Tips for Interviewing Victims of Tragedy, Witnesses, and Survivors

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.

But as a journalist who has reported about different types of violence and its victims for 12 years, I’ve made some recommendations which can be used as a roadmap to conduct a humane, sensitive, and respectful interview. These tips are part of my workshop “How to Cover Pain” and are based on various courses and lectures; the observation of therapists, human rights defenders, and colleagues; and the experiences of those who have taken my workshops.

The most important element, and a cross-cutting component of this work, is proper care and security, including:

The safety of those being interviewed (especially to avoid re-victimizing them).
Protecting information.
The safety of the colleagues we work with.
Your own personal safety.
Although human suffering, injustice, and the consequences of inequality, war, or natural disasters are subjects that are of interest to journalists, I suggest that before attempting any interviews, you reflect on the story you want to tell. Ask yourself, is it really necessary to dig into a private tragedy so you can report on it? What will you achieve? Once you establish that your story needs to include an interview of a victim or survivor, here are some tips:

1. Identify yourself as a journalist.

A basic rule of the trade is to introduce yourself as a journalist. If you don’t think it is safe to do so, you can omit this advice. But bear in mind you cannot use information directly attributed to someone who did not agree to give an interview for publication.

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. Don’t limit your questions to asking just about what happened, also ask your interviewee about themselves, ask how they are, how they are coping, question how the experience of the tragedy affected them, and ask how they lived through it.

3. Look for an appropriate interview setting.

Ideally, interviews should be conducted in a place where you can speak privately and without interruption, where you can listen without someone having to raise their voice, and where there is no danger. Avoid a situation in which children are listening; even though adults may say they’re used to it, children might be affected by what they hear.

4. Decide whether to record or take notes.

Ask your subject if they feel comfortable being recorded. If you use a notepad, try to look into the eyes of your interviewee while you write, because visual contact is important. If you record, be well prepared and make sure you are not going to interrupt because of technical problems. Also, don’t forget to make a backup. If a testimony is important, such as the first statement of a witness or survivor who hasn’t spoken before, recording is necessary; the testimony can become judicial evidence, or be used by a truth commission to investigate a case.

5. Prepare the interviewee.

Before starting the interview, talk in a general sense about the topics that will be touched on. It’s important to explain the purpose of your investigation and what you hope to achieve. 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.

Interviewing Victims, Witnesses, and Survivors by GIJN

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.

Traumatic events can often impact memory. Give yourself time during the interview to clarify details.
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. As reporters, our attention needs to be on four things simultaneously, including: what the interviewee is telling us, what is happening to them in the re-telling, what is happening around us (if daylight is dimming or you sense the presence of other people) and where the interview is headed.

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.

Be careful with your questions and make sure you avoid criminalizing the victim. For example, instead of asking “Weren’t you afraid of walking alone in a dark place?” ask if the streetlights in the neighborhood are frequently out at night or if the neighborhood is dangerous. The weight of blame cannot fall on the victim.

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. The questions might be experienced as a form of torture, which is why they need to be put forward delicately, allowing for time to take breaks. If your investigation doesn’t need all those details, it’s better to obtain a previous testimony given by the victim and quote it in your work.

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.

It’s important to let your interview subject know if you are going to be looking for someone to back up, verify, or offer a counterpoint to their testimony.
Don’t overreact if the interviewee cries. With tact, ask what they need and offer some water. It’s not always a good idea to hand over a tissue, which could be interpreted as the journalist urging the victim to rein in their emotions and continue the interview. Hugging can be invasive and it’s not recommended, especially when talking to victims of torture or sexual violence.

Sometimes, interviewees can feel frustration, anger, or annoyance. These are normal reactions in their situation. If they complain about the press, it’s best not to overreact or argue; instead, listen. If the situation begins to get out of control and you feel in danger, subtly look for a way to leave.

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. Besides giving reporters valuable information, it allows you to end the interview speaking about what has been accomplished, rather than ending on a note of paralyzing sadness or trauma.

When drawing an interview to a close, journalists should thank the victim for the trust placed in us for sharing their experiences and for talking about something that causes them pain. Exchange contact information but avoid making promises you cannot fulfill or creating expectations about the effect this interview might have in the search for justice.

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. Before publishing, you must take some time to reread the information and evaluate — perhaps with your editor — which parts could have consequences for people (for example, revealing the identity of the perpetrator) and think of a strategy to protect the sources. Sometimes this could involve omitting certain details, waiting for another time, or looking for another way to publish the information.

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.

If this is an investigative piece, it’s important that you carry out solid reporting, look for possible witnesses, hunt out evidence that may help support the testimonies you have gathered, and make sure you don’t omit the details if you encounter any contradictory information.

When interviewing a victim or survivor, it’s important to let them know if you are going to be looking for interviews to back up, verify, or offer a counterpoint to their testimony. If you interview the person accused of having perpetrated the crime or want to include the view of the authorities, they should not have the last word. Do not allow your work to re-victimize someone who gave you their testimony. The victim should have a chance to answer any counter-accusations made against them before publishing.

One of the rules of journalism is to verify your information. The rule when working on these topics is not to re-victimize the victims.

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