Self-Study Unit 1: Journalism & Trauma

Because of the nature of news, it is likely that a journalist will have to interview trauma victims in the course of his or her work. Interviewing someone who is under psychological stress is difficult for both the interviewee and the interviewer. As interviewers, journalists can help victims and survivors tell their stories in a way that is constructive. In their book Covering Violence, Simpson and Coté suggest that the journalist consider the following questions BEFORE the "dicey moment when the city editor or the assignment editor points toward the door and tells you to get moving." The questions are:

  • Is it necessary to immediately interview those who have suffered a traumatic event?
  • What is the value of intruding on people when they are grieving, disoriented, shocked and frightened?
  • What should you discuss with someone before that person consents to an interview?

The authors do not suggest that interviews with traumatized victims should not take place. For one thing, this is unrealistic, but further, people who are traumatized may have stories to tell that are helpful to those who hear their stories. But journalists should go about seeking interviewees in a thoughtful manner. They write:

"Each interview needs a deliberate judgment about the capacity of the other person to understand what an interview entails, including potential ramifications for the interviewee, family members, and friends. It is not enough that a person agrees to an interview. The ethical burden is not on the interview subject but on the journalist. We argue that doing the interview is not ethical unless the reporter has received what some journalists call 'informed consent, a phrase they picked up from medicine."

Psychiatrist Frank Ochberg suggests talking with interviewees about the pain that might result from remembering a traumatic event. Interviewees should also know whether their names will be used in the story. Give the interviewee an opportunity to ask the interviewer any questions before the interview begins.

Respect the other person's efforts to regain balance after a horrible experience
"Offer as much support to the interviewee as conditions will allow. Suggesting that the interviewee ask a friend, neighbor, or relative to be present may reassure her and may help the two of you talk more usefully."

Watch what you say
"At this stage your words carry a lot of weight. They can lead the victim to seek promises from you, to exaggerate what you will be able to do, and to assume that you are willing to be a friend as well as a reporter.Your manner and your first words will tell the other person whether he should trust you and how sincere you are. Those first impressions may decide whether you are ever again able to interview that person."

Set the stage for the interview
"Your first questions will provide you with two kinds of information. The first kind - details of the other person's knowledge of the situation - will help you begin to grasp what has happened. As you talk, you will be learning about the other person's capacity, or willingness, to talk to you."

Explain the ground rules
"Explain why you are there, what kind of story you are expected to write or report, when it is likely to run, and why it is important for her to speak to you. Do not promise something you cannot guarantee; the comments you are about to write down or tape may never make it into print or on the air."

Share control with the interviewee
"A person jolted by an event may need, and will certainly appreciate, a chance to decide some of the conditions of the interview. Would he like to sit or stand? Does he want to remain here or go somewhere away from the turmoil of the scene? Is there someone he would like to have present during the interview?"

Anticipate emotional responses
Referring to the words of psychiatrist Frank Ochberg: "When survivors cry during interviews, they are not necessarily reluctant to continue. They may have difficulty communicating, but they often want to tell their stories. Interrupting them may be experienced as patronizing and denying an opportunity to testify. Remember, if you terminate an interview unilaterally, because you find it upsetting, or you incorrectly assume that your subject wants to stop, you may be re-victimizing the victim."

"Good listening requires hearing not only the words that are spoken and making sense of them but also noticing gestures, facial expressions, emotions, and body language. Take the other person fully into account, then remember and make sense of what that person heard and saw."

Review with the interviewee what you have learned
"This is the time to go back over the facts, to read back statements that you may want to quote, and to arrange to obtain photographs, continue the interview, or check back for other information."

Think through what you have heard and seen
"The interview you have just completed was not a routine one. Think about what made it different. The person with whom you talked was enduring one of the most trying experiences in life. Such an interview can alter many of the assumptions journalists make about the people they talk to. Issues of trust, harm, and responsibility to others emerge from such meetings to a degree unmatched in most news interviewing. This is a time for a few moments of reflection about what you have just heard and seen."

Journalists should also think about how follow-up interviews may affect their subjects. Often traumatic events are visited and revisited, and victims and survivors are contacted for interviews and asked to talk about the past again. These could occur during anniversaries of traumatic events (school shootings, a bombing, and other violent crimes) or during criminal or civil trials. The same kind of consideration should be shown to interviewees during these times as immediately after a traumatic event (e.g., listening, sharing control, etc.). People may still be recovering from their trauma. Journalists might focus on the recovery process rather than on the event itself. In any case, they should be perceptive to the needs and responses of the interviewee. Early signs of interviewee anxiety might be a time to ask how the interviewee is doing and help make the situation more comfortable. Empathy toward the interviewee is helpful.

An inclination to "over-empathize," however, may not be professional. Simpson and Coté write that "some reporters eagerly identify with those who survive violence because of a personal history of abuse, sexual assault, or other traumas. That identification becomes so strong that the reporter ignores professional boundaries in order to become a confidant and even advocate. A skilled reporter needs to concentrate on understanding and reporting events accurately; deep emotional connections to people in those stories can undermine those goals. Yet we would agree with those who say a reporter sometimes can be very helpful to a victim or family member. But we believe that the best results for everyone occurs when the reporter understands his own needs and is sensitive to signs of trauma and growing distress in others."

The bottom line is that a journalist needs to be both self-aware and aware of the impact that trauma has on others. This understanding can help the journalist tell a traumatic story knowledgeably and with appropriate sensitivity.

Basic Empathy Skills for Post-Traumatic Interviewing Situations
Empathy is the capacity to participate in another's sensations, feelings, thoughts, and movements. The first and foremost requirements for skilled empathic interviewing are:

  • Interest
  • Attentiveness
  • Caring
  • Self-containment
  • Freedom from expectations or judgments
  • Respect

Possible Empathic Responses
Sometimes it is helpful to have cues to work from in learning empathic responding, which may be very different from general interviewing strategies. The following cues are offered to give examples of empathic interviewing strategies:

  • "From what you're saying, I can see how you would be.."
  • "So what you're saying is.."
  • "Let me just check something. Do you mean you're."
  • "It sounds like you're saying.."
  • "You seem really.."

Supportive Comments:

  • "You must be."
  • "I can understand you feeling.."
  • "It sounds really hard."
  • "It sounds like you're being hard on yourself."
  • "I would imagine you'd be feeling really ____ right now."

Comments on Emotional Tone:

  • "It seems like it's hard for you to have feelings about this.."
  • "It seems like you are pretty numb right now."

Asking for Details or Clarification (gets the person to slow down and stay with the situation or the feelings):

  • "So let's go back a minute.."
  • "I noticed that you are rushing through this a bit."
  • "It seems hard to stay with this."
  • "I don't get it. What do you mean they..?"
  • "Could it be."
  • "I wonder if.."

Moving into End of Interviewing Session:

  • "It is such a tough thing to go through something like this."
  • "I'm really sorry this is such a tough time for you."
  • "I know of a website that might be helpful for you."

Purposes of Empathic Responding

  • Some individuals are deep within themselves and need to be drawn out by asking for clarification, gently mirroring and reflecting what has been said.
  • Some individuals are overly expressive and needy, and may need to have you establish a working distance by remaining neutral, not getting drawn into "rescuing," making "it sounds like." statements. You cannot help if you are engulfed.
  • Shows you care and that you understood the other person. Not to pry, but to increase the person's sense of themselves in the present moment.
  • If you have misunderstood, the talker can immediately correct your impressions. You learn more about people.
  • It lets the talker know that you (the listener) accept him/her invites him/her to tell his/her story.