Interviewing in the aftermath of trauma
Death, violence, war, terrorism, natural disaster, the COVID-19 pandemic - at some point within the past year many journalists within Asia Pacific will have reported on a story involving interviewees who had experienced a traumatic event. There is no infallible method for interviewing survivors and witnesses to trauma, Each case is unique and presents its own challenges. But this tip sheet brings together the collective experience of the Dart Centre Asia Pacific’s principal trainers to provide some general advice for interviewing in the aftermath of trauma, and recommendations for before, during, and after the interview.
Any event that involves experiencing or witnessing actual or threatened death, serious injury, or violence has the potential to be traumatic. Due to the nature of traumatic events, those impacted are often sought-after interviewees for breaking news. This tip sheet is designed to help journalists, photographers, camera operators and other media workers get the best story, while creating psychological safety for the person being interviewed.
What every journalist should know.
- In the hours and days after a traumatic event, memories are being processed by the survivor. This is a natural part of the brain’s response to trauma, but these memories can sometimes get “locked” in a loop that leads to more serious long-term mental health consequences. Questions from journalists about the trauma event can sometimes affect the way those memories are embedded, and the nature of the memories themselves.
- Questions or discussion about how the person was powerless are likely to lead to that feeling of powerlessness being stuck in that memory loop. On the other hand, questions about what the person did to survive can lead to psychological safety and increased resilience to long-term trauma impact.
- Trauma usually involves a situation where the person is unable, in that moment, to control or stop what is happening to them. Interview approaches that emphasise the person having control over the way the interview is conducted – including the topics covered – creates psychological safety.
- Trauma can unleash intense emotions, including anger and rage. Sometimes, these emotions are directed at media professionals, particularly if the person feels that they are being exploited, filmed without their permission, or treated with disrespect. In extreme cases, trauma responses involve dissociation, a state where the person is not oriented to time or place and may exhibit a “thousand-mile stare”. The language centre in the brain may have shut down completely. If this is the case, ensure that the person is in a safe place, and seek an interview from another survivor. It is not appropriate to interview someone in this state.
- Adopting basic principles of respect, empathy, and choice, is more likely to lead to a deeper conversation, and ultimately a better story, than relying on cliched questions such as “how do you feel?”
- Interviewing survivors of trauma or watching images of traumatic events to edit material or select publishable images exposes media professionals to vicarious trauma – which in some cases can be as damaging as the first-person experience. This is particularly true of journalists covering beats that involve multiple traumatic events over long periods of time.
- Interview details can be hazy. Interview subjects may experience memory loss and may not remember all details of what happened – don’t pressure them to remember. It may come in due time. Corroborate information with other sources as you would for any kind of news story.
Preparing for the interview
- Do your research before going out into the field.
Where possible, arrive at the scene knowing what happened and how it has impacted people in the vicinity. Being an informed reporter will reduce the need to ask general questions about the incident so you can focus on what the person wants to tell you.
- Talk with your editor or advisor beforehand.
Before heading out to the scene, discuss a plan for news gathering and interviewing. He/she may have additional advice to give you; you can also inform them of your plans and discuss any concerns you have.
- Be careful of your surroundings.
When you arrive at the scene, be sure the area is clear and safe. Ask yourself if you need to take shelter or find a place of safety. Traumatic events can last minutes, hours, days or weeks and you must ensure your personal safety before beginning your reporting.
- Check in with your editor.
Don’t forget to contact your editor when you arrive at the location and before you do the interview(s). You want to assure them that you are in a safe place, especially if there are safety risks associated with the event.
- Be ready for the long haul.
Depending on where the traumatic event occurred and the weather conditions at the time of the event, bring some basic supplies (e.g., water, rain gear, hat, extra batteries, etc.) with you in case you are posted to a spot for many hours.
- Be careful when you approach sources – be transparent, calm, and soft-spoken.
Identify who you are, what organisation you represent, what will happen with the information you collect from the interview, how it might be used in the story and when it will appear in publication. Tell them why you want to talk with them. If they are open to an interview, then proceed. If not, leave your contact information with them and ask them to contact you anytime if they would like to talk. If they are not interested in talking, or willing to speak on the record, there will be another opportunity to find another source.
- Make sure your interview subject doesn’t need medical attention.
Before jumping into questions, first ask if they need any medical attention and inform them of the ways they can get this attention.
- Let the interview subject have some control.
People who have experienced a traumatic situation need to regain control over their lives. One way to honour this is to give them a chance to make some decisions in the interview process – for example, where they would like to sit and what photos or images they would prefer you to use. You might also encourage them to tell you when they want to stop or take a break, particularly for long interviews. Ask them if they want a friend or family member present. Remind them that they are now safe (providing this is true!). These small steps can go a long way.
While you want to give as much control as possible to the interviewee, it is useful to come prepared with options for an appropriate interview setting. Avoid a situation in which children are listening; even though adults may say they’re used to it, children might be affected by what they hear.
- Prepare the interviewee.
Before starting the interview, talk in a general sense about the topics that will be touched on. Explain the purpose of your investigation and what you hope to achieve. This allows the interviewee to prepare emotionally, so they don’t feel attacked by questions, do not have different expectations of your work, and have a fair chance of deciding if they can — or want — to speak with you.
During the interview
- Be sincere when meeting with trauma survivors.
Don't patronise. Don’t ask “How do you feel?” or say, “I know how you feel,” – because in most cases nobody truly knows what somebody else is going through. Be supportive in the way you communicate.
A safe way to open the interview is to ask, “what would you like to tell me”, or “what happened to you?”. This gives the interviewee the sense that they can be in control of the interview and its content. If they want to talk about one part of the event in detail – for example the colour of someone’s shirt – allow them to do this. It is likely to be part of the brain’s processing. Do not interrupt the flow of their story or distract them by asking questions they may think are irrelevant (even if you think they are important). This information will likely arise over time.
- Use empathic interviewing.
Empathy is the capacity to participate in another's sensations, feelings, thoughts, and movements. Using specific words can make a difference in the interview and in how your interview subject responds. The premise of empathic interviewing shows the source your interest, attentiveness, and care in telling their story.
Such responses include:
So, what you're saying is…"
"From what you're saying, I can see how you would be…"
"That must have been very hard to watch..."
- Don’t take things personally.
Sometimes survivors may not make eye contact or be forthcoming with the kind of information you want. Don’t take this personally, it may be the way they are dealing with the situation.
- React calmly if the interviewee shows emotional response.
Interviews about traumatic events can be painful and there can be many reasons why your interviewee might cry. Sometimes the question or subject itself provokes strong emotions or talking about an event means pent-up feelings are released. If an interviewee cries or expresses anger or rage, be aware that they may not want to be filmed with this level of vulnerability. Having the intense emotional reactions being recorded and broadcast or published can contribute to that memory being “locked” in the mind. Always remember the person is much more than what happened to them, or what they felt at the time that it happened.
It may sound counter-intuitive to stop recording when a reaction is “newsworthy”, but you might find that what you lose in vision you make up for in the trust you build with your interviewee. Use your discretion as to whether to turn off recording equipment, but always follow an explicit request of the interviewee (remember regaining a sense of control of their life is the first step in return to safety).
- Gratitude and acknowledgement will go a long way.
At the end of the interview thank the survivor and acknowledge that it may have been hard for them to talk about it. Offer to let them see the story before you publish it (if this is possible) so they can correct any factual errors. Finally, ask them what they will be doing immediately following the interview – if possible, direct them to do something gentle, or to stay close to people who support them.
In summary, useful questions include:
What happened to you?
What would you like to tell me?
What decisions did you make that you think helped you survive the incident?
What do you need right now to feel safe?
What will you do after this interview to keep yourself feeling safe?
After the interview
- Check in with your editor.
Don’t forget to make contact when you complete your interview(s). You want them to know you are safe.
- Don’t rush to publish.
When it’s time to write the story, especially breaking news, it can be a natural reaction to rush it (e.g., get a few anecdotes and throw the story together.) If you have time, use it. Review your notes, listen to the interview recording carefully and don’t hesitate to call back your source to confirm or verify information.
- Your story has impact.
The story you write about the people you interview will be an article your sources keep forever as a memento and historical artifact. Be aware of how you tell the story and know that the story will impact the people you interviewed, and others impacted by the traumatic event. Check facts and details. Don’t assume anything. A misspelling of a name or incorrect detail that is important to the survivor can lead to further hurt.
- Talk with your friends, family, colleagues, or editor. Don’t bottle up your feelings.
Don’t forget that covering a traumatic event can impact you too – be sure to find ways to talk about the experience with your friends, family, colleagues, or editor. They may have covered something similar and/or can just be a listening ear. You should not keep your emotions bottled up; sharing your experience is one way of coping with witnessing and reporting on such a difficult event. Remind yourself that you are safe.