Responsible interview techniques

Challenges for families and hostages

Returning hostages and their families are often suffering from the impacts of trauma. They may not be sleeping properly, they may be experiencing flashbacks, nightmares or intrusive thoughts about what has happened to them, they may be hyper-vigilant, feel angry, have a heightened sense of emotions, and might find it difficult to talk about what has happened. Some may be suffering from the serious effects of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

Some former hostages and their families find it therapeutic to tell their story. It is part of processing what has happened to them, taking control of the situation, and finding a way to move on with their life. When they do wish to speak, it is vital they are treated with care, compassion and support and with an understanding of the way that normal interview techniques could have a detrimental impact on them due to their experiences.

Some former hostages and their families never want to speak publicly or privately to strangers about what they have been through. To force or pressure them to do so could have very negative consequences for their recovery.

Hostage US is happy to talk to journalists and academics about how best to prepare for interviews with former hostages and their families to help you to do this responsibly and with an appreciation of the potential impact on your interviewee. See Looking After Yourself and Your Family and Dealing with Grief

Dos and don’ts for media and academics

Media and academic interviews with former hostages and their family members can force those individuals to relive their trauma. However, there are ways you can conduct yourself as the interviewer that can minimize this, and even produce a constructive and positive experience. The following guidelines have been adapted from those produced by the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, drawn from Australasian and international research by Dart members, including journalists, journalism researchers and health professionals.

People who have experienced deep trauma or who have lost someone close in sudden, violent circumstances have a right to decline being interviewed, photographed or filmed and news media, and their newsrooms, need to respect that right. Exercise the principle of doing no further harm.

Above all, be accurate and do not feign compassion, it can’t be faked. Offer sincere condolences early and in considerate, supportive terms. Use a supportive phrase like “I’m sorry this happened to you” rather than the more abrupt “How do you feel?” or the discordant “I know how you feel” which will immediately lose credibility.

Survivors are likely to be in shock, at least in the immediate period after the kidnapping of their loved one or their release, and may not be in a fit state to be interviewed, filmed or photographed – indeed, to give anything like informed consent to an interview, so go easy on them. Avoid “devil’s advocate” questions or questions that might imply blame or that they could have done more.

Even though a large number of news media will be chasing stories and fresh news angles at this time, resist the “pack” mentality, especially when media throngs are covering a subsequent development, event, arrival, etc. Pool resources where possible to limit demand on individuals and communities.

Often these people will be experiencing deep conflict and perhaps confusion. For news media to focus on that as-yet-unresolved mental or emotional conflict can be destructive to victims, survivors, witnesses, their families and friends as well as to unseen others who might have experienced similar or worse situations.

Invite these people to be interviewed or photographed and provide a supportive atmosphere for that interchange, rather than coerce, cajole, trick or offer remuneration to get co-operation – especially don’t thrust the additional burden of negotiating an “exclusive” onto grieving families.

Respect their choice to have someone with them or to appoint a family or external spokesperson or even a media advisor and don’t pay out on them for making such choices. Most likely they’re being bombarded with media requests and have little choice but to seek help with, or limit, demand.

Try to make your approach as respectful and gentle as possible, despite your pressing deadline or a newsroom impatient for your copy or images. Treat these people as you would like to be treated if the situation was reversed ... this is particularly critical if you are an “out-of-towner”, as your radar may not be as attuned to local sensitivities as it could be.

For the families of victims and survivors, their loss, grief and concern is intensely focused and personal – it will also have its own timeline which may mean you’d get a far better story or image if you held off a little with those immediately affected ... that doesn’t stop you from speaking to others who are not so closely affected, including officials, chaplains, etc.

If you get a knock-back, leave a contact card and tell them they can call you if they want to talk later, but don’t use leveraging techniques with victims, survivors, witnesses or their families to get them to agree to an interview or photograph. Do not blackmail people into co-operating on the basis they will help others. Let them decide.

Avoid, wherever possible, being the one to relay news of a death to an individual or family. The appropriate authorities should do that and relatives have a right to receive such news in private. If you are asked for additional details about the tragedy that they may not yet have, consider carefully your response and try to think you would feel if you were in their situation. You may want to suggest they check they with others. You may decide to share some but not all you know, but don’t repeat unconfirmed information.

Remember victims, survivors and their families and friends are struggling to regain control in their lives after a devastating experience ... allow them to have some say in when, where and how they’re interviewed or photographed/filmed. Include them in any decisions you can – for instance, read back their quotes or replay raw tape, allow them to suggest which photo/s of a deceased or badly injured relative should be used, etc. Let vulnerable interviewees tell you when they’d like to take a break, whether they want you to put your notebook down or to turn off recording equipment so they can say something they don’t want used. Check whether it’s ok to ask a tough question.

If someone breaks down, give them time to compose themselves before asking: “Are you ready to go on?” Resist filming or photographing individuals in a distressed or emotional state (even readers/ viewers with no connection to tragedies are critical of this clichéd technique). Choose powerful, reinforcing images to illustrate the story and the victim’s worth to their family and/or community.

These stories do not need added sensation – rely on good, solid, factual journalism and a healthy dose of sensitivity. Be wary of recycling particular images of individuals, especially graphic ones. Also beware of choosing “tragic images” as page or screen icons. Often this will be a family’s last image of a lost loved one and it may not be pleasant.

Thoroughly check and re-check facts, names, times, places, etc., because such errors are painful to these individuals, families and their colleagues and cause unnecessary stress.

Remember people you speak to in these circumstances are rarely media-savvy. Try to explain the media process and how your story/picture/footage is likely to be used. Also explain that it may be reshaped prior to publication, or afterwards, or not used at all. Be honest if you know something is likely to run more than once. Many will take steps to ensure vulnerable family members such as children or the elderly are informed of, or shielded from, such reports. Encourage them to ask questions while you’re there to answer them and to call you if they have a question at a later stage. See full text.

Looking after yourself when covering kidnapping stories

It is important to remember that interviewing former hostages and their family members can have an impact on you, too. There are a number of warning signs you should look out for, such as difficulties concentrating, unusual irritability or short temper, images or thoughts related to a project intruding at unwanted times, unusual isolation or withdrawal, disrupted sleep, and an increase in self-medication.

The following is a list of ways individuals may respond emotionally to a traumatic event, and which can indicate whether a person is suffering from acute stress reaction. Generally, six "yes" responses indicate the presence of acute stress.

  1. Upsetting thoughts or memories about the event that have come into your mind against your will
  2. Upsetting dreams about the event
  3. Acting or feeling as though the event were happening again
  4. Feeling upset by reminders of the event
  5. Bodily reactions (such as fast heartbeat, stomach churning, sweatiness, dizziness) when reminded of the event
  6. Difficulty falling or staying asleep
  7. Irritability or outbursts of anger
  8. Difficulty concentrating
  9. Heightened awareness of potential dangers to yourself and others
  10. Being jumpy or being startled at something unexpected

The Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma has produced a guide for journalists covering traumatic stories, such as kidnappings. Read it here.