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Home > Publications > Quill > Generation J: Interviewing the bereaved


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Monday, May 7, 2007
Generation J: Interviewing the bereaved

Commentary by Gene Park

It’s always the young ones that have to go.

No, I’m not talking about death. Well, actually yeah, kind of.

I’m talking about covering death’s aftermath. I’m talking about the loved ones left behind after the two-car wreck, the drowning, the triple homicide, the boat mishap or, more recently, the improvised explosive device.

I’m talking about the journalists who have to interview them. And if you’re at the beginning of your career, it’s more than likely I’m talking about you. Young reporters are often assigned these stories because they require a quick turnaround, and they’re less likely to be tied up with bigger enterprise pieces.

I’ve interviewed dozens of bereaved in my three-year career, and it never gets much easier.

Many young reporters have asked what the point is of interviewing victims of trauma. But young reporters often start out at small-time newspapers. And at small-time papers in small communities, death and tragedy are big-time news.

Interviewing victims also sheds light on how other people can be affected, according to “Covering Violence: A Guide to Ethical Reporting about Victims and Trauma” by William Cote and Roger Simpson.

“We learn about the risks in our lives from hearing about the misfortunes of others,” they write.

But what’s the best way of going about this?

* Respect the other person’s efforts to regain balance after a horrible experience.

Interviewees often have trouble finding the words, or even saying any, if interviewed soon after the trauma. Give them time, move them away from stressful environments and ease them into the conversation. When I talk to a family member, I’ve found it helpful to establish light physical contact. That sends the message that you’re not there to assault them with questions, you’re there to listen.

* Watch what you say.

The bereaved may be confused, but they’re not dumb. Don’t be vague with who you are. Come off as professional but sincere. Identify yourself immediately, but it’s important that you recognize the pain they’re going through.

“Hello, my name is Gene Park, a reporter for the Honolulu Star-Bulletin. I’m sorry this has happened.”

* Don’t overwhelm with the hardest questions first.

I’ve found that many people find it positive when you approach the bereaved, asking a story to celebrate the deceased’s life. Let them know you want readers to realize the kind of person the community has lost. It’s always good to start out with, “Tell me about so-and-so’s life.”

* Listen.

Cote and Simpson write that journalists, like many other people, are trained to hear what we want or need, while screening out signals that we either don’t expect or understand. Recorders are best for these kinds of interviews. It frees your eyes to see the actions being expressed.

* Review with the interviewee what you learned.

Sometimes loved ones reveal details that may seem personal. I’ve found it’s therapeutic for the bereaved to talk about personal details that they would try to retract later. If it’s not key to the story, I often respect those wishes.

Usually the bereaved are not media savvy people and are unfamiliar with our normal rules of engagement. They are under extraordinary circumstances, so I often give them breathing room.

There are countless variables that can throw many reporters off, since every person copes in different ways. But there is always one possibility a reporter should always consider: Rejection.

It’s happened many times to me, even as recently as the past few weeks. I called a grieving mother, apologized softly and asked to help our readers remember her daughter, who died in a car wreck.

“Let me ask you this question,” she said. “Can you let the family grieve? Is that too much to ask of you?”

It’s never gotten easier for me. But documenting how families cope with tragedy is necessary in understanding and dealing with the violence that caused it. And learning how to best approach victims of trauma is among the most challenging aspects of my job. After all, it’s no small feat to interview people who, tragically, had just been given all the reason they need to stay in a moment of silence.


Gene Park is a reporter at the Honolulu Star-Bulletin. To read more about Generation J, visit www.spj.org/genj.asp

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