When it comes to interviewing sources, one size doesn’t fit all.
When interviewing public figures, including politicians, journalists ask the hard questions, demand answers and set hard-and-fast rules about what’s on- or off-the-record.
But journalists should take greater care when interviewing private citizens, especially those who are suffering in some way and the survivors of traumatic events, by practicing trauma-informed journalism, which is acknowledging the impact of trauma on people and how an interview can create additional stress for them, and less-extractive reporting, which is about ethical ways that journalists can interview people who have experienced harm or are in some way suffering.
These interviewing methods were the subject of a recent panel, “Rethinking the Interview: In an Unequal World, Do We Need New Rules?” hosted by the NYU Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute, and part of the Kavli Conversations, hosted by NYU’s Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program with support from the Kavli Foundation.
During the panel Tara Haelle, a freelance science journalist who frequently speaks and writes about ethical dilemmas in journalism, and I shared some of our tips and advice with moderator Robin Lloyd, a freelance writer and editor, and a contributing editor at Scientific American.
Some of the takeaways:
- Remember that trauma survivors have just been through an event where they had no control, so give them a sense of control. For instance, instead of choosing how to start your interview, ask them where they want to start their story.
- Take extra care in protecting vulnerable sources with questions like, “What is the nearest metropolitan area you’re comfortable with identifying from,” instead of identifying their exact location, Haelle advised.
- Practice empathy. It’s OK to feel sad or shed a tear with your sources, but don’t try to process your own extreme emotions during an interview, as it could be distressing to your interviewee. Take a moment to acknowledge your feelings to yourself — maybe take a deep breath or drink a sip of water — and address it after you leave the interview. Talk to a friend, colleague, editor or a mental health professional.
You can watch the video below or click here.
More from The Journalist’s Resource:
- “Trauma-informed journalism: What it is, why it’s important and tips for practicing it.”
- “10 rules for reporting on war trauma survivors.”
- “Interviewing politicians and public leaders: Advice from TIME’s Molly Ball.”
- “Interviewing a source: Tips.”
- “Interviewing white-collar criminals: 6 tips from Harvard Business School’s Eugene Soltes.”
- “The Dart Center Style Guide for Trauma-Informed Journalism,” Dart Center for Journalism & Trauma, June 2021.
- “Why Should I Tell You?: A Guide to Less-Extractive Reporting,” Natalie Yahr. Center for Journalism Ethics, University of Wisconsin-Madison,
- “Trauma & Journalism: A Guide for Journalists, Editors & Managers,” Dart Center, 2007.
- “Tragedies & Journalists,” a 40-page guide to help journalists, photojournalists and editors report on violence while protecting both victims and themselves. Dart Center, February 2009.
- “Trauma-Informed Journalism: Tips for Telling Important Stories, Better,” Tamara Cherry. April 2022.
- “Trauma Informed Reporting,” Alice Wilder. Transom.org, March 2021.
- “Trauma-Informed Interviewing: Techniques from a Clinician’s Toolkit,” Kate Porterfield. Dart Center for Journalism & Trauma, November 2019.
- “Best practices for trauma-informed journalism,” Maggie Doheny. Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute at the University of Missouri, December 2021.
- “A training session on trauma-informed reporting,” Nicole Froio. Hosted by The International journalists’ Network, December 2021.
- “Keep these seven lessons in mind when interviewing trauma survivors,” Lilly Dayton. Center for Health Journalism.
- “Trauma Reporting: A Journalist’s Guide to Covering Sensitive Stories,” Jo Healey, July 2019.
- “Weathering the Trauma Storms: Developing Interviewing Techniques,” Gavin Rees. Dart Center, June 2007.
- “Covering Children and Trauma,” Ruth Teichroeb. Dart Center, February 2009.
- “Resources: Reporting on Refugees and Migration Through the Eyes of Young Children,” Dart Center, September 2019.
- “Reporting on Sexual Violence in Conflict,” Dart Centre Europe.
- “How working with sexual assault survivors changed the way I think about journalism,” Samantha Caiola. Center for Health Journalism.