The more recent the event, the greater the care needed from journalists when approaching interviewees.
During or immediately after an event, people who are in shock may appear to be fine or unaffected. It is often not until later, when the adrenaline wears off that the impact of the event is felt. Research from the 2009 Victorian bushfires showed that survivors’ moods and behaviour changed over the immediate post-event period (Muller, 2011).
For the first 48 hours, people tend to be in shock (which is expressed in different ways depending on the person) but willing to talk to media personnel. Some even find it cathartic to do so. Some community members have told researchers they don’t even remember talking to media in the first 48 hours after a disaster (Muller & Gawenda, 2011).
After 48 hours, people tend to move from shock to grief. They will often withdraw so they can start processing the impact of the event. At this point, a more careful approach is needed, and you may find people are less willing to talk to you. You may need to adjust your approach and interview questions after the high emotions of the event die down.
Even if interviewees appear to be fine and are willing to be interviewed, they may remember the interview as insensitive or an intrusion on their privacy if it is not conducted with care; especially if they have personally experienced loss of any kind. Grief and loss do not have a timeline. If journalists are unsure if they should be conducting an interview, it may be best to leave contact details with the interviewee so that contact can be made at a later date.
Providing space and choice to the interviewee may result in a better story. In the meantime, journalists can try speaking with others who are slightly more removed from the scene (e.g. emergency officials).
When conducting interviews with parents or carers:
- Remember that children feel the need to be with their parents and carers after frightening events. Do not separate an interviewee from their children unless another family member or carer is available to take the children for a moment. You will need to navigate the scene with caution and respect to others.
- Be aware of any children within listening distance while you are conducting an interview as you may be asking potentially frightening questions that the child should not hear. If someone begins to discuss violent or graphic details with you (i.e. descriptions of bodies, deaths, injuries, etc.) and children are within earshot, it is best to respectfully interrupt them or change the direction of the interview.Remember that in the immediate aftermath of a traumatic event, some people can feel a strong urge to unload what they have seen and experienced. They may blurt out details to you and/or ignore any polite attempts to interrupt them. This is because a traumatic event can cause an adrenaline high, where people speak about things or express emotion without processing the impact of the event. It may take a couple of days before they slow down and begin to feel the impact of what they have experienced.
Disasters and community trauma events are stressful for everyone. Much of the tension between media and community in disaster comes not from media staff purposefully being insensitive, but from a struggle to balance the demands of the newsroom with ethical decision-making. However, you have an ethical duty to minimise harm to others. If you are faced with challenging circumstances or a situation without a clear answer, and you are unsure of specific guidelines, be guided by a ‘harm minimisation’ approach.
The following interview techniques are based on resources from the DART Center for Journalism and Trauma and research by Ewart & McLean (2018):
- Approach interviews and information-gathering from a foundation of ‘harm minimisation’.
– Make sure interviewees understand that they do not have to speak to you and can stop or withdraw their consent at any time.
– Prioritise people’s wellbeing before a story and make it clear to them that you are doing so.
– Do not assume that people will know this; tell them they don’t have to give comment but if they are feeling up to it, you would appreciate it.
- Maintain a calm, non-threatening demeanour at all times.
– Do not aggressively pursue interviews or rush through conversations. Give individuals time to think about their answers and invite questions at any opportunity.
- Introduce yourself and where you are from before you ask anything else.
– It can be hard for survivors and witnesses to process information after a shocking or traumatic event, so take your time in explaining who you are and what you are asking for. You can also explain the types of questions you’ll be asking so they have a chance to give you feedback or think about their answers.
- Ask people if it is a good time for them to be interviewed or give comment.
– You should never have to persuade people to give their story. If they are unsure, it means no.
– Ask people once only.
- Give interviewees autonomy in the interviewing process.
– Let them select a suitable time and location for the interview. Be flexible and patient. Remember that this is their story.
- Do not interview anyone who is highly distressed, in shock, scared, injured, or under the age of 16.
- Don’t say things like ‘At least everything is fine now’, ‘At least you survived’, or ‘It could have been worse’.
– You might be trying to make them feel better, but it is insensitive and minimises their experience.
– Do not give your opinion, ask leading or sensational questions, comment on anyone’s experience, probe for information, ask ‘devil’s advocate’ questions, or imply anyone could have done more in their situation.
- Do not interrupt their story, but stop the interview if they become distressed or upset. ”
– Ask if they are willing to continue after a few minutes. If they seem too distressed to answer, stop the interview and thank them for their time.
- Don’t be alarmed if the interview does not go as planned, if people’s minds wander, or if they become upset or angry.
– Traumatic events can affect people’s ability to think and understand. They may tell long stories or say things that don’t appear to be relevant. Be patient, and if the interviewee becomes distressed, stop the interview and thank them for their time.
- Do not feign compassion or sadness or tell them you know how they’re feeling.
– Off-camera, you can offer sincere condolences to survivors such as, ‘I’m so sorry this happened’.
– You are there to bear witness, relay their story, and not get personally involved.
- Be committed to accuracy.
– Don’t be afraid to ask for clarification of names, dates and times once the person has finished speaking. Even small errors can cause great distress.
A note on media intervention
Sometimes, it is not always possible to remain an impartial observer in a disaster situation. It can be hard to draw the line between ‘stepping back’ and ‘pitching in’, especially if you are in a position to safely help others.
If you do end up assisting others, it is your responsibility to make sure they understand that they are not obliged to return the favour by giving a statement or interview. Do not put pressure on anyone to provide a statement and do not surprise them with sudden questions, because any stress you place on them can increase the stress on their children and families as well. If people want to share their story at a later time, you can leave a business card so they can get in contact with you.
Similarly, you should use the same processes for people with whom you have an existing relationship as you would those you don’t know. Explain that you are acting in a reporting role; gain their consent to question them; explain the process of the interview; and do not chase them for a statement. If you put pressure on adults to give a statement or interview, this can increase the existing stress on their families and children.