Weathering the Trauma Storms: Developing Interviewing Techniques

Nearly every journalist in the course of their career will interview people who have experienced significant trauma. But how many receive any training for the task? This article describes how role-playing traumatic incidents might give student journalists valuable insight and hone crucial interviewing skills.

If you're a journalist, have you ever been trained in how to interview people who are vulnerable or have experienced significant trauma? Probably not.

But let’s try a second approach: have you, at some stage in your career, interviewed somebody in significant distress, perhaps a victim of violence or somebody who has recently experienced a bereavement? One suspects, you probably have.

Were those experiences easy, straightforward?  Or did you miss something that you felt that was too difficult to ask?

The following article (PDF) explores an important research project currently under way at Britain's Bournemouth University Media School into the teaching and training of emotional literacy in British journalism. It is republished here with kind permission of the British Journalism Review, where it first appeared in June 2007.

It looked like being the perfect day-out, another classic championship tussle between Arsenal and Chelsea. But 10 minutes before play started, an explosion ripped through the “Shed” end of Chelsea football ground. The first reporters on the scene were journalism students.

They could see at once that there were significant casualties. People were streaming out of the stands onto the pitch. Some, despite being wounded and disorientated, wanted to talk; others preferred to lash out at the media. For many of the student journalists, this was their first professional encounter with extreme distress. By the end of the day one thing had become clear: those who showed the most emotional savvy collected the best material.

Of course, this never happened, at least not as suggested. There was no bomb at Chelsea football ground on that day, but a simulation of exactly this scenario was carried out with students at the Media School in Bournemouth University. Despite an absence of wreckage and prosthetic body parts, the scenario was demandingly realistic. The survivors were played by experienced, professional actors, who knew how to turn their attention onto the young journalists in a way that would lock them in. It felt real enough.

More on how the students fared later on, but first a question for any of the more senior journalists reading this. How many of you have ever received training in how interview people who are vulnerable or have experienced significant trauma? Hardly any, I suspect. But let’s try a second: how many of you have during some stage in your career interviewed somebody in significant distress, perhaps a victim of violence or somebody who has recently experienced a bereavement? Far more, surely. And were those experiences, easy, straightforward?  Or did you miss something that you felt that was too difficult to ask?

In May last year the Media School at Bournemouth University and the Dart Centre for Journalism and Trauma began a joint research project to explore this field and how we might train journalists and filmmakers in how to deal with emotionally difficult material. The research is not complete yet, but some clear directions are emerging from the interviews I have been conducting with leading editors and educators around the UK.

Account of distress loss and suffering are the daily meat of the news industry. Indeed, from nursery tales to Shakespeare, our cultural life has always been founded, in significant part, on the need to understand and face down the various horrors that can destroy life or limit its enjoyment afterwards. In one survey of 906 American print journalists, 96 percent said that they had been exposed to work-related trauma. In a similar sounding of press photographers, the figure rose to 98 percent.

And yet despite the fact that so many journalists are directly in the trauma business, there is very little formal instruction in the mechanics of traumatic experience or in how best to work with those who have been affected. This is odder than one might think. The medical profession, the police and increasingly the military all get versions of such training.

Talking to editors and educators, it is apparent that trauma and its potential effects on journalists’ wellbeing are in the air now as an issue in a way that they have not been before. This is significant. Fifteen years ago, a bluffer, and perhaps more naive, newsroom culture would have laughed off the suggestion that the job could ever carry psychological risk. Damaging to your relationships: yes, often. Damaging to your liver: probably. Damaging to your mind: no, don’t be soft.

Those attitudes have not disappeared entirely, but they are getting rarer. In the past couple of years, the BBC here in the UK, ABC in Australia, the Reuters news agency and ARD in Germany, to name just the big ones, have all begun ambitious programmes of trauma awareness training for their journalistic staff. The London bureaux of most major US networks also now have support arrangements in place. Appropriate training, it is hoped, can catch problems early on and help journalists to recover, if they find themselves in difficulty.

When thinking of the word “trauma”, there is still a tendency to distil it to the purest and most concentrated form and think of it primarily as a health and safety issue. We think of battlefields and bombings, situations such as Liberia in the 1990s, the 2004 school siege in Beslan or today in Iraq. In other words, places where only specialists in war and foreign reporting - the big beasts of major organisations - are likely to go. At the same time another mental contraction happens: we think that being affected by trauma is about seeing things, particularly dead and mutilated bodies. The sense of sight is thought to be the primary aperture through which the toxicity of such situations gets into the journalist.

There is no doubting the impact the experience of covering war can have. The Canadian neuro-psychiatrist Anthony Feinstein surveyed war correspondents and found that some 28 percent had experienced Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), a potentially debilitating psychological condition, at some stage during their careers, a rate similar to that reported by many studies of military combatants.         

But, if one sits down and talks through these issues in detail with practitioners from all areas of the profession, a number of other points quickly emerge. Very often journalists find both hearing about trauma and talking to people about it difficult and troubling, and these incidents can be much closer to home.

Soham or Dunblane came up often as stories that journalists found hard to process. The narratives of people in distress are not always as easy to keep at an emotional distance as or current workplace theory would hope them to be.  Court reporters, for instance, may spend hours listening to minutely-documented accounts of abuse, where every act of cruelty, casual or premeditated, is dated and referenced. The cumulative effect can start to colour their relationships outside the courtroom.

Trauma lurks in all sorts of unforeseen places.  One journalist I interviewed had been following the story of a self-made businessman who had built up a small empire. When it collapsed, she interviewed him again, expecting to find the same confident operator, now poorer, but as resilient as ever. Instead she found a man a hair's breadth away from mental collapse. Despite her experience of interviewing in traumatic situations, she had not factored in the extent to which the business had become this man’s identity. The surprise took her balance away, and in turn the interview became a messier experience than, she now feels, it need have been.

In a medical sense the emphasis on sight is understandable. Most specialists would agree that PTSD as the full-blown medical condition is statistically more likely to develop after seeing terrible things than hearing about them, especially if the witness’s own life is in danger. All well and good then, some might say. It is not so bad, journalists doing these sorts of difficult interviews. They just need to toughen up a bit.

That very much depends on what is meant by the expression toughen up. It is certainly true that journalists need to withstand challenges to their person, to resist intimidation and know how to push into uncomfortable areas when need be. However, if by toughening up it is meant that reporters in a journalistic sense should eliminate or cut off any difficult feelings that they might experience, then that is not likely to help get the story.

Much recent psychological research suggests that the more people are aware of their own emotional processes and responses, the more adept they are at adapting their behaviour and reading others’ emotional states. (Ciarrochi, J., J. P. Forgas, et al., Eds. (2006). Emotional Intelligence in Everyday Life. New York, Psychology Press.)

As all good journalists (and most bad ones) know, rapport is key to a good interview. Those who have become expert at working with people affected by trauma have an additional insight: real rapport is built on learning how to listen. Just being personable does not do it. Many of the specialists in trauma journalism - interviewed for the project described how they had acquired a range of techniques for building up a rapport and creating a safe space into which their interviewees might move.  In fact, what they have learnt through experience to do is something psychologists call “non-judgmental listening”. It is skill that is easy to understand, but tricky to acquire.

Once an interviewee feels that they are being judged or not listened to, then the channel can quickly dry up. Overly extractive questioning, badly disguised impatience at not hearing the answers one wants, personal cloudiness - the inability to digest the traumatic content of what he or she is hearing - and, of course, that classic inhibitor, guilt, can all foul the water.

But how would one train any of this?  The acquisition of empathy, like acquiring any form of wisdom, is clearly not something that can be obtained overnight.

If we return to the Bournemouth workshop, its aim was not to equip young journalists with a complete set of psychological tools to be used in all circumstances, but rather to demonstrate why being attentive to these ideas can help as aspiring journalists develop their own working methods.

In fact, the workshop amply illustrated how counterproductive emotionally cut-off approaches can be. Before the event, the students filled in surveys, asking them how they thought journalists should handle traumatic situations. The majority replied that journalists should strive to put aside their personal feelings, remain objective and no account become involved with the people they are interviewing.

In fact, the reverse happened. Confronted by actors who felt like real victims and survivors, and who exhibited a range of traumatic responses - dissociation, rage, fear etc. - many of the students became overly solicitous and lost sight of the task they were charged with. In the exercise, each group had only eight minutes to interview each of the four witnesses. What they did not know at the time was that one of the characters was hiding information that might have helped explain how the bomb got into the stadium.  Careful listening should have picked this up. Sensitive questioning, along certain lines and with the right trigger words, may have led him to confide.

In the end, nobody got there. The pack of trainee journalists who were unlucky enough to start the exercise with this witness as their first interviewee were flustered by his behaviour and it took a full four minutes before they could look him fully in the eye.

What the students had discovered is that when one encounters people in emotional distress, it may feel like coming under an onslaught that is akin to meeting bad weather. People affected by trauma often make emotional demands on bystanders that, like the weather, cannot simply be wished away.

Yamamoto Tsunetomo, the author of an 18th century training manual for Japanese samurai, urged his readership to think careful about what they might learnt from being caught out in the street by a sudden rainstorm. One might try and stay dry by scuttling under the partial cover provided by the eaves of buildings. However, he suggests, resolutely taking a direct route in the open would be a safer strategy. One would end up just as wet, but would not have become as distracted and agitated.

In a traumatic situation, being able to accept the emotional weather for what it is allows the journalist to read more clearly the emotional states and intentions of bystanders. On a more general level, one could say the more aware a journalist is of their own emotional responses to a story, the more acute and distanced their analysis is likely to be.

During my research I often encounter a worry that the reverse is true. Some fear that a journalist runs the risk of being captured by their interviewees and becoming overly solicitous to their needs and perspectives, if they become too aware of the emotions at play in an interview situation.

The misconception at work here is that sympathy and empathy are synonymous. But empathic listening is not about being “nice”. If one thinks of professional psychiatrists and psychotherapists, people not normally seen in popular mythology as push-overs, often their job is to look behind what their clients say and at times confront them with uncomfortable truths. Listening to somebody does not mean that one agrees with them.

One advantage of this approach to listening, I would suggest, is that it helps to make the interview experience safer for both questioned and questioner. (The ethical question for the journalist, then, shifts more towards how they represent the information afterwards.)  If somebody feels well listened-to, they are less likely to feel damaged by the process. The converse, can be extremely distressing and in most cases entirely unnecessarily so.

Public attitudes to the expression of emotion have changed in confusing ways over the last two decades. One only has to think of the outpouring of collective grief after the death of Princess Diana, or David Blunkett’s mawkishly sentimental diaries.

Commentators such as Frank Furedi (Furedi, F., 2004. Therapy Culture: Cultivating vulnerability in an uncertain age. London, Routledge.) have used the pulpit of newspaper opinion pages to excoriate us all for losing the stiff-upper lip and over-emotionalising public discourse. On some specifics there is merit in his concerns, but overall the analysis is crude stuff. Furedi would suggest that we need to be suspicious of any form of writing that pays attention to people’s emotions. He argues that “therapy culture” encourages people to evade their responsibilities, and these things are best not talked about.

If anything, the Blunkett and Diana stories illustrate that as a society and a profession that reflects it, what we may suffer from is not too much understanding of emotion, but inarticulacy regarding it. Emotions cannot be done away with; they need to be sorted out into individual varieties, weighed and evaluated, just as any set of ideas or arguments need to be analysed.

In-depth trauma awareness training may be the journalistic equivalent of what the military call a live-firing exercise, a situation that forces the development of  professional skills - which in the journalists’ case would be those of empathic listening and dispassionate reporting.

It may even encourage better journalism right the way across the range.