Behind the Story: Covering Trauma with Compassion

VIDEO: NBC News Correspondent Gabe Gutierrez explains how he tackles difficult interviews with trauma victims and grieving families. Gutierrez, who extensively covered the death of George Floyd and the Derek Chauvin trial, offers some thoughts for journalists who may be required to talk to survivors who are going through a difficult time and tips for reporters on how they should focus and frame their story.

Tips for Interviewing Victims of Tragedy, Witnesses, and Survivors 

Adapted for NBCU Academy from a guide by Marcela Turati published by the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma. You can find the original version of the article with more tips and details here 

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There is no infallible method for interviewing people who have been victims and survivors of traumatic events such as violence and crime, disasters, or accidents. Each case is unique and presents its own ethical challenges and dilemmas. Here are some recommendations which can be used as a roadmap to conduct a humane, sensitive and respectful interview.  

1. Identify yourself as a journalist. 

A basic rule of the trade is to introduce yourself as a journalist. It is not appropriate to mislead or deceive someone you are interviewing to obtain the news.

2. Make time for the interview. 

If you are short on time, let your interviewee know this, and limit yourself to the basic questions about the situation, without going into the details of a traumatic event. Otherwise, you might not be listening as someone reveals painful details, because you’re in a hurry.  

3. Look for an appropriate interview setting. 

Ideally, interviews should be conducted in a place where you can speak without interruption, where you can listen without someone having to raise their voice, and where there is no danger.  

4. Decide whether to record or take notes. 

Before approaching a trauma victim with a camera, ask if they are comfortable with being recorded. You may want to approach with your camera person nearby and explain who you are and why you think their interview is helpful in telling a fuller picture. If you record, be well prepared and make sure you are not going to interrupt because of technical problems. 

5. Prepare the interviewee. 

Before starting the interview, talk in a general sense about the topics that will be touched on. This allows the interviewee to prepare emotionally, so they don’t feel attacked by questions, do not have different expectations of your work, and have a fair chance of deciding if they can — or want — to speak with you. 

6. Yield control. 

The interviewee must not feel pressured. Before starting the interview, it’s important to tell them they have control. Inform them that they only have to answer the questions they want to respond to; that they can take a break or to end the interview if they feel overwhelmed; or that they can request that you not reveal potentially risky information. These are their rights. 

7. Consider your questions. 

Interviewing the victim of a terrible event requires empathy and putting yourself in the victim’s place. Ask yourself: If he or she were a family member of someone close to you, would you pose the questions in the same way? Also, it is important to ask questions that invite open answers; this allows the victim to choose their own words. 

8. Make visual contact and be an attentive listener. 

Maintain eye contact and make sure you aren’t going to be disturbed by external sounds — such as vibrations from your cell phone or internal distractions — to establish a connection with the person telling their story.  

9. Avoid questions that criminalize the individual. 

A victim generally suffers from guilt. They are alone, feel afraid, and sometimes few people believe them. Their truth often stands against a system built to discredit anyone who raises their voice and denounces wrongdoing. 

10. Consider if revisiting a particularly traumatic moment is justified. 

Some investigations require specific details about situations in which extreme trauma is involved, such as when investigating a pattern of rape or sexual assault, or police torture. This kind of interview has to be conducted whenever the victim agrees and whenever it makes sense in the context of the work we’re doing.  

11. Consider different approaches to understanding trauma. 

Words are not the only way to express pain. Find ways that help you understand the victim’s emotions without making them relive a painful moment. Ask them to share a poem they have written, a song, a drawing, a fragment from a diary, or a prayer that helps you understand their emotions without disturbing what might still be a raw wound. A good strategy is asking the victim to describe their dreams. Usually dreams are so narratively powerful that you don’t need to ask questions that could make them relive a traumatic moment. 

12. React calmly if the person shows distress or weeps. 

Interviews about traumatic events and family losses are painful and there can be many reasons why your interviewee might cry. Sometimes the way of asking the questions lacks tact, the subject itself provokes strong emotions, or talking about an event means pent-up feelings are released. 

13. Consider resilience as you conclude your interview.   

“How have you dealt with what happened?” and “What have you been able to do to continue with your life?” are some questions you may use to end an interview about painful topics. It’s important to open a space to consider resilience, where they can talk about what is possible, and about the strength of individuals and the importance of the collective struggle.  

14. Analyze all possible consequences. 

In certain contexts, such as where there is generalized violence and impunity, every journalist has a duty to think about the possible consequences for interviewees when publishing the piece. Analyze — with them — if they run any risks by speaking out, interrogating if they can undertake these risks and how to reduce them.  

15. Verify the information. 

Traumatic events can often impact memory. Memories change and can be altered by fear, by the need to understand what happened, by the passage of time, by the wish to forget, by recent revelations about the case, or just by listening to other testimonies. These kinds of interviews require a great deal of care if you are going to get the details right, and get the kind of statements that will support your published story. Give yourself time during the interview to clarify details.