a. Asking for the interview
i. Minimize distractions
ii. Identify yourself as a reporter
iii. Acknowledge the victims' experience
iv. Giving the victim a reason to speak to you
v. Tell the person how much time you need
vi. Take "no" for an answer
vii. Leave a business card
viii. Ask for names of alternative spokespersons
b. Dealing with logistics
i. Make the person as comfortable as possible
ii. Ask permission to record the interview
iii. Come prepared
iv. Establishing ground rules
c. Conducting the interview
i. Recognize how trauma affects perceptions about time
ii. Avoid leading questions
iii. Avoid questions that imply blame
iv. Avoid loaded words and phrases
v. Eliciting emotion on camera
vi. Going live
vii. Ending the interview
viii. Thank the Victim
ix. Provide contact information for yourself or your editor
Reporter Guidelines for Act I (Breaking News) Stories
Most of the complaints from victims about reporters involve Act I/breaking news stories. Reporters are rushing to meet deadlines and struggling to get the facts of a story that may still be unfolding. Victims are often still in shock, unaware of the pitfalls of speaking and staying silent. Unless journalists exercise special care, the situation can become the proverbial recipe for disaster.
Reporters need to understand the specific challenges that victims face in being the subject of an Act I story. While individuals vary in their response to trauma, only a handful of victims are likely to be both composed enough and eager to speak to the media immediately after being victimized. Victims often need time to recover from the initial shock of what has happened to them before they can accurately and fully report the facts and their feelings about them to others. The physical and emotional shock of victimization can literally leave victims “speechless” when trauma disrupts the normal blood flow to the speech centers of the brain.
Reporters also need to understand that trauma inflicts a toll even when there is no physical injury. In the case of intimate crimes such as sexual assault, rape, and domestic violence, the resulting trauma is often complicated and amplified by numerous factors, ranging from the fear of being named in news accounts to the potential for self-blame to concerns about the stigma still associated with such crimes.
With those realities in mind, reporters need to approach victims appropriately and sensitively. News organizations often worry that raising victim concerns with their reporters and editors will make them less effective because they will hesitate or pull back from approaching and reporting on victims in trauma. The reality, however, is that reporters and editors who understand the dynamics of victimization and trauma get better stories because more victims will talk with them and talk openly.
Reporters should learn as much as they can about traumatic stress and its impact on the victims whom they interview, as well as on themselves (see “Self Care for Journalists” in this Section). Increased awareness about the immediate-, short-, and long-term impact of trauma will improve reporters’ sensitivity, interviewing skills, and their ability to address the vicarious trauma that often results from ongoing exposure to traumatic events.
Asking for the interview. For reporters under deadline, the first challenge is to persuade victims to talk to them. The challenge is even greater for television reporters because they want visuals for their stories and victims can be intimidated by the equipment, or they may not want others to see them in their current condition. To be ethical and effective in securing an interview, reporters should:
- Minimize distractions. Whenever possible, reporters should approach a victim without their equipment—notebooks, tape recorders, cameras, lights. Your goal is to make a human connection and these items can get in the way. If the person grants the interview, ask permission to use a recorder or bring up your videographer. Giving victims a sense of control can help them overcome feeling powerless, a common consequence of victimization.
- Identify yourself as a reporter. Trauma can impair a person’s ability to understand what is happening around him or her. The first thing reporters should do is identify themselves and their news organizations, so victims understand that they are speaking to a member of the media.
- Acknowledge the victim’s experience. The Victims and the Media Program at Michigan State University’s School of Journalism trains young reporters to use one of two “safe” phrases: (1) “I am sorry for what happened to you” or (2) “I am sorry for your loss.” To make a human connection with a victim in trauma, reporters need to express compassion and concern. These phrases cover almost all conceivable situations involving victims, and they also help the reporter avoid unintentionally offending the victim (e.g., inexperienced reporters or reporters under stress who may blurt out something hurtful).
- Give the victim a reason to speak to you. Whenever possible, explain the purpose of the story and why a victim’s participation is so important. “Your information may help with the investigation.” “Members of the community want to know how you are doing.” “We want to verify what others have said.” Victims sometimes report that they turned down a reporter without realizing that this might be their only opportunity to be heard.
- Tell the person how much time you need. In the immediate aftermath of a crime, a victim’s priority may be to contact family and friends or to go somewhere safe. Reporters are more likely to secure their permission for an interview when they explain that they just need a few minutes of the victim’s time.
- Take no for an answer. Victims who want to speak deserve the opportunity to do so. Those who do not want to talk to reporters should be treated with care and courtesy. However, while reporters should respect the wishes of victims who do not want to speak, they should also explain to victims that this does not mean a story will not appear. Consider saying, “We will be doing a story. This is your opportunity to share your information and tell your side of the story.” Make sure that your words and your tone do not imply you are pressuring or “blackmailing” the victim into speaking or that you will portray them badly in the story.
- Leave a business card. It is appropriate to offer a business card, suggesting that the victim may want to speak at a later time. Reporters sometimes leave a business card with a short note at a victim’s home when the person is not home or do not answer the door. In that note, you should acknowledge the person’s experience and explain the mission of the story in your message in addition to providing contact information and asking for an interview.
- Ask for the names of alternative spokespersons. If the person still elects not to grant an interview, it may make sense to ask the person to name an alternate. Suggest that there may be a family member, friend, or a representative of the clergy who could serve as an appropriate family spokesperson. All too often instead, reporters who fail to ask for suggestions from the victim end up interviewing neighbors or coworkers who may not know much about the person.
- Make the person as comfortable as possible. There may be situations in which offering the victim a chair or suggesting a more inviting place to talk can help the victim feel safe and relaxed enough to speak freely.
- For broadcast reporters. People in trauma often do not want to be touched, especially by strangers. It is better to hand the lavaliere microphone or earpiece to the person and verbally instruct him or her how to attach or insert it. Remember also that bright lights can be particularly intrusive when people are in trauma.
- Ask permission to record the interview. As noted above, anything a reporter can do to give the victim a sense of control over the situation can be empowering. Asking permission signifies to victims that you are mindful of what they have been through and do not seek to exploit them.
- Come prepared. Many reporters offer water and tissues. In the immediate aftermath of a crime, victims’ hair or clothing may be askew or they may have smudges on their face. Victims will often appreciate it (and tell others) if you offer them a damp tissue or a comb to freshen up before they will be photographed or videotaped.
- Recognize how trauma affects perceptions about time. There is objective time (seconds that tick on the clock) and subjective time (how much time we feel is passing). For victims, time often seems to slow down, so try to verify the victim’s perceptions about timing. Ask them if they looked at the clock before, during or after the incident. Ask them for external references, such as specific dialogue from radio or television shows that may have been audible in the background. Remember that misperceptions could cause problems for victims who are later asked to testify about when and how long their victimization lasted.
- Avoid leading questions. Victims in trauma are more vulnerable than they would normally be. You want them to report the facts as they know them, not lead them into overstatements or errors.
- Avoid questions that imply blame. Many victims focus on things they could have done differently that they think might have saved them from being victimized. Do not mistake expressions of remorse for a confession or ask questions that reinforce the impression that the victim is somehow at fault. Reporters need to understand that victims never “ask for it.” If a story includes tips to enhance safety relevant to a specific type of crime, care should be taken to address “risk-reduction strategies” rather than “how to avoid being a victim,” as there are no fail-safe methods to prevent victimization.
- Don’t ask “How do you feel?” Broadcast reporters in particular want victims to speak about their emotions with viewers. However, experience confirms that asking the obvious question bluntly is unlikely to elicit the desired answer. Recast the question in ways that express greater understanding of what the victim is going through. “I know that I cannot know what you are going through at this moment. Would you be willing to share with me and with our viewers the thoughts and feelings you are experiencing?” Tone of voice and body language can also be important in conveying compassion and concern.
- Avoid the term “closure.” Some victims do not find this term offensive. However, many feel that the question puts pressure on them to assure the audience that all is well, reinforcing the false and formulaic portrayal of the “noble victim” who bravely goes forward without shedding a tear. Victimization is often a life-altering experience that can have significant physical, emotional, financial, and spiritual effects that can be immediate, short- and long-term, and some victims construe the question as implying that they are expected to “get back to ‘normal’” or simply forget what happened to them or their loved ones.
- Ask for their preference on “victims” versus “survivors.” Some people prefer to be called a victim and some find it demeaning and feel empowered by being called a “survivor” instead. Some have no preference. To avoid giving inadvertent offense, ask the person if he or she has a preference.
- Use care with the term “alleged.” The term makes sense when applied to perpetrators, since it reinforces that everyone is innocent until proved guilty in a court of law. However, applying the term to victims strongly suggests that they may be lying. It is best to refer to the victim as the person who reported the incident to police or other neutral language.
- Demonstrate understanding with questions about domestic violence. People want to know why many victims of domestic violence continue to stay with their abusers. In addition to emotional ties, children in common, and complications that poverty can impose, victims often stay because leaving is dangerous. Research confirms that spouses and partners are at greatest risk of assault or murder when they try to leave an abusive relationship. Reporters should ask questions that reflect these realities.
- Eliciting emotion on camera. There is a balance between asking sensitive questions that cause victims to express honest emotions and manipulating them into breaking down. While it is important that the community understands the toll that crime exacts on victims, pushing a victim to tears crosses the line. Broadcasters should also reflect carefully before going in for a close-up on tears or grimaces of anguish.
- Going live. Broadcast television (and Internet video) can bring the audience live images unfiltered, thereby adding drama and immediacy to the news. The dangers, however, can easily outweigh the risks, especially in the case of crime victims. The news media serve as the gatekeepers who decide what should and shouldn’t be seen or heard or read, based on their professional judgment. The opportunity to edit video footage before it airs is a crucial responsibility that broadcasters should not quickly abdicate. The danger is that disturbing images, unwarranted accusations, and unfortunate comments may air without recourse.
- Ending the interview. Act I stories are typically under deadline, so they usually do not require much time with a victim. The goal is to be sensitive to the victim’s needs and their feelings. Victims often have other priorities to attend to, but they should not feel the interview ended abruptly.
- Thank the victim. You should thank victims for their time and for sharing their story at a difficult time.
- Provide contact information for yourself and your editors. Especially when you are borrowing a photo or videotape, you should provide complete contact information. Because reporters are often out in the field, it is also wise to include the name of an editor who can be reached if you are gone.