Expert Commentary

Video: Interviewing trauma survivors and other vulnerable sources

In a recent panel, “Rethinking the Interview: In an Unequal World, Do We Need New Rules?” hosted by the NYU Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute, freelance science journalist Tara Haelle, and JR's Naseem Miller discuss tips and advice on interviewing people who are vulnerable and have little or no experience in dealing with the news media.

A camera facing an out-of-focus interview subject.
(Photo by Sam McGhee on Unsplash)

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.

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