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Art of the Sensitive Interview

Interviews with people who have experienced trauma require extra sensitivity but not less rigor. Here are some basic guidelines for survivors of war crimes, combat, domestic violence, violent crime, abuse, neglect, disasters, accidents, illness, poverty, injustice, racism, human trafficking…


Understand the grieving and recovery process. Have a working knowledge of the immediate and long-term effects of trauma. Seek out specialized information based on the type of trauma they experienced.

COMMON REACTIONS: Numbness, detachment, anger, guilt or shame. Grief and depression. Avoidance.

POTENTIAL LONG-TERM EFFECTS: Hostility, aggression, social isolation, substance abuse and health problems.


  1. Inform them. What are you doing and why? What are your goals? Explain the interviewing process and why you’re asking the questions that you ask – such as you need the information for verification or for storytelling.
  1. If they turn you down, give them time and re-approach. Many people change their minds – but we often don’t give them a second chance.
  1. Empower them. Ask permission to interview. Tell them they don’t need to answer any question that makes them uncomfortable. Tell them they can pause or end the interview at any time.
  1. Agree on the rules. Discuss privacy & confidentiality issues up front. Will you use their full names? Pictures? What does off the record or on background mean?
  1. Give them an opportunity to provide information they think is important – not just what you want to know.
  1. Let them express their emotions without consequences. Don’t end the interview because they break down. Leave that power in their hands.
  1. Discuss the possible repercussions and safety considerations of publicizing their story. But let them make the decision. Don’t make it for them.
  2. Be human but moderate your emotions. The interview’s about them, not you. A look of shock, disgust or revulsion on your face may make them more self-conscious about discussing their experience.
  1. Don’t counsel or advise. Empathize but don’t identify. You can say you’re sorry for what happened to them, but don’t say you know how they feel. You don’t.
  1. With children, don’t ask leading questions. They will tell you what they think you want to hear.
  1. Ask the important questions. Don’t “protect” them from tough questions or anticipate their response. Let them say if they don’t want to answer.
  1. Seek verification – ask for documents, names of witnesses, details that you can check independently. Explain what you’re doing and why: Journalism standards require verification. It’s for their protection and yours. Medical records and death certificates are important for documenting physical and mental conditions and injuries. If they don’t have documentation in hand, you can ask them to request it — or to sign a HIPAA release form that allows doctors to talk to you and provide records.  
  1. Realize that they may experience strong emotions after the interview or after the story goes public. Check in with them.
  1. Go over the story with them before you publish/post/air. You cannot ethically remove or change any facts that would harm the integrity of the story. But you can remove non-essential details that they don’t want included for personal or safety reasons.
  2. Be willing to let them withdraw their participation altogether up to the last minute. Just as important, be willing to let go and not use their story if you can’t verify it or disclose essential details.
  3. The best protection you can provide vulnerable subjects is strong and thorough reporting about the reality and cause of their suffering.                                                                                                                                                                     — Deborah Nelson

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