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Interviewing victims - tips and techniques

by Sue Carter and Bonnie Bucqueroux

It is never easy to approach a victim of violence or catastrophe to ask for an interview, but timing does make a difference. There are the specific concerns involved in interviewing someone suffering the psychophysiological consequences of an immediate shock.

Then there are the challenges posed in approaching a person who may be suffering the lingering effects of trauma, anger and grief. It also makes a difference whether the incident was the result of intentional human cruelty versus an accident or a random act of nature.

While it is true that each situation is different, reporters are well served by the advice to approach victims and their families and friends with dignity, respect, care and compassion. There are also specific tips and techniques that can make reporting on victims less daunting and less likely to inflict a "second wound" on people who are struggling to deal with what has happened to them.

Attitude, tone and expressions of concern

When approaching victims of violence or catastrophe, remember to switch gears out of investigative reporter mode. Investigating a scandal or corruption often requires being relentless and finding the courage to ask the toughest questions. But when dealing with victims of violence or catastrophe, getting a good story - or getting the story at all - may well depend on your ability to develop rapport and trust. At a recent conference, a young college reporter seemed proud of calling a rape victim to ask whether she had lied about the attack. What he failed to realize was that this not only hurt her, but it cost him any hope of an interview.

Don't be afraid to open the conversation with, "I'm sorry for your loss," or "I'm sorry for what happened to you." Even if those remarks sound canned to you, chances are that the victims will appreciate hearing them. Moreover, it is better to stick with a rehearsed comment than to risk blurting out something that may be unintentionally hurtful.

But being considerate does not mean that you suspend all disbelief. A "victim" such as Susan Smith, who was ultimately discovered to have murdered her own two children, reminds us that reporters must always maintain their professional skepticism. The challenge is not to let skepticism become cynicism, since that can translate into a lack of compassion and concern. The wisest course is to extend the benefit of doubt to a victim, until or unless proved otherwise.

Breaking news

The challenges inherent in breaking news multiply exponentially when the situation requires that you must ask a victim, a witness or a family member or friend suffering through shock and horror for an interview. In fact, some would argue that no one should intrude on the mother who has just learned that her child has been murdered, or the dazed survivor who narrowly escaped before his home burned down.

Yet it is the duty of the reporter to offer the person the chance to say yes or no. Many people will not want to be interviewed - some may well scream or even become abusive when approached by a reporter. But your goal should be to provide those who want to talk the opportunity to do so, and that means explaining to them the mission or rationale for speaking:

  • Celebrate the life - In these cases, your mission is not to dwell on the death but to honor the loved one's life. It is appropriate to inform families that an interview will allow your article or broadcast to go beyond facts already on the record or those provided by the police or hospital officials. You can also explain that others in similar circumstances have found news coverage is helpful in communicating information, including specifics about arrangements, to co-workers and acquaintances.
  • Warn the community of the danger - Victims, family and friends may be willing to be interviewed when they understand that this provides an opportunity to help others avoid victimization.
  • Tell their side - There are times when a victim may want to put his or her version on the record - the warning light wasn't flashing, the attacker threatened to kill her if she called police. Many victims complain that initial articles contained glaring errors of fact that they were never given the opportunity to correct at the time.
  • Illustrate an important issue - As the culture tries to grapple with issues of violence, on the street, in homes, and at the workplace, the stories of victims help us understand the dynamics that allow such problems to persist. Remember, however, that victims of violence often feel guilty. The domestic violence victim feels shame because she didn;t leave. The rape victim thinks she should have known the man she was dating would turn violent. You are not violating your oath of objectivity to assure such victims that it was the perpetrator and not the victim who was at fault.
  • Share human feeling and experience - We are a can-do people who revere success, but this should never mean that victims are portrayed as losers. Bad things do indeed happen to good people, and victims can rightfully remind us of the fragility and vagaries of life.
  • A few don't's:
    • Avoid any hint of blackmail or coercion - Victims often report being acutely aware of undue pressure. Never say, "Tell me about your daughter or I will be forced to get my information elsewhere."
    • Watch what you say at the scene - Reporters, like other first responders such as police and emergency medical personnel, sometimes indulge in black humor to cope with their own trauma. The danger, of course, is that family and friends could overhear those insensitive remarks and that could easily cost you an interview (and the witnesses’ respect for you and your news organization).
    Follow-up stories

    While much of the same advice offered above applies to stories done later, the dynamics are different because the initial shock has passed. With breaking news, victims can literally be scared speechless, but do not be lulled into thinking that the effects of trauma simply disappear with the passage of time. A few words about:

    • Trial coverage - Victims often feel suspects and perpetrators receive undue amounts of media attention, while the victims are ignored. Many also feel that the coverage is distorted by spotty coverage. In their view, piecemeal coverage risks putting the victim on trial.
    • Anniversary and update stories - It is a mistake to assume that victims do not suffer pain 10, 20 or even 50 years after the incident. The anniversary itself often stirs up troubling feelings, so be prepared when asking for and conducting an interview.
    • Unsolved crimes - Try to make it your policy never to run a story about an unsolved crime without notifying the victim or the family first. Particularly in the case of murder, surviving family members feel blindsided when they are not warned that a story will appear about a new suspect or as part of a feature on unsolved crimes.
    • A special word on terminology - Victims who have had a chance to think about their experience often have strong feelings about "loaded" words such as victim, survivor, and closure. Ask if they mind being called a victim. Many victims bristle at being asked if they have achieved closure - the implication is that they are a failure if they say no, and many would argue that you may someday forgive but will never forget. A better question might be, "How do you feel about the question of closure?"
    Approaching victims Victims who find themselves struggling to cope with what are likely the worst days of their lives have had power and control wrenched from their hands. As a reporter, your goal should be to help them regain a sense of mastery, so that they can better communicate with you. The following checklist can help:
    • Know what you are going to say - Before you pick up the telephone or knock on the door, outline points to make and words or issues to avoid.
    • Make sure the family has been notified - Even when you have official assurances that notification of death or serious injury has taken place, remember that, in today's world of fractured families, you might inadvertently be the bearer of this news to someone who has not yet been told. Always plan in advance what you will say and do if that happens - have a plan for follow-up verification and try to make sure that the person is not left alone while you help sort out what happened.
    • First impressions - Leave your equipment behind, whether that means the camera and lights of broadcast or the notebook or tape recorder for print reporters. If appropriate, wear casual clothes. Announce who you are and the news organization you represent, and then express your regrets before you attempt to explain your mission. Offer a business card with the assurance that the person can reach you to correct any mistakes, or to talk later.
    • Discuss ground rules - After you explain the purpose of the story, provide your best estimate of the time required for the interview. If appropriate, offer a suggestion about the place, and ask the person for other suggestions. Tell the person how to let you know if they need a break, if they want the lights turned off, or if they want their remarks kept out of the coverage. You might want to bring water and tissues. Make sure that victims know you are there as a reporter, not as their friend, but that your goal is to help them tell their stories - and tell them the way that they want to.
    • Suggest alternatives and other sources - If they are unwilling to talk, ask them if there are other family members, clergy, friends, neighbors or co-workers who could talk knowledgeably. Even if they grant an interview, don't forget to ask them for a list of others who should speak as well.
    • Thank them for their time and effort - Reliving a trauma takes a toll. Tell victims how much you appreciate their willingness to share their stories with us.

      This article originally appeared in Quill magazine.