a. Requesting story
i. By letter
ii. By enlisting trusted emissaries
b. Anniversary stories
c. Continuing mystery
d. Personal profile
e. The journalist as betrayer
f. The accountability of the freelancer
g. An appropriate role for experts
h. Identifying reliable experts
i. The "poster child" problem
Reporter Guidelines for Act II (Feature) Stories
The dynamics of Act II features differ significantly from Act I stories. Breaking news often asks rookie reporters with little or no specific training in interviewing victims to gather information quickly to meet a deadline. In contrast, the Act II feature typically involves allowing seasoned reporters to spend significant time producing carefully crafted articles or mini-documentaries, in collaboration with one or more editors, as well as photographers, videographers, and illustrators. Allowing experienced journalists to work on stories with longer or more flexible deadlines usually means that the resulting stories result in fewer problems for victims than Act I stories do.
Reporters assigned to Act II stories would be well advised to read the guidelines for Act I stories since many tips and techniques apply to both. Asking for the interview, however, differs with Act II stories because reporters enjoy more opportunities and have a longer lead time during which they can try to persuade victims to speak. With an Act II story, journalists can ask for the interview—
- By letter. A letter offers a greater opportunity for a full explanation than leaving a message on an answering machine or talking to the victim by phone directly.
- By enlisting trusted emissaries. The Act II story usually allows a reporter the time and opportunity to identify people the victim knows who may be willing to recommend them. Penny Owen, a crime reporter for The Daily Oklahoman, said that she often got stories because the local funeral director told victims that when and if they ever wanted to speak to the public through the media, he would vouch for her as a journalist who treated victims sensitively and fairly.
While much of the advice on Act I stories still applies to Act II stories, there are special dynamics related to three of the most common kinds of Act II stories (the anniversary story, the continuing mystery, and the personal profile).
- The anniversary story. When a crime has a significant impact on the community, news organizations will periodically memorialize anniversaries of the event—at the 1-month, 6-month, 1-year, 5-year, and 10-year marks and beyond. Thoughtful reporters will want to—
- Research the facts in advance. You will spare victims if you rely on them to verify facts rather than provide them. You may still want the victim to tell you the story of what happened, but you do not want to interrupt the flow to clarify facts you should already know. Doing research up front is a way to show respect, and to ensure that you have basic knowledge about the definition and scope of the type of victimization you are covering.
- Discuss “off limits” topics up front. You may want to open your interview with a brief discussion of any areas that a victim may find too painful to probe. It may well be that as you gain the victim’s trust, he or she will be willing to go further than originally planned. But an up-front discussion of issues that are off limits helps to build trust by showing respect.
- Remember that victims have good days and bad days. There is no one-size-fits-all, right way or wrong way for victims to behave. Victims often express anger, fear, denial, remorse, frustration, and sadness, but they can have surprising reactions as well. Victims who suffer from posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can appear emotionless and unaffected by the experience, but these are symptoms of the disorder and reporters should not mistake their lack of affect for not caring. Respect victims for the individuality of their responses to trauma.
- Establish rapport before asking hard questions. One way to minimize potential damage from tough questions is to give victims a chance to relax and feel secure before they are asked to recount traumatic experiences and comment on what happened. It is important not to push too fast or too hard.
- Anticipate and understand survivor guilt. Survivors can feel guilty that they lived while others died. These feelings can intensify rather than recede over time. It is again appropriate to express reassurance but do not expect to “cure” the victim you are interviewing.
- Offer verbal consolation but do not touch. As noted with Act I stories, acknowledging a victim’s suffering is appropriate, but you should choose your words carefully. Sometimes a nod or concerned smile is enough. Even though it may be tempting to give the person a hug or a reassuring squeeze of the hand, it is not wise to do so. Violence often expands victims’ zones of intimacy that they do not want strangers to penetrate. Even asking permission in advance—“May I give you a hug?”—is problematic because victims may feel it would be rude to refuse. Some victims also suffer continuing physical injuries that may be painful years later. Best practice is to show compassion through verbal expressions, body language, and facial reactions, not by touch.
- The continuing mystery. Much of the foregoing advice on the anniversary story applies here as well, but continuing mysteries impose additional burdens on victims. Parents who do not know what happened to children who disappeared or were abducted often experience a roller coaster of emotions, cascading from hope to despair and back again. Victims in cases in which the perpetrator has not been caught can often suffer heightened fear. Understanding and acknowledging a victim’s particular circumstance can help put the person at ease.
- The personal profile. Feature stories about recovering victims are another staple of crime coverage. People want to know how the victim is doing, but reporters should resist the temptation to force the victim into a preconceived mold or formula. As noted before, victims typically have good days and bad days. Some return to work and regular routines quickly, while others never do. You will need to interview the victim more than once to be sure that their apparent courage—or unrelenting depression—constitutes an accurate portrayal.
Although the Act II story allows reporters more time to do a good job on their stories, there are potential pitfalls:
- The journalist as betrayer. It is the journalist’s job to establish rapport and do so quickly. Techniques include being friendly and warm, while expressing great interest in everything the interview subject has to say. Particularly for victims whose family and friends have grown tired of hearing them talk about their stories, the interview process can easily persuade victims that the reporter is their new best friend. Victims can then feel betrayed if the resulting profile does not portray them as they expected, or there can be hurt feelings when the story is published and the reporter no longer spends time with them.
Perhaps most difficult of all is when a reporter has to explain that a story has been cancelled or that the victim’s contribution to the story was eliminated, particularly if other victim stories will still be published. The reality is that editors may pick one victim story over another because one story is more dramatic or the victim is more photogenic. Such decisions, of course, can insult and upset victims, especially if they have already told family and friends that they have been interviewed.
- The accountability of freelancers. Magazines have long relied on freelancers. Daily and weekly newspapers and TV stations are increasingly relying on independent reporters and producers. News organizations need to work with their freelancers to ensure that they employ best practices when dealing with victims and witnesses.
- An appropriate role for experts. There are times when reporters and editors want quotes from various professionals and experts such as physicians, psychologists, sociologists, or anthropologists in crime stories. However, it can be difficult for victims to have their personalities, actions, or motives scrutinized and analyzed in ways they find unflattering. A domestic violence victim, for example, may feel insulted to be identified as suffering from low self-esteem. Elderly victims may take offense at general comments about how older victims are often frail or infirm. Victims consider themselves the best experts on their own victimization and news organizations should value and respect their perspectives.
- Identifying reliable experts. Many victim service providers advocate for victims in the media, and also serve as a source for reliable public information about crime and victimization. The types of information that victim advocates can provide to journalists include—
- Statistics and trends about the specific type of crime and victimization (national, state, and local data).
- “Myths and facts” about different types of crime and victimization that can enhance accurate reporting.
- State and federal laws related to crime and victimization, including information about victims’ constitutional and statutory rights.
- Brief overviews about the dynamics of different types of victimization.
- Research-based information about crime victims and perpetrators.
- Community- and justice-based resources for victim assistance.
- Reliable local, state, and national experts—including crime victims and survivors—who can offer additional insights and perspectives on the issue.
- The “poster child” problem. An individual victim should not be used to represent an entire category of victims. Each victim is an individual whose experience is unique.