People who have lost relatives or friends in a disaster are often the first target of journalists seeking to report on the event. How can journalists do their job of covering breaking news and informing the public, while showing sensitivity to victims?
Sue Carter and Bonnie Bucqueroux of the Victims and the Media Program at Michigan State University say it’s not a bad idea to open the conversation with, “I’m sorry for your loss,” or “I’m sorry for what happened to you.” “Even if those remarks sound canned to you, chances are that the victims will appreciate hearing them,” they write.
In any case, you’re better off sticking with a rehearsed comment than blurting out something that may be hurtful. Hard to believe, but one young reporter tried to establish some empathy by telling a mother who had lost a child that she knew how the woman felt because her dog had died.
Here are a few tips on how to handle tough interviews in the aftermath of a crime, accident or disaster:
- Make sure the family has been notified. Check and double check with officials before making your approach. Mistakes do happen. Decide what you will do and say if you become the inadvertent bearer of bad news.
- Have a plan. Know beforehand what you are going to say when you approach a survivor or relative. Decide precisely how you will phrase your request and practice it ahead of time.
- Leave your equipment behind. Announce who you are and what news organization you represent. Express regrets before asking of they’d be willing to talk.
- State your purpose. Explain that you are offering them an opportunity to share their memories and feelings, if they want to. Be clear about how much time you will need, whether you are live or on tape, and ask their help in choosing a location.
- Be prepared with alternatives. Offer a business card if they say they would rather talk later. Ask them if they would prefer that someone else speak for the family.
- Share control. Tell them they can choose to stop, to take a break, or to keep some remarks out of your coverage.
- Thank them for their effort. Reliving trauma takes a toll. Tell victims how much you appreciate their willingness to share their stories.
For more suggestions, see Interviewing Victims–Tips and Techniques.