timing and setting of interviews, possibly breaking it up into several meetings to confront different, painful aspects of experience.  Give her the option of allowing a counselor, a lawyer, a victim advocate, or a friend to be present. Reading passages back to her for accuracy or show her sections of your draft dealing with her rape, or sexual assault, in particular.
  • Strive for a delicate approach while staying firm about the need to ascertain certain facts: Mute your inner hardboiled reporter. Put yourself in the victim’s situation. How would you want to be treated, tone-wise, manner-wise? Allow yourself to empathize, to search for common emotional ground. Let the victim ‘invite’ you into her story.  Ask, “where would you feel most comfortable starting?” Then, before the interview process is over, take her through events chronologically to nail down the sequence. If one experience is too painful to relate, stop the interview and give her the option to take a break or to come back to that detail later. Emphasize that the success of the story could be tied to obtaining documentation of contacts with the assailant or agency or other key encounters.
  • Keep your editors informed: To address any special needs of your source, you need the support of your editors. Make sure they’re aware of your interview steps, especially if the process is protracted, and talk with them about any ethical problems you anticipate or disclose problems you’ve encountered.
  • Build a support group. You’re human. You will experience emotional reactions when dealing repeatedly with traumatized victims. Whether it’s an editor, fellow reporter, family member or good friend, choose someone with whom you can share your feelings. If you need professional help, seek information through the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma.

Tip sheet devised by Miles Moffeit, former president of the Dart Society, an organization of journalists who cover violence, with help from Kristin Lombardi. It was prepared for a Dart Society conference in April 2008.