Reporting on Veterans: Getting Past Stereotype
Tips for journalists covering veterans, from finding a veteran willing to talk, to producing the final story.
How do we tell compelling stories when subjects are often reluctant to open up? That is the difficult and delicate question facing reporters who cover veterans issues.
The reluctance can stem from fear, self-blame or a sense of altruism — protecting others around them. Active duty service members can face repercussions for speaking outside their chain of command, while veterans may be afraid of losing their benefits. Some just don’t like reporters, who can be stereotyped as feeding on the crises and despair of others. (“You only report the bad news!”)
What is clear is that there is no shortage of veterans issues to be covered. And they will continue for decades as veterans — and the nation — grapple with the consequences of two 21st-century wars: post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injuries and other mental health issues; post-war employment and education; and the effects on military families.
And don’t forget the positive stories. There can be news in the resilience of vets and their families, and in the effectiveness of people and agencies tasked with helping them.
Finding Veterans Willing to Talk
- PR people at the local V.A., veterans support groups, American Legion/V.F.W. posts
- Facebook, Twitter, MySpace (For soldiers under 30, initial approaches through social media, e-mail and text seem to work best)
- Always “vet the vet.” Be aware of phony veterans.
Winning Their Trust
- With patience, respect, gentleness, sympathy
- By learning the culture and language of the military (including ranks and unit structure)
- Learning the geography of the countries they were in
- Starting slow. (This may be the first time the veteran has opened up.)
- Asking them to define terms you don't know. (Don't try to fake it; take your time to learn. We can hurt them if we don't get it right.)
- Explaining the audience for the story, and why the story should be told (e.g. to help others in the same situation, increase public awareness). “This is to help the guys coming in behind you” really resonates with many veterans.
- When/where/why did you enlist?
- When/where did you serve?
- For how long?
- What did you do over there?
- What were your (or your unit’s) major accomplishments?
As the conversation progresses:
- Never claim to understand; ask instead for them to help us to understand.
- Be prepared for traumatic stories and keep your reaction in check. If you show too much emotion, they might worry they are hurting you and will stop talking.
- Understand your own assumptions; be willing to be educated.
- Never express blame, doubt or anger.
- If you are writing about the death of a fellow service member, ask first about that person’s life.
- Be mindful of memory loss associated with post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury.
- Externalize need to ask for any documentation, such as the DD214 form that lists their rank, medals and service dates/places. (“I hate to ask this, but my editor insists that I see your discharge papers.")
- Write your story before requesting any documentation from the V.A. You will need to be prepared, precise and persistent in your request.
- When requesting documentation from the VA, preserve your relationship with your sources by asking them for it first. Then FOIA if needed.
For the story:
- Be responsible and human.
- Discuss with editors ahead of time whether you can review the content of the story with the veteran (and, in some cases, their families). Experts say giving a veteran some control over their story makes them more willing to talk and, often times, more satisfied with the final product. Very few subjects exercise their option to take back their stories.
- Include a sense of hope and resources for help. Consider a sidebar/tip box with links and phone numbers for more information.