Since we were talking about interviewing trauma victims in last week’s class and since the Aurora shootings have been all over the news, I have been paying close attention to how reporters are interviewing victims of the shooting as well as the friends and family of those who died. I started looking for some online sources that could offer helpful interviewing tips, and I came across this site called the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma. It’s a great resource. There are separate complete pages for interviewing victims of domestic violence, sexual violence, natural disaster, war and PTSD, as well as specific tips for interviewing children, veterans, and relatives of suicide and homicide victims. I took a look at the veterans page for my American Homecomings story, and its ideas for finding sources who are willing to talk was especially helpful. I found sources through Twitter (via @USParalympics) and through PR people for the Paralympics and Deptartment of Veterans Affairs.
A few valuable lessons I learned from the Dart Center website and my own experience interviewing for the American Homecomings project:
1. Allow more time than you think you need. I waited too long to start finding sources for my story, so that in the final days I was calling anyone and everyone I could think of because I was worried I wouldn’t have a big enough variety of voices. Thankfully, several people responded to me two days before my deadline, so I was able to actually speak with several veterans, coaches, trainers and therapists. Still, the experience would have been less stressful if I had started researching earlier. Especially for sensitive stories, I think people need some time to decide if they want to participate before they respond to the reporter. Two people responded to me after the story was published, so I will only be able to have them as sources if I do a follow-up. In addition to allowing time to find sources, I would recommend allowing more time than you think you need for interviews. Even if I didn’t have a lot of questions planned, most of my interviewees were really interested in telling their stories. I was late to my internship one day because an interview I thought would be 10 minutes was 40 — which was wonderful for my story, but also taught me a lesson about careful planning.
2. Leave questions about traumatic events open-ended. Professor Skewes talked about this a little bit last Tuesday, and this strategy definitely saved my story. I interviewed two Paralympians, and since I had done my research, I knew a little bit about their stories. I was very nervous to interview them because I felt like my specific questions wouldn’t be able to get at the heart of the story, so I ended up going with the traditional “tell me a little bit about your story and how you got involved with ____ ” (in my case, adaptive sports). Thankfully, my two veteran interviewees were very willing to talk and were willing to discuss their accidents and their emotions with me. I had specific questions planned just in case the conversation started to die, but I don’t think I even asked most of them. Just by asking the simple tell-me-your-story question, the other questions I had and the issues I had hoped to talk about were answered.
3. Learn the culture and language of the topic as much as possible. I found it was helpful to know some military terms before starting interviews. When interviewing a veteran (and later, when writing my story), I made sure to have the background knowledge of what branch of the military the veteran served in, what was his rank, where and when he served, and, in the case of the Paralympians, the circumstances of the injury. To break the ice and relate a little bit, I often told the veterans I was from a Navy family (my dad is a retired commander). Many of my interviewees told me about the difficulty of returning to civilian life, so letting them know that I was familiar with the military lifestyle — even though I had not served — made a difference.
If you plan to report on violence or interview trauma victims at any point, the Dart Center website is an excellent one to bookmark. I’m grateful to have come across it, and I will certainly use it in the future!