How to Interview Veterans
Journalists interviewing service members returning from war need the standard skills of humility and empathy – but they also need to do their homework. In this video from Dart's Videos on Veterans series, journalists, a clinician and a retired Marine explain how it's done.
This video was produced by the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma from interviews conducted at "When Veterans Come Home," a conference held in Atlanta in 2010, sponsored by Dart Center, the McCormick Foundation and the Carter Center’s Mental Health Program. For more interviews on this subject, see our Videos on Veterans.
Dave Philipps was an outdoors reporter for the Colorado Springs Gazette when he began an investigation of military veterans. He says the key to cracking the military beat is to listen. Daniel Zwerdling, who has won awards for his reporting on veterans as an investigative correspondent for National Public Radio, emphasizes directness. For all his expertise, Jonathan Shay, a clinical psychiatrist and author of two must-read books on the experience of veterans, says the most important thing is to treat the source as the expert. Retired Marine Corporal Michael Jernigan suggests a few homework assignments for reporters unfamiliar with the military. Finally, Mark Benjamin, investigative reporter for Salon.com, says that the unique vulnerabilities of veterans make it incumbent on the reporter to hand over more control of the story.
Dave Philipps: Any civilian who is going into reporting on the military is going to get hit with a barrage of strange acronyms and arcane ways. And you have to count on those real people you're talking to to translate them for you.
Daniel Zwerdling: I'm not a mental health professional. So I don't want to, first of all, presume that I know what this person's problems are and how to treat them. So I just try to be myself. I try to be respectful and polite and friendly and compassionate. And at the same time I ask very very direct, very personal questions.
DP: I'll give you one example. So this group of guys that we were following. And it's one batallion of about 500 guys and they've been together, they're all in the same unit and yet their name had changed three times so they started out the war as the 1st 506 of the 2-2 and they they changed of the 212 of the 2-2 and then they changed to the 212 of the 4-4. So anyone coming in outside the system who is trying to understand that would get confused pretty quickly. And so you need to count on some of these guys to sit you down and say, "Yeah, well, you know, our name changed, but it's all the same guys."
Jonathan Shay: I think that every journalist, no matter how experienced, should treasure their own ignorance. That they need to go into every interview with every source, not with the belief that, "I know this stuff. I'm an insider. I got this stuff nailed," but, '"This source is gonna tell me and I have to listen to what this source has to tell me." Now, that is not saying that doing one's homework isn't critical.
Michael Jernigan: You know, you definitely want to be prepared when you go in to an interview. Maybe do a little research into the service that the veteran was in. Like, I'm a Marine, you know. When you come and interview me don't say I'm am ex-Marine. There are no ex-Marines in the Marine Corps. I'm a Marine, I'm not a "soldier," type thing. You know, if you're going to interview a soldier, you don't want to call him a "sailor." Do a little poking around into the service they were in. Try to understand what their job was when they were overseas. If they were in the infantry, it's going to be completely different than if they were in logistics or supply. Have an idea of who you're going to interview before you even show up.
Mark Benjamin: Reporting on veterans is different because these people have so much at risk: their careers are at risk, particularly if they're still in the military, their family lives are at risk, their health care is at risk, and in some cases their lives are at risk.
And what that means is that the reporter generally has to take the basic toolbox of reporting tools and set it aside. And that includes some really risky things: in some cases that includes literally handing over some control for the story to the veterans.
I mean, I literally get into cases to build up trust and to get these veterans into good situations. I literally will say sometimes to veterans, "Nothing is going into this story unless you know about it and we discuss it first." And that's really very difficult for a lot of reporters to get a hold of.
These are people that are young; they're not used to dealing with the media; and they have a lot at stake. And that means that you as a reporter and as a human being have to go the extra mile to make sure that they are safe — and that you still do your job. It doesn't mean you throw out your objectivity; it doesn't mean you don't make sure the facts are the facts. But these are real people and their lives are at risk.