The smell was the first thing I noticed when I sat down next to him on the wooden bench, which seemed formerly to have been a church pew. He smelled like grease from the factory where he worked, sweat, cigarettes, and something I can only describe as “dirt.” He greeted me, and I responded with a “how are you doing?” A stupid question, given that we were sitting outside of a courtroom, waiting for his arraignment on drug charges.
It’s cliché, but the man sitting next to me, an unpopular city councilman in the city where I worked as a journalist, had lost just about everything he could lose in less than a couple of days. He came home from working at his factory job to find county sheriff’s deputies breaking through the door of his house. They had received an anonymous tip that there were drugs in the home. A drug task force officer later told me that the home was in “the worst condition” he had ever seen, which was saying a lot given the impoverished state of the county, which also was plagued by methamphetamine addiction. The officer was no stranger to filth, but what he saw in the house required him to call child protective services for the councilman’s three children. The councilman’s wife, who somehow heard about the raid, was headed out of state to her mother’s house with the children. I don’t know if the family ever made it back together.
Deputies found what they described as a “small amount of marijuana and drug paraphernalia” in the home. It was enough to arrest the councilman, resulting in him losing his job and his elected city position.
He lost his wife, children, job, elected office, and his home, which was declared unlivable, in less than two days.
I remember feeling like I had an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other. The devil said, “He shouldn’t have had drugs in his house. He should have taken care of his kids. He should have cleaned up his house—poor doesn’t mean dirty. If he’d done the right thing, he wouldn’t be in this position.” The angel said, “This poor man has lost everything because of a series of bad choices and poor circumstances.”
I felt real empathy for him. It was one of many times in my reporting career when my emotional nature helped me understand and feel for people, even when I didn’t agree with their actions or views.
I won’t go as far as to say the councilman was a victim. Pretty much everything that happened to him was a product of his choices. But the empathy I felt toward him was the same emotion that served me well in covering victims during my career as a professional journalist.
I had the pleasure of chatting with a group of journalists about covering victims during a recent #muckedup chat. The chat, hosted by Muck Rack, is a place for journalists and public relations professionals to learn. Rachel Dissell was the chat’s guest. Rachel is an enterprise/watchdog reporter for the Cleveland Plain Dealer, where she covered the Steubenville rape case and, more recently, worked to uncover and report on why hundreds of rape kits sat untested in Ohio.
Here is part of that chat with Rachel:
- Prepare for the interview. You prepare for interviewing a victim in much the same way as you do any other interview. However, if I know in advance that I am interviewing a victim, I prepare my physical and emotional self for the task. This means, for example, that I don’t smile when I shake the person’s hand. I use a quieter, steadier vocal tone. I also avoid wearing red, which is my favorite color.
- Tell the victim you are sorry for what happened to him/her, but never suggest you understand how the victim feels or what he/she is going through, even if you have experienced what seems like a similar circumstance. Every trauma is different. Every trauma response is different. Allow the victim whatever level of ownership of his/her trauma desired.
- Be sure the victim understands who you are, your reason for conducting the interview and how the information will be used. There are documented circumstances in which victims experiencing shock related to trauma have given interviews and not remembered doing so. You can imagine how invasive that must feel to see information you don’t remember providing published or broadcast. Do your best to avoid this by attempting to make sure the individual understands exactly who you are and what your task is.
- Allow the victim to set the time. A victim may not be ready to be interviewed or may need to stop the interview and continue it another time. Allow this to happen, even if it means you aren’t going to have everything from that source for deadline. There have been times when I have just given a victim my card, explained who I was, and asked him/her to call when he/she wanted to talk.
- Attempt (within reasons of your professional ethics) to give the victim control of the interview. Victims should be treated differently than say a politician accused of embezzling money. A key trait of a victim is that control of a situation was taken away from the individual, and that loss of control resulted in harm. Help the victim establish a sense of control in the interview by allowing him/her to set the pace, stop when necessary, revise statements, set ground rules, etc.
- Expect emotional responses to your questions. Be prepared to stop the interview to give the victim time to cry, think or just gather his/her emotions. But don’t read too much into it if the victim doesn’t have an emotional response. There is no standard response to trauma. People react differently. Some victims may show extreme emotions while others are numb and disconnected. Rachel even describes a woman above who giggled throughout her interview because she was nervous. None of these things can be considered indicators of what they might normally represent outside of a traumatic situation.
- Listen carefully and review important points in the narrative. It’s acceptable (encouraged?) to ask questions and clarify specific points. However, it may be better to listen to the full story, then return to certain points for clarification.
- Thank the victim for talking to you about a subject difficult to him/her. Ask him/her to contact you if there is anything else to add.
These are just a few of the things I do differently when interviewing victims. The Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma also has resources for covering a victims in general and victims of specific types of crimes.
Journalists also should be aware that they can experience trauma as a result of covering traumatic events. Find my tips for coping with trauma coverage in It’s Normal to Feel Sad. Yes, Even for You and Coping with Emotional Trauma in the Newsroom.