Four tips for interviewing the bereaved

Four tips for interviewing the bereaved

Lindsay Kalter | November 12, 2012

Reporters tasked with interviewing people in grief after a tragedy must use a skill set that extends beyond basic fact-gathering.

Approaching a grieving source requires tact, sensitivity and compassion. In a recent post on the BBC College of Journalism blog, Brunel University professor Sarah Niblock offers tips for journalists on how to conduct these interviews. She uses examples from a BBC Radio 5 Live Breakfast clip in which reporter Rachel Burden interviews a father about the presumed death of his 12-year-old son.

Here are IJNet's takeaways:

Don't identify

In the interview, the reporter thanks the father--Stephen Barnes--for speaking with her at such a traumatic time, but does not claim to understand his pain. "At no point does she fall into the glib trap of saying she knows how the family feels: you can't, and it's churlish and insincere to get personally involved," Niblock writes. "Professional boundaries are appropriate, rather than faux identifications."

Be patient

While reporters may be inclined to fill in silences with questions, it's important to let the interviewee talk at his or her desired pace. "Burden allows Barnes time to speak, with no interruptions. Never rush your interviews when someone has so generously allowed you into their most private moment," Niblock says. "Allow people time to articulate their feelings, and thank them for the privilege."

Forgo the facts

Twice, Nibock says, "Burden asks Barnes to act as a journalist rather than an interviewee: 'What is the latest news you have for us in the search for Pierre?' and 'Remind us of what happened that day when he went missing?'" Instead, she says, Burden could ask him to describe his son rather than ask for facts that were available elsewhere.

Avoid exploitation

Before conducting an interview, a journalist should consider whether it accomplishes anything, or whether it takes advantage of the bereaved person. In the case of Burden's interview, Niblock believes it may not have been justified. "Had this been a local newspaper, an interview might have been a fitting tribute to the boy and served as a public conduit for the family to say once and for all what happened and how they felt," Niblock says. "But in the context of national radio, it served 'to interest the public' rather than the 'public interest.' "

Photo CC-licensed, courtesy of Emilio Labrador on Flickr


Re-tips for interviewing the bereaved

Simple, lovely and straight forward, thank you.
I had previously thought that if I identify with their sorrow by letting them know I have had similar experiences, that would make them more willing to cooperate .


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