Interviewing Service Members
May 30, 2007 by Joe Hight
Suggestions for journalists interviewing service members returning from Iraq, the Middle East, or Afghanistan.
[Note: This article also appears on the Association of Health Care Journalists website, healthjournalism.org]
- Do research on the soldiers and their units before doing an interview to ensure accuracy in reporting the facts.
- Minneapolis Star Tribune reporter Sharon Schmickle advises: “... Listen very carefully and do enough research to get the facts right. One reason many soldiers and Marines grant interviews is that they have a sense they were involved in something historic — especially if their buddies were killed. They want to see it documented. If it’s inaccurate, they’re let down.”
- Be sensitive and respectful in your approach to the soldiers who have just returned home from active duty. Introduce yourself and explain the story that you are writing. Remember, the soldiers may be stressed and exhausted after a long trip home. “Realize that you can get more information more easily from family and friends than you can from the individuals who still are in uniform.. They may be fearful that it will interfere with their right to get resources,” Dr. Frank Ochberg said.
- Do not assume that all military personnel have mental heath problems or PTSD. Most do not. However, understand that for some soldiers suffering from PTSD or other mental difficulties because of wartime duty your questions may trigger flashbacks.
- Be especially sensitive to families who have lost loved ones in the war. Express that you’re sorry for the loss, but don’t say that you understand what they’re going through. Explain that you’re doing a story on the service member’s life. Speak in a calm tone of voice, not raising it at any time. And be patient and sensitive if the family member becomes emotional during the interview process.
- In the case of interviewing a servicewoman who’s been sexually assaulted, sensitivity is vital. “Break from routine and give them more control over the interview process,” wrote Miles Moffeit, the Denver Post reporter who co-wrote a series on military sexual assault victims. “Allow them to have a counselor, victim advocate or friend present. Let them pick the setting. Break it up into segments, allowing for frequent breaks to take the stress off.”
- Be familiar where the soldiers have been and what has happened to them recently. Schmickle wrote: “That way they can give specific responses without passing judgment on the mission. ‘You were close to Jalalabad (Afghanistan) during that recent firefight. Were you involved? Can you tell me what you saw from your position? If you weren’t there, what was the reaction of those at your base? Do you think the rugged terrain helps or hinders the NATO troopers over there? ...’ ”
- Don’t expect to get in-depth information or details at the welcoming-home ceremony. Check back later with service members or their families if you want more in-depth interviews.
- And try to get to know the soldiers and their families before seeking more in-depth information or asking the tougher questions. Caroline Peabody of The Military Family Network advises reporters to request an appointment with the family after the service member has been able to rest. “Think about what you’re looking for. Because a lot of the time reporters are looking for a sound bite. The families shut down ... because reporters don’t want to take time to get to know them. This perpetuates the idea of reporters being vultures.”